Jesus Creed

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.

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