Problems with Digital Liberal-Humanism or Why Jaron Lanier Is Wrong

Having just finished reading Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not A Gadget, I’m left with the same questions I’ve had when finishing similar books – those slightly pop-culture ones that say “tech bad”. These questions are about ethics: why doesn’t the author fully acknowledge and interrogate the ethical values which serve as the foundation to their arguments about technology? What do they actually mean by the loss of “humanity”?

This is not to say that Lanier doesn’t make some apposite observations about the way that digital technology has developed since the 1980s. The idea of software being ‘locked-in’, fixed in place, and thus shaping the way that human beings behave and relate through digital forms, is an important one to understand, not least because it highlights how certain kinds of information technologies are shaped by capital (it isn’t hard to argue that this is the case for all digital networks – consider the idea of data centres and cloud computing, something which is a footnote for Lanier). In highlighting the idea of software lockdown, he identifies that the ubiquitous software at the heart of personal computing, UNIX,  “doesn’t accommodate the rhythms of the body” because it relies on a command line interface – basically an automatic keyboard input, which on hitting the ‘return’ key will trigger an event. This disconnect between the mechanisms of a software that shapes many of the tools that lubricate modern society and the idea of human embodiment or an everyday understanding of presence in time needs further discussion and investigation. We need to better understand the cultural logic that digitality conveys, and how that is used to alter and shape experience. What is less useful is an essentialist humanism, saying that digitality is a one-dimensional thing, reducing some kind of overarching humanity.

The main problem with Lanier is that he much prefers individuals to groups of people. He sees a “reduction” in what it means to be human, due to a loss of what is mystical about human connection and creativity – that is, a challenge to the sovereignty of the individual. His perspective abstracts us from concrete experiences of digital networks and communication. Groups connected by the internet become mobs or dumb crowds, at the expense of the intellectual individual:

Emphasizing the crowd means deemphasizing individual humans in the design of society, and when you ask people not to be people, they revert to bad moblike behaviours. This leads not only to empowered trolls, but to a generally unfriendly and unconstructive online world.

In this, we can see what really drives his critique of a computerised-ideology, or what he terms cybernetic totalism, is the perceived challenge to liberal-humanism. Viewing humans in terms of computers, or contemplating the possibility of the Singularity, is a challenge to the modernist project of the powerful sovereign individual. While there are obvious concerns to be recorded about the totalizing potential of an anti-human, cloud-based repository for all information, I feel like the focus on the Singularity is misplaced, and masks a political insecurity. While there are people pushing for a new way of thinking about the human being (call it whatever you want) it means the group of human beings who have had the most power, respect and control – Gutenberg white male individuals – see a threat.

This kind of reading might explain why, for Lanier, groups of people, digital communities, are not as important as cultured, intellectual individuals. Early in the text, he contrasts “pack mentality” with “the phenomenon of individual intelligence”. The digital instances of the former mean that “[t]he deep meaning of personhood is being reduced by illusions of bits” – whatever that “deep meaning” might be. The problem with Lanier’s observations is that, while he quite effectively articulates part of the problem of society being shaped, enframed, by technological forces, referring to concrete and useful examples, often he lacks a tangible political engagement with the problems of life as conditioned by digital networks. Take the fact, for instance, that social media networks implicitly sanction violence against  women because mechanisms of reporting and dealing with such violence are not a priority of companies making money. There is not a concern with this kind of inequality for Lanier – he makes some points about advertising as the foundation of digital networks, but goes no further than saying that digital networks are capitalist, and lead to monopolies. Instead, he is more concerned with the “reduced” notion of friendship by a system like Facebook, and the somewhat bland concept of people making meaning. I would gently suggest that meaning hasn’t disappeared; that digital networks, even in forms that work from a commodified version of a social face, can facilitate genuine community power that results in tangible action, creation and collaboration.  In another example, an early section entitled “How Politics Influences Information Technology” has no politics – Lanier actually identifies a moral rather than a political dilemma about the influence of tech engineers on the structures that “change how you conceive of yourself and the world”. 

The closing sentence of the book reveals the Gutenberg ideology that underpins Lanier’s challenge to communities in technological spaces. A deepening of meaning is the most intense potential kind of adventure available to us.” Here, a shift in understanding about the way digital networks shape our society is political only in so far as it grants the sovereign individual a version of liberal-humanist “freedom” – freedom to know, to indulge in an adventure, rather than freedom to acknowledge and challenge inequality.

If someone feels the need to write the statement “[o]nly the people were ever meaningful”, they see abstraction where they should see politics.

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