BY JEFFREY BAIRSTOW
I have just finished reading the recently published diatribe You Are Not a Gadget: a Manifesto, by one Jaron Lanier (Alfred A. Knopf, NYC, 209 pp., 2010). You may have seen the polymath Lanier giving yet another obscure interview on YouTube or heard him at one of the many conferences where he is much admired as a learned guru and iconoclastic prognosticator. Lanier is the one with long, scruffy dreadlocks like the late reggae artist Bob Marley. Why Lanier favors dreadlocks, I have no idea.
In fact, I have read this slim volume twice and I understood its content even less the second time around. In his brief and somewhat obscure preface, Lanier writes—if that is the correct description for this almost incomprehensible geek-speak or portentous inarticulation—that his "words will mostly be read by nonpersons—automatons or numb mobs composed of people who are no longer acting as individuals." He goes on to claim that "[r]eactions will repeatedly degenerate into mindless chains of anonymous insults and inarticulate controversies." Quite so.
Lanier likes to use other writers' ideas as headline quotes for each chapter. He is not above quoting from such eminent classical authors as Publilius Syrus, as in "Speech is the mirror of the soul: as a man speaks, so is he." I hope that Lanier remembers that Syrus also said, "I have often regretted my speech, never my silence." Quite so.
Speaking of words, Lanier likes to use the most pompous jargon without any detailed explanation. For example, try explaining these words without recourse to a modern dictionary: 1) digital maoism; 2) noosphere; 3) cloud economics; 4) bachelardian neoteny; 5) cybernetic totalism; 6) bouba/kiki dynamic; 7) songle; 8) homuncular flexibility; 9) postsymbolic communication; and 10) retropolis redux. Then try the words out in actual sentences with real grown-ups.
So just who is this Jaron Lanier? Well, he has a ten-page bio on his web site that is mostly PR fluff. He avoids giving the reader any personal details. For example, he would appear to be a high-school and college drop-out. He has no academic credentials, and no citations, but he would appear to have received an honorary doctorate from the New Jersey Institute of Technology (2006). He claims to have coined the term "virtual reality." He claims to be a computer scientist, a classical music composer, a visual artist, and a widely published magazine writer and book author. Yet he would appear to have no academic credentials in any of those fields. I don't wish to be seen as a snarky Luddite, but isn't the emperor lacking some clothes here?
He is also very reticent about his personal life. From my extensive research, I would estimate that he is about 50 years old with a wife and two daughters. He was born in Brooklyn, NY, but moved to New Mexico when he was only a few years old. His first job was as a goat-herd in Mesilla, NM. More details can be gleaned from an excellent recent article in The Economist, entitled "The Virtual Curmudgeon."
Most recently, Lanier claims to have been a "Scholar-at-Large" for Microsoft but what his responsibilities or achievements were in that position are unclear. It would appear that Lanier tends to make friends easily with the movers and shakers in Silicon Valley so he seems to manage his unconventional career quite successfully. But the details remain unclear. One thing is clear: In my view, Jaron Lanier is not a gadget.