Book Review – You Are Not a Gadget by Jaron Lanier

I recently came across an article in paper magazine by Jaron Lanier which helped me discover his new book “You are Not a Gadget.” While I do read a lot of good books, this is really one of the few great books I have read in a while. I liked this book so much I have recommended it to some of my friends. For those of you who may not know him, Jaron Lanier is an old school technologist involved in computing and artificial intelligence programming and systems when I was barely old enough to drive a car. He is a contemporary of Ted Nelson (who coined the term hypertext), a visionary whose ideas would have dramatically changed how the online world would have developed. I can remember reading articles by and about them on my lunch hour in Wired magazine (Ted Nelson, Jaron Lanier). Suffice to say he’s a smart cookie who’s been around the block a few times. He is not filled with wide eyed naiveté like so many who are the darlings of Silicon Valley nowadays.

What makes this book so interesting is that it offers an insider’s view of what’s wrong with the valley dweller’s current approach to themselves, their lives, and technology. He puts forth the theory that modern day technologists are no different than religious zealots of the middle ages. They were willing to sacrifice themselves for god and church; similarly, web 2.0 weenies are willing to sacrifice themselves to the coming computer singularity, hoping they live on in eternity in the machine. It’s heady stuff, but good stuff none the less.

While he does make some direct criticisms of Google, he makes a lot more criticisms that apply to so many technology centric companies today (which may explain why one Googler I recommended the book to winced at he mention of his name). To get the impression that book is a criticism of technology would be wrong: Lanier uses and is a fan of technology. He doesn’t believe in subjugating ourselves, our identities, our sense of worth, and our values to the machine or the algorithm. He’s more of a modern day humanist.

Now, I don’t agree with everything and every point Lanier makes, but I do agree with a lot of them. Where I do disagree with him, I can concede that he does have a well thought out reasoned viewpoint, even if I disagree. Personally I think this is a book everyone involved in the technology space should read. I wish I had the ability to make it mandatory reading for everyone in the valley and who works for Google because, to be honest, while they may not agree with him, they need to hear his message more than anyone else.

I wish I had the ability to make it mandatory reading for everyone in the valley and who works for Google because, to be honest, while they may not agree with him, they need to hear his message more than anyone else…

I was reading this book at the same time as Cognitive Surplus from Clay Shirky. The two books were a nice contrast to one another: one was a bit more hopeful and the other was a bit more foreboding. I think it’s important for intelligent people to see both sides of the story and not just read books or news that they agree with or get spoon fed personalized news feeds. It will be interesting to see where Nicholas Carr’s book What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains fits in (review coming soon).

IMHO if you are involved in any way in the tech field, this is a book you should read. If you were to read only one book this summer, this would be it. I believe so strongly in this book and getting its message to the right people that if Robert Scoble or Gabe Rivera send me the email they use for amazon I’ll buy them both a gift copy (standard or kindle format). This is a book that changed me as a person: it solidified ideas that have been floating around in my head for years and allowed me to move forward on a lot of those ideas.
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