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Media Spotlight: You Are Not A Gadget by Jaron Lanier

MS 10 Dec Spotlight

I recently tried to put together an email save the date for my wedding next year – not having anyones’ physical addresses and with many of my friends moving around several times a year I thought this would be the easiest way to get in touch with them.

But there was a problem – I barely had any of my friends or family’s email addresses and how I contacted 95 per cent of them was via the social networking site Facebook.

Is my life and the social relationships that I created constricted by my dependance on Facebook?

I hadn’t really considered it that way before, but after reading You Are Not A Gadget by Jaron Lanier I do now – Facebook is controlling me rather than me controlling my closed network in Facebook.

Lanier, who is described on the back of the book as a “digital and virtual reality pioneer” and who from some of the comments he makes seems to have been heavily involved in creating software over the last 30 years, is a digital philosopher.

His book frets over the effect that the internet is having on our lives.

This ranges from looking at the limiting effect of restrictively designed software and websites on human creativity to the negative effect getting sophisticated computers to carry out a growing range of tasks is having on individual communities from a jobs perspective.

And he takes a serious look at the advent of people proudly stating how many friends they’ve acquired on Facebook and why reading a constant state of updates about your friends’ lives on social networks means that friendship is being reduced to some degree.

He is also concerned at the negative power of crowd behaviour on the internet and how this could negatively spill over into real life. The London riots last year, which were largely generated by Blackberry Messenger and Twitter updates are certainly a good example of that.

And the section on being a troll, where you anonymously leave negative or deliberately hurtful comments is especially interesting.

Lanier argues the way we interface with the internet, the way websites are designed, ultimately makes us less kind . “Trolling is not a string of isolated incidents, but the status quo in the online world,” he says.

A lack of care for the real life consequences of one’s actions is certainly the case with the disgraceful example he gives of the people who worked to make it theoretically possible to use a mobile phone to hack into a pace maker with the objective of killing someone. If you watched the TV shows Homeland last night, the way the character of vice-president William Walden is killed was not fiction – some idiots have actually worked out how to do this.

I can’t lie, bits (no, I’m still lieing – lots) of You Are Not A Gadget are hard going, like wading through a hard-core philosophy book rather than the popular philosophy book its snappy name and snazzy cover might indicate. Chapter headings like “The Prospects for humanistic cloud economics” and “Digital creativity eludes flat places” are intimidating.

But it’s ultimately quite a positive book – he comes up with a variety of solutions to how cyberspace could be improved, in particular creating financial instruments that might be easier for governments, regulators and traders to analyse.

And considering how big a large part of peoples’ lives are player out online now, he has some big ideas on the effect it’s having on us from a moral and social point of view which should be listened to.

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