Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Computer Problems

Much of technology reporting is a kind of cheerleading. Isn't the Internet amazing? Look at all the stuff we can do! Look how fast we're developing new cool things! In a few years computers will be even super -faster! And super-smaller! And the Internet will be even super-cooler!

When anyone does get critical, it's usually to complain that technology is stealing too much of our attention, or our creativity, or something. Kids spend too much time Tweeting! Too much screen-time is frying our brains!

Jaron Lanier doesn't think technology is in such a great place. And he doesn't think the problem is with kids being addicted to their phones. For him, the problem goes much much deeper. In You are not a Gadget: A Manifesto he argues that our technologies have "locked us in" to a particular way of thinking. Our computers and gadgets, because they were not made thoughtfully enough, are now controlling us.

If you love your phone or your iPad or your laptop, you might be suspicious of this book, but do understand that Lanier is no Luddite. He is a musician and a technologist who has done a great deal of work in the field and has stretched his consideration of human/computer interaction into applications, virtual reality experiments and neurological studies. He is not critical of technology as whole, but merely of technology as it currently is. He believes our gadgets offer much more promise and possibility than is currently being explored.

The current state of affairs, he claims, has muted the individual voice and left us with no choice but to make compromises with our machines. We give too much to them and do not demand enough in return.

How did it get this way? The culprits are many, and Lanier spares none of them.

"Lock in" is in part to blame for our sorry state of affairs. Lock in occurs when a particular solution is so widely adopted that it must be used even when it isn't meeting the needs of its users. You can probably think of many examples of lock in: Flash, for example, or our over-dependence on Microsoft Word. Lanier's examples, though, are even more basic than these. Lanier cites the use of files in computing as a primary example of lock in. About everything you use in a computer is saved in a distinct file. Files are so integral to the way computers work today that it's difficult to imagine how a computer would work without them. But, according to Lanier, some early computer designs did without files, instead storing users' activities in a single history. Lanier doesn't argue that some other method would necessarily be better than using files. He does, however, argue that the decision to use files was one that was made quickly and arbitrarily and by a single person (none other than Steve Jobs). It also changes the way we think of not only our computers, but of the world they try to capture, analyze and store.

Another example of lock in is the use of MIDI as a method for digitizing music. MIDI was created specifically to digitize music created or performed on a keyboard, so it is not optimized for capturing music created in other ways, such as by string or wind instruments. MIDI has overtaken the digitization of music, however, and is used almost universally despite its shortcomings. MIDI has radically changed the way we create, listen to and think about music, according to Lanier, and most of us don't even know we've been changed.

For Lanier, other culprits in the failure of technology are open source and crowd source movements in which software and content are generated by a collective of volunteer contributors, sometimes called "the hive" or "the hive mind." The darling of this movement is Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia. Though admittedly useful and generally accurate, Lanier finds Wikipedia lacks the personality and insight that comes from an individual voice. Likewise, the free availability of Wikipedia (and other crowd-sourced projects) can discourages experts from publishing their own individual articles on the web. Finally, Lanier finds that the hive produces little that's truly original. Besides Wikipedia--an online port of an ancient concept--the major accomplishment of the movement is Linux, simply a new version of Unix, an old privately developed operating system.

While Lanier comes across as overly bitter and discouraged throughout the book, he is undeniably right about much of what he says. To the follow-up question of what to do about it he has less to say. He would clearly like to see individual artists and writers compensated for the work they make available on the Internet, but is vague on how this might be accomplished. And to the problem of lock in he offers almost nothing.

Still, the discussion is refreshing. Anyone considering a career in technology should read this book, if only to begin considering how the world might be made differently. Voices like Lanier's need not only to be heard but to be answered. No matter how cool your new gadget is, if we can do things better, we really should.

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