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(tracy lorna)
(tracy lorna)

Ian Brown

Read this. Then shut down your computer Add to ...

Stuff happens day after day in the course of things, and then suddenly hardens into inevitability. On Thursday on YouTube, Prime Minister Stephen Harper shared his reaction to last week's Throne Speech and asked viewers to submit questions. He'll answer them next week, again on YouTube.

Why? "It just speaks to the reality now that people are getting their information online," deputy press secretary Andrew MacDougall explained. Notice all the hidden implications in that sentence, the little tropes aching to be true: "the reality now," (as if it's unarguable), "people" (all of them?), the loose "information," suggesting this is what the Prime Minister's Office is offering, as opposed to meting out the message.

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At the same time, the government is ready to open the once-protected telecommunications industry to foreign ownership and let Amazon, the U.S. online bookseller, set up physical shop in Canada, over protests about the breach of long-standing protections for Canadian culture. Another inevitable result of digital culture.

But I'd like to make a suggestion, before these alleged inevitabilities turn to concrete certainty in our brains: Turn off every device you own, and read Jaron Lanier's book You Are Not a Gadget.

You Are Not a Gadget is a crushing smack-down of the way digital culture undermines individuality, written by one of the geeks who invented digital culture. It might be the most important, and certainly one of the most original, books you read in the next five years. Not that Mr. Lanier would insist on that. But he would be open to the possibility.

Among the identities he maintains - composer, visual artist, player of ouds - Jaron Lanier is a computer scientist. He was the guy who coined the phrase "virtual reality." He led the team that created the first online avatars and the first multi-person computer games and virtual worlds, using head-mounted displays - technologies he has since applied to surgical techniques. He has thick dreadlocks that give him a resemblance to a cephalopod, his favourite organism because it can mutate its shape and coloration. He's an interdisciplinary scholar-at-large at both Berkeley and Microsoft, and mind-bogglingly smart.

But what makes him rare as a digital engineer is not his brains, but the fact that he likes human beings. He has chilling concerns about the way they're being degraded by the technology they use. If Robert Oppenheimer had expressed his doubts about the wisdom of building the atom bomb mid-project, rather than afterward, he might have written something similar. A book this radical comes as a shock these days, which is a telling sign all on its own.

Mr. Lanier's evisceration of "the lifeless world of pure information" we're headed toward is straightforward: Computer code may be a marvel, but it's still inadequate for replicating anything as complex, ephemeral and mysterious as the deepest parts of human experience. So the engineers in charge decided to forget about that and build the digital world around functions that code can do well - shopping and aggregating vast clouds of human interests and traits. They also decided to isolate and starve anything that stood in the way of their vision.

The Internet began, Mr. Lanier remembers, as an optimistic, generous place. The thing that's left, stymied by Google and its goggle-eyed acolytes, is bad for the spirit and morality (sadistic anger hiding behind anonymity). It also destroys businesses and cultural entities that once afforded a passable living to people who created meaning - in newspapers, the music business, the book trade and (soon) TV and movies. (Mr. Lanier's analysis of why free content will fail us is one of the best parts of the book.)

He won't use social media such as Twitter or Facebook, because they force people to describe themselves in reduced, multiple-choice formats. Their primary purpose is not convivial, as we imagine, but capitalistic - to harvest marketing data. You may not feel like a gadget reading You Are Not a Gadget, but you sure can feel like a dupe.

Mr. Lanier is an even-handed thinker, and ultimately an optimist who sees promise in a less-corporate digital future. But his main conclusion is undeniable: Society is being bossed around by a band of "cybernetic totalists" or "digital Maoists" who believe their beloved engineering system is more valuable than the humans it's supposed to serve. (Cue the political process enacted on YouTube.) If that sounds totalitarian, it's because it is.

In fact, Mr. Lanier thinks the digital world is essentially a religion, with its own fundamentalist, evan-digital version of The Rapture. The online version is the noosphere - "a collective brain formed by the sum of all the people connected on the Internet." This will also be the heaven where our Web souls will live forever (or as long as the silicon lasts). And these people paint themselves as scientists?

"Online culture is filled to the brim with rhetoric about what the true path to a better world ought to be, and these days it's strongly biased toward an anti-human way of thinking," Mr. Lanier writes. This is why a vastly popular tech guru like Kevin Kelly - he's writing his latest book "in public," because that makes it "better" - can claim, in all seriousness, that we don't need individual authors any more, that their work can be combined into a single, global book owned by everyone.

"The mere possibility of there being something ineffable about personhood is what drives many technologists to reject the notion of quality," Mr. Lanier writes. "They want to live in an airtight reality that resembles an idealized computer program, in which everything is understood and there are no fundamental mysteries." Once a lonely geek, always a lonely geek.

What it most remarkable is that Mr. Lanier published this book at all, given how nasty anonymous webheads can be. He implores them in the dedication to treat his criticisms constructively. No wonder. Remember the Scarlet Letter postings in China in 2007, when online mobs outed adulterers? We haven't seen anything, yet. But remember - it's not inevitable. Yet.

 

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