You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto by Jaron Lanier

(New York: Knopf/Penguin, 2010), 192


  • Main thesis: technology needs to consider the human person: "people have often respected bits too much, resulting in a creeping degradation of their own qualities as human beings" (119) --> "If you hope for technology to be designed to serve people, you must have at least a rough idea of what a person is and is not." (154)
  • Technology reflects the philosophy of the person who created it. It is important to understand this both as a creator of technology (know your philosophy and have it be right) and as a consumer of technology (know what philosophy is enshrined in what you are using).
  • Technology is not reality, but a digital abstraction of reality), so keep these properly ordered.

Chapter 1 - Missing Persons

  • "fragmentary, impersonal communication has demeaned interpersonal interaction" (4)
  • "It is impossible to work with information technology without also engaging in social engineering." (4)
  • lock-in: process by which digital designs get frozen in (or culling ambiguities of flexible thought as structures are solidified), making big systems much more complex than small systems and giving early decisions significant weight in the future history of a design; example of MIDI for sound, which removes analog nuance is used throughout the book (7)
  • entrenched software philosophies become invisible through ubiquity (12)

Chapter 2 - Apocalypse of Self-Abdication

  • cybernetic totalism: the philosophy that sees a coming "singularity" when machines take over, that can serve as a replacement for religion by providing the hope of an "afterlife" of minds uploaded to the clouds, etc. This philosophy puts computation above humans. Lanier argues against this philosophy throughout the book and proposes an alternative he calls "Bachelardian Neoteny" (chapter 14)
  • "The antihuman approach to computation is one of the most baseless ideas in human history. A computer isn't even there unless a person experiences it." (26)
  • information isn't special in itself, "experience [by a human] is the only process that can de-alienate information" (29)
  • people need to come before computers (after all it was people who made computers) (34-36)

Chapter 3 - The Noosphere

  • "There is more than one possible technical future, and the debate should be about how to best identify and act on whatever freedoms of choice we still have" (45)
  • information underrepresents reality --> binary character of software tends to reappear at higher levels (with a resulting loss of meaning) (69-71)
  • ...a few chapters about music and money and such...
  • "each layer of digital abstraction, no matter how well it is crafted, contributes to some degree of error and obfuscation" (97)

Chapter 7 - Cloud Economics

  • Money: "the original abstract information system for managing human affairs" (102)
  • discussion of tendencies toward socialism in tech (103-104)
  • great statement on free will: "Locks are only amulets of inconvenience that remind us of a social contract we ultimately benefit from. It is only human choice tht makes the human world function. Technology can motivate human choice, but not replace it." (107)

Chapter 10 - Digital Creativity Eludes Flat Places

  • "What makes something real is that it is impossible to represent it to completion": real things have presence and history (133)
  • "The inherent rigidity of software becomes a metaphor for an alienated modern life mired in urban poverty" (135)
  • empathy and locality and history are important (as opposed to the bland global complex) (136-137)

Chapter 11 - Membrane

  • Wikipedia "flattens" information, providing helpful formatting etc., but losing meaning. If it were gone, there would be more contextualized information from particular authors with particular points of view and style and presence (143)

Chapter 12 - Contrarianism

  • computationalism: philosophy in which the world can be understood as a computational process with people as subprocesses (153), coming in three flavors:
      1. quantity equals quality: sufficiently voluminous computation will take on the qualities we associate with people
      1. computer programs with specific design features ("strange loop") will take on the qualities we associate with people
      1. pop version of Turing test: any information structure that can be perceived by some real human to also be a person is a person
  • "If you hope for technology to be designed to serve people, you must have at least a rough idea of what a person is and is not." (154)
  • he promotes realism: bits aren't reality but a nonabstract continuation of reality (157)

Chapter 14 - Bachelardian Neoteny

  • this is his vision for how technology should unfold, which I don't fully understand (he says he does not either)
  • he wants "post-symbolic communication" to enhance symbolic (linguistic) communication
  • he thinks this can be achieved with virtual reality

Created: 2019-06-05
Updated: 2021-11-30-Tue