You Are Not a Gadget

By Jaron Lanier
pub. 2010

Having finished this book, I have to say I was a little disappointed. Author Jaron Lanier’s take on the current “computationalist” modern culture is essentially a one-man diatribe the length of a book. There’s very few citations or corroborations for provided opinions. That being said, there were some quotes I found fascinating, and they are documented below. One of the aspects of the book I did really enjoy was the idea of “humanistic” computing. Lanier argues that assuming humans are not intrinsically “special” (when compared to future AI technology) has design consequences for the type of technology we make, and that more positive and special view of personhood will lead to more useful and better technologies for humanity. I really like that idea.

Some quotes/thoughts below:

Human-computer Interaction

When developers design a program that requires you to interact with the computer as if it wore a person, they ask you to accept in some corner of your brain that you might also be conceived of as a program.1Lanier, 4

It takes only a tiny group of engineers to create a technology that can shape the entire future of human experience with incredible speed. Therefore, crucial arguments about the human relationship with the technology should take place between developers and users before such direct manipulations are designed. 2Lanier, 6

The ideas expressed by the [electronic] file [abstraction] include the notion that human expression comes in several chunks that can be organized as leaves on an abstract tree… what do files mean to the future of human expression? This is a harder question to answer than the question “How does the English language influence the thoughts of native English speakers?” At least you can compare English speakers to Chinese speakers, but files are universal.3Lanier, 13

If you believe the distinction between the roles of people and computers is starting to dissolve, you might express that –as some friends of mine that Microsoft once did– by design features of a word processor that are supposed to know what you want, such as when you want to start an outline within your document… from my point of view, this type of design features nonsense, since you and having to work more than you would otherwise in order to manipulate the software’s expectations of you.4Lanier, 28


The deep meaning of personhood is being reduced by illusions of bits.5Lanier, 20

You have to remember that before computers came along, the steam engine was a preferred metaphor for understanding human nature.6Lanier, 30

Critique of “Computationalism”

The singularity is an apocalyptic idea originally proposed by John von Neumann.7Lanier, 24

What the [turing test] really tells us… is that machine intelligence can only be known in the relative sense, in the eyes of a human beholder.8Lanier, 31

Knowledge of the human authorship of the text is suppressed [in Wikipedia] in order to get the text superhuman validity. Traditional holy books work in precisely the same way and present many of the same problems.9Lanier, 32

Those who enter into the theater of computationalism are given all the mental solace that is usually associated with traditional religions. These include consolations for metaphysical yearnings, in the form of a race to climb to ever more “meta” or higher-level states of digital representation, and even a colorful eschatology, in the form of the Singularity. And, indeed, through the Singularity a hope of an afterlife is available to the most fervent believers.10Lanier, 178

Random facts

Neroscientist V.S Ramachandran canonical example is encapsulated in an experiment known as bouba/kiki. Rama presents test subjects with two words, both of which are pronounceable but meaningless in most languages: bouba and kiki. Then he shows the subjects two images: one is a spiky, hystricine shape and the other a rounded cloud form. Match the words and the images! Of course, the spiky shape goes with kiki and the cloud matches bouba. This correlation is cross-cultural and appears to be a general truth for all humankind… “boubaness” or “kikiness” arises from two stimuli that are otherwise utterly dissimilar: an image formed on the retina versus a sound activated in the cochlea of the ear. Such abstractions seem to be linked to the mental phenomenon of metaphor.11Lanier, 171

References   [ + ]

1. Lanier, 4
2. Lanier, 6
3. Lanier, 13
4. Lanier, 28
5. Lanier, 20
6. Lanier, 30
7. Lanier, 24
8. Lanier, 31
9. Lanier, 32
10. Lanier, 178
11. Lanier, 171

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