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Jaron Lanier: technology humanist

January 10, 2010 |  2:15 pm

Circuit board detail

Today in the L.A. Times' book pages, Ben Ehrenreich looks at a new manifesto from Jaron Lanier. Lanier, the technology visionary credited with coining the term "virtual reality," has published his first book, "You Are Not a Gadget." Ehrenreich writes:

At the bottom of Lanier's cyber-tinkering is a fundamentally humanist faith in technology, a belief that wisely designed machines can bring us closer together by expanding the possibilities of creative self-expression. ...

"The hive mind is for the most part stupid and boring," Lanier wrote [in 2006]. "Why pay attention to it?"

"You Are Not a Gadget" extends that analysis, adding thoughts and observations -- many culled from his column in Discover magazine -- on everything from Stravinsky to giant Australian cuttlefish. The problems spawned by anti-humanist software design, Lanier argues, don't stay online: "It is impossible to work in information technology without also engaging in social engineering." Facebook, he writes, confines creativity to preestablished fields, reducing our oceanic complexities to "multiple-choice identities" that can be sold to marketing databases. Cyber-reductionism, Lanier has it, actually shrinks us.

Even if Lanier's take on Facebook and Wikipedia seems a bit curmudgeonly, Ehrenreich writes, "His mind is a fascinating place to hang out."

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: A circuit board detail. Credit: quapan via Flickr