Jesus Creed

Jesus Creed

Saturday Afternoon Book Review: Rob Merola

Rob Merola was one of my finest (and “favoritest”) students at TEDS. He fell in love with another one of my favorites, Linda, and they are now married and ministering in Sterling Heights Virginia at St Matthew’s Episcopal. I follow his blog and when I saw he was reading You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto
, I asked if he might review it for our blog. So, here it is… but I have a question first: What are you doing about this issue? Are you seeing people limiting connectivity or even walking away from it?

It is my belief that Jaron Lanier’s book You are Not a Gadget is one of the most important books a serious minded person in the early 21st century can possibly read.  It is so because the basic question it addresses is, “What does it meant to be human?”  Perhaps even more to the point, it raises the question of “How do we appropriately recognize and honor one another as unique persons of depth and substance?”


I’ll admit right up front that there is a lot of this book I simply do not understand.  But I do understand enough of it to get his main point; the digital world and it its representations of persons threatens to diminish, reduce, and flatten us.   And because we increasingly interact with each other through digital mediums instead of face to face, our relationship also are diminished, reduced, and impoverished.  The individual is replaced with the hive.  A unique point of view is obscured in a mash up.  A distinct voice is lost in the computational cloud.


As an example of Lanier’s concerns, consider the following
paragraph:  “I know quite a few
people, mostly young adults but not all, who are proud to say that they have
accumulated thousands of friends on Facebook.  Obviously, this statement can only be true if the idea of
friendship is reduced.   A
real friendship ought to introduce each person to unexpected weirdness in the
other.   Each acquaintance is
an alien, a well of unexplored 
difference in the experience of life that cannot be imagined or accessed
in any way but through genuine interaction.  The idea of friendship in database-filtered social networks
is certainly reduced from that.”


Could it be that if we are ever going to be fully present in
a given moment or to a given person, we are going to have to limit our

Lanier goes on
to discuss the pursuit of quality through quantity, suggesting that in reality these two pursuits are actually heading in different
directions.  (My own editorial note
on this:  Just ask Toyota.)  Those of us who blog or tweet regularly
know what he is talking about.  A
couple of Lanier’s suggestions:  

Write a blog post
that took weeks of reflection before you heard the inner voice that need to
come out


If you are
twittering, innovate in order to find a way to describe your internal state (my
note:  but that would take time and
work and reflection!) instead of trivial external events, to avoid the creeping
danger of believing that objectively described events define you, as they would
a machine

Of course, when one is talking about persons, the question
of materialism is bound to crop up. 
Are brain and mind and person synonymous?  Can we be reduced to energy (electrical impulse)?    Lanier’s thoughts on this,
which include a call for “intellectual modesty”, are perhaps unexpected:   “The desire for absolute order
usually leads to tears in human affairs, so there is a historical reason to
distrust it.  Materialist
extremists have long seemed determined to win a race with religious fanatics:
Who can do the most damage to the most people?”


There are other questions Lanier asks that I expect aren’t
even on most of our radars–but they should be.  Otherwise the answers are going to be decided for us in ways
that we may find profoundly disturbing, and it will be too late for us to be
able to do much about it.  For
instance, there is the whole question of authorship.  Lanier warns of those who consider it their “‘moral
imperative’ that all the world’s books would soon effectively become ‘one book’
once they are scanned, searchable, and remixable in the universal computation

This is just a tiny snippet of the kinds of substantive
issues this book addresses.   
Coming from the “father of virtual reality”, a person at the top of his
field in the very heart of technological prowess and progress, we ignore this
book and the questions it asks at our own peril.

Comments read comments(5)
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posted March 20, 2010 at 3:28 pm

I loved Lanier’s book. Thanks for your comments on his applicability to theology!

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Samir Selmanovic

posted March 20, 2010 at 4:43 pm

Rob and Scot,
I was at the Re-emergence conference here in Ireland, and this book became a subject of discussion over and over again and was glad to see you are reviewing it!
Thanks for the review. Ordering,

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posted March 20, 2010 at 6:39 pm

Thanks, Scot, for the kind words. You (and Kris) had–and continue to have–a way of bringing out the best in us.

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Ted M. Gossard

posted March 21, 2010 at 7:28 am

Rob, Thanks for reading and sharing this. Sounds like some important wisdom for us is found here.
I must say the internet world did open up for me an opportunity I never anticipated. What I mean is that I never thought I could have any thing like a blog, and early on I was always amazed that I could write a post. I’m still amazed and consider it all a gift, but one I would never have become aware of apart from this venue. That came after a year of sharpening my teeth on Scot’s blog. I think I caught him when he was still on Blogger, but soon to go to WordPress.
But yes, while I think this venue has actually ended up helping me in my real everyday contacts with others, probably since I- along with most of the rest of us- am a word person, and there is so much good to be learned on Scot’s blog alone, even so I do see the danger of beginning to feel more at home interacting with people in this way rather than face to face. If this can be helpful for that, then well and good. I do find the antipathy (I linked this because it did seem a good word, but I myself wanted to verify its meaning) against this kind of interaction interesting, because we are after all, people of the Book. God then and now chooses to reveal himself and his acts and will through words. But unless we use it as a means to the end of the incarnation, and embody that ourselves, we are indeed losing out.
Thanks for whetting our appetite, Rob, or at least giving us some food for thought we otherwise wouldn’t have.

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posted March 21, 2010 at 2:03 pm

Looks like a book I’d like to get my teeth into. Life gets complicated sometimes. I have intentionally broke from Facebook and Twitter during Lent and find it is doing me good in helping to slow down.

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