February 15, 2010

You Are Not a Gadget

This is what a social network looks like.

Each dot represents a human being. Each line represents a social connection between two people, such as acquaintanceship, financial exchange, friendship, or love. The picture can become arbitrarily more complex as we take one-way relationships into account and add more dimensions to model particular interests and behaviors.

Much of the attention around technology these days has something to do with this picture. Authors like Clay Shirky write about amazing things that can happen when the amount of effort needed to transmit information through the lines is drastically lowered. Companies like Google harvest information from the dots to offer better services to them; products like Amazon’s Mechanical Turk harvest little slices of spare time from the dots to quickly complete otherwise unwieldy tasks; games like Zynga’s Farmville are designed to propagate through the lines like a virus.

Advertising companies and some advocates of open-source software don’t even refer to the dots as human beings: they call them “eyeballs”. The involvement of just one pair of eyeballs means just a few cents to a revenue stream or a single bug-fix in a software program, but when the process is scaled, it results in billions of dollars of profits or bug-free software.

Jaron Lanier, the author of You Are Not a Gadget, is not interested in dots and lines. Indeed, he finds it strange that the relationship between two people is reduced to a mere line, and that the people themselves are just dots.

Instead of reducing things, he claims, we should be using technology to deepen the connection between two people and make it more meaningful.

You Are Not a Gadget is a complex book. I originally bought it because, flipping through its pages at a bookstore, I found random fragments to offend me. Even though I don’t agree with everything the author has to say, I still found it a fascinating read that I’d recommend to anyone with an interest in technology and where it’s taking us.

© Atul Varma 2020