A great friend of mine, knowing the type of book I enjoy the most gave me this book saying: “I know you will like this one! You will want to write a book review.”. He was absolutely right I loved this book!

I often use the expression “Let’s Think about IT” (pun intended) in this blog. Indeed I believe that we too seldom take the time to think about what we are doing, reading or even thinking. In these days where speed is the key to everything and computers compute at light speed to bring us an ocean of information, thinking is kind of tacky. You are supposed to write, read and decide faster than ever. I already wrote a bit about what I think of this trend. At the time I was feeling a bit lonely but that feeling has ended since I have read “You are not a gadget” by Jaron Lanier. Jaron Lanier is definitely not taking a pre-chewed thought for a proper thought, a tweet for eternal wisdom or even a blog for brilliance. Nope, ladies and gentlemen, Jaron is taking us on the tricky path of challenging the obvious. I love that.

The back cover says: “Something went wrong around the start of the twenty-first century. The crowd was wise. Social network replaced individual creativity. There were more places to express ourselves than ever before… yet no one really had anything to say.” That sounds like a good provocative start to me!

You Are Not A Gadget You Are Not A GadgetJaron Lanier; Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group 2010WorldCatLibraryThingGoogle BooksBookFinder 

First Impression

When taken in hand, this book doesn’t look like much. The edition I’ve got is made with lower quality paper and the cover is dull. That is far from enough to put me away from a book recommended by a good friend.

The structure of the book is made of chapters that are not necessarily following each other. In fact, this is more like a collection of papers on a common topic. This structure allows for reading small portions at a time or even at distant time from each reading.

In details

If Jaron Lanier were not a pioneer in Virtual Reality, he would be immediately accused to be technology advert. Fortunately this accusation is quite difficult to make. On the contrary, it makes all the content of his book even more interesting.

Jaron’s style is dense but accessible nonetheless. I often complain about the number of pages I need to read from a book before catching something of intellectual value. With this book I could not complain anymore. Ideas are not diluted and every sentence is important and meaningful, hence the small size of the book. That was a very pleasant experience.

The first built bycileJaron is talking about the use of technology in our society. He is challenging the new common wisdom and forces the reader to stop, make a pause and reconsider the obvious. He is for instance introducing the fascinating concept of “lock-in”: one day, technology has offered “an” answer to a new problem. Since that first answer, the solution has been widely adopted and never again challenged. A bit like if we were still using today the first type of bicycle invented 1820. That would sound totally silly, don’t you think? Well, that is exactly what we are doing with technology. Examples given by the author contain The File System in operating systems, The MIDI technology for music, or the Google way to model people inside their cloud. In each case, we have accepted the first solution as the final one, like the bicycle on the picture.

The number of topics covered by Jaron is long. I will list a couple of questions and provocations he is putting in front of our eyes, placing the human being at the centre of the system rather than the computer.

  • “Cybernetic totalists love to think of stuff as if it were alive and had its own ideas and ambitions. But what if information is inanimate? What if it’s even less than inanimate, a mere artefact of human thought? What if only humans are real, and information is not?”
  • “Create a web site that expresses something about who you are that won’t fit into the template available to you on a social networking site.”
  • “Facebook went further, organising people into multiple choice identities, while Wikipedia seeks to erase point of view entirely.”
  • “At any rate, there is no evidence  that quantity becomes quality in matters of human expression or achievement.”

Every chapter is a new intellectual challenge for the reader’s enjoyment, a nugget for the mind, a healthy food for thoughts.

Conclusion

You may disagree with Jaron Lanier on one, many or all his points. This is not the most important. The essential achievement of this book is to make you think, rethink, put in perspective, take distance and eventually makes you more intelligent than you were before reading it. Even if you were to disagree with all of Jaron Lanier’s opinions on the topics covered, this book is definitely worth reading. And if you are wondering if you are the only one to think as you do when you challenge conventional wisdom about technology, grab You Are Not A Gadget and see if by any chance you are not really on your own. This is not the easy reading you can have in a noisy train, so take your time, bring your noise canceller headphones and enjoy.

This book is definitely a Must Read in my library! Since I have read it, I often try to convince friends to read it as well. Unfortunately, I could not find translations in French or Hungarian. But for you, English reader, there is no excuse: go and get it!

Score:

Let’s Think About IT