Nonfiction: "You are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto," by Jaron Lanier.
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All the unemployed writers, broke musicians and worried filmmakers who see their professional horizons melting into the ether of cyberspace -- not to mention the lowly cephalopod (I'll explain later) -- will be cheered by Jaron Lanier's latest curmudgeonly screed.
The virtual-reality pioneer champions the role of the artist as Promethean in the face of the rise of mob mentality. It's a bracing dose of economic realism and Ayn Rand philosophy for all those techno utopians with their heads in the clouds.
But Mr. Lanier also comes across as an "I-was-there-first" elitist reacting out of a cranky grudge as much as sound reasoning.
"Gadget" is a broadside against what Mr. Lanier calls "cybernetic totalists." He casts an uncomfortably wide net in his attack on "digital Maoists," sweeping up everyone from intellectual property scholar Lawrence Lessig to populist Clay Shirky to believers in the Rapture-esque Singularity to posters of LOL-cat videos to Wikipedia editors. Basically all of Web 2.0 is on the dreadlocked musician's hit list.
"The central mistake of recent digital culture is to chop up a network of individuals so finely that you end up with a mush," he writes. "You then start to care about the abstraction of the network more than the real people who are networked."
An iconoclast, he is repelled by and fearful of, group think, or "the hive mind," a blanket phrase he uses to encompass what are actually diverse theories, from collective intelligence to wisdom of the crowds.
He hates Facebook. Don't even try to send him a "smile."
With amusing titles such as "The Noosphere Is Just Another Name for Everyone's Inner Troll," Mr. Lanier bemoans the anonymous lack of accountability that has bred flaming lynch mobs rather than a creative digitopia. Repeatedly referencing his own role in the development of new media technology, he critiques the recycled and LCD quality of online culture now that the dreaded masses have signed on:
"It's as if culture froze just before it became digitally open, and all we can do now is mine the past like salvagers picking over a garbage dump."
Mr. Lanier is a polymath scientist and inquisitive philosopher who offers creative economic solutions such as a musical gizmo he calls a "songle" and rather hard-to-follow diversions into linguistic theory. Certainly, he offers the kind of originality of thought he finds missing on the Web.
He ends with an ode to the morphing abilities of octopi and other cuttlefish:
"From the point of view of body and brain, cephalopods are primed to evolve into the high-tech-tool-building overlords."
Mr. Lanier's take-no-prisoner assault has understandably raised a lot of hackles online. But if you're one of the "digital peasants" he champions, it's hard not to cheer him on against the windmills. And if you're an octopus, he'd like to morph into you.
First Published March 7, 2010 12:00 am