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Michael Hiltzik: What the Web weaves

February 7, 2010 |  4:31 pm

A willingness to embrace new technologies, it might be argued, is the sign of a thriving and healthy society. Failure to perceive its drawbacks, not so much.

As my Sunday column argues, that's why it's important to listen to the technology critics who have made it their calling to point out what we can lose by placing too much faith in the new. The late Neil Postman, whose book "Amusing Ourselves to Death" warned nearly a quarter-century ago of the coming encroachment of entertainment values into news, employed the following question to distinguish the new and useful from the merely new. He asked: "What is the problem to which this is the answer?"

The most useful critiques of technology often come from technology enthusiasts. One thinks of Clifford Stoll, who decried the isolating effect of the Internet, and Alan Kay, who keeps trying to push technology toward the dream of a tool to enhance human creativity. Ted Nelson has developed an idea, which he calls Project Xanadu, to allow creative people to post their work online and to get paid for it, possibly an answer to the problem of the disdain with which intellectual property is increasingly treated in the online world.

Jaron Lanier, the latest in this line, is an adherent of the Ted Nelson school. His thoughts on these and other issues appear in his new book "You Are Not a Gadget," and in the interview at the core of my column, which starts below.

"People have to be able to make money off their brains and their hearts," Jaron Lanier was telling me. "Or else we’re all going to starve, and it’s the machines that’ll get good."

It sounded a little bit like Dickens, and a little bit like a line from the Terminator movies. But it was all reality, coming from a true computing pioneer and one of modern technology’s most insightful critics.

Lanier, 49, has been pondering the effect that the World Wide Web — its ideology as well as its design — has had on creativity, society and commerce for years.

The inquiry resulted in a book, or "manifesto" according to his own label, published this year  titled “You Are Not a Gadget.” The title should provide a clue that he hasn’t found much to like.

Read the whole column.

-- Michael Hiltzik