Review: You are not a Gadget

Anyone who interacts with the web should read  Jaron Lanier's You are not a Gadget.  Given you are reading this blog, this means you.  

More than a constructive critique of the current trajectory of the web, the work offers a powerful meditation on the value of human beings in an increasingly computerized world.  The book is notable for several reasons:

1) It passionately articulates a coherent, thoughtful position that challenges the dominant internet ideologies.

2) It's political in the best sense of the word: speaking from experience married to reflection and with the goal of finding a path forward to advance the public good.

3) It's eminently readable and clear in conveying big think computer science -- not an easy task.

I'm tempted to say that Lanier our modern day Martin Luther, challenging orthodoxy in the name of deeper principles:

Are people just one form of information system, one form of gadget?  The old debates about God are now also about us.  For instance, when I suggest we should act as if we're real -- as if consciousness and experience exist, just in case it turns out we are real -- I am retooling Pascal's famous wager about God, but in this case applied to people.

This might turn out to be the greatest change wrought by Turing: bring the struggles of spirituality and humanism into alignment.

Because I am not as pithy as some of the other Stag Staffers, I will continue to quote Lanier at length.  Below is likely the most prophetic -- and certainly the boldest -- idea in his book:

Suppose we had the ability to morph at will, as fast as we can think.  What sort of language might that make possible?  Would it be the same old conversation, or would we be able to "say" new things to one another?

For instance, instead of saying, "I'm hungry; let's go crab hunting," you might simulate your own transparency so your friends could see your empty stomach, or you might turn into a video game about crab hunting so you and your compatriots could get in a little practice before the actual hunt.

I call this possibility "postsymbolic communication." It can be a hard idea to think about, but I find it enormously exciting.  It would not suggest an annihilation of language as we know it -- symbolic communication would continue to exist -- but it would give rise to a vivid expansion of meaning.  

Understatement of the day!  That would change the very foundation of the human experience and potentially for the better.  

This speculative notion of post-symbolic communication strikes me as having an interesting intersection with mathematics, which in many ways is a pre-symbolic activity.*  Notice how Andrew Wiles -- the man famous for proving Fermat's last theorem -- describes doing mathematics:

“You enter the first room of the mansion and it’s completely dark. You stumble around bumping into the furniture but gradually you learn where each piece of furniture is. Finally, after six months or so, you find the light switch, you turn it on, and suddenly it’s all illuminated. You can see exactly where you were. Then you move into the next room and spend another six months in the dark. So each of these breakthroughs, while sometimes they’re momentary, sometimes over a period of a day or two, they are the culmination of, and couldn’t exist without, the many months of stumbling around in the dark that precede them.”

Yes often when we think of mathematics we think of symbols woven together into equations, but that in many ways the result -- not the action -- of mathematics.  Doing math is an intensely creative activity -- requiring one to build new worlds and explore what deep patterns emerge from the resulting structures.  

And there are deep reasons why there is no consensus definition for mathematics.  The field operates in an imaginative territory of pure ideals and the words we try to map it with cannot but fall short in describing its elegance.  It is also the only domain of human knowledge this Stag Staffer is aware of whose knowledge has stood the test of thousands of years.  The proof of the irrationality of the square root of two is as true today as it was during the life of Aristotle.  

Moreover, mathematics is a form of human communication that transcends race, language, and creed.  There is a reason why we always use math to talk to the aliens in science fiction movies -- despite the fact that we have zero evidence for this being a profitable strategy (N = 0).

It would not be a stretch to say that without symbols, human civilization would not exist.  Writing for instance enables us to be more than the sum of an individual human life, incorporating the insights of others from experiences and time periods very different than our own.  Yet the symbolic process necessarily is reductionist, abstracting away from the realities of how we as humans actually live our lives.

In that way, it strikes this Stag Staffer that Lanier's post-symbolic communication may be the next great step towards realizing humanity's potential.


Stag Staff

*Note this Stag Staffer majored in mathematics as an undergrad and makes a living using mathematical tools in his professional career but in no meaningful way is he a mathematician.  He's just not that clever.  He does however dabble in philosophy, which of course gives one carte blanche to speculate wildly on just about anything.