You Are Not a Gadget

This week I read Jaron Lanier’s book You Are Not a Gadget. Though often quite obscure, the book does offer a lot of opportunity for reflection on the way technology is impacting our lives. He has written what is probably the cleverest Preface to a book I’ve ever read (and, if I do say so myself, I’ve read a lot of prefaces. Or is that prefi?). He offers a unique perspective on the harsh reality of just how his book will be consumed. I thought you’d enjoy it.

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It’s early in the twenty-first century, and that means that these words will mostly be read by nonpersons–automatons or numb mobs composed of people who are no longer acting as individuals. The words will be minced into atomized search-engine keywords within industrial cloud computer facilities located in remote, often secret locations around the world. They will be copied millions of times by algorithms designed to send an advertisement to some person somewhere who happens to resonate with some fragment of what I say. They will be scanned, rehashed, and misrepresented by crowds of quick and sloppy readers into wikis and automatically aggregated wireless text message streams.

Reactions will repeatedly degenerate into mindless chains of anonymous insults and inarticulate controversies. Algorithms will find correlations between those who read my words and their purchases, their romantic adventures, their debts, and soon, their genes. Ultimately these words will contribute to the fortunes of those few who have been able to position themselves as lords of the computing clouds.

The vast fanning out of the fates of these words will take place almost entirely in the lifeless world of pure information. Real human eyes will read these words in only a tiny minority of the cases.