Cyber Ethics: You Are Not A Gadget!

For all aspiring technologistsIn my recent foray into cyber ethics, I came across Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not A Gadget .  I purchased it after Nicholas Carr mentioned it in The Shallows (my blog post on Carr’s book is here)Although these books are not written from a Christian perspective, they are helpful when it comes to cyber ethics (or Internet ethics).  Jaron Lanier was one of those guys who worked on early computers from his basement.  Unlike Al Gore, he actually did have a hand in the early stages of the Internet.

Lanier’s book isn’t an easy read.  First of all, in my opinion, Lanier’s writing style is difficult.  His sentences are bulky and he jumps around quite a bit within each chapter.  And though this isn’t a critique, it is written for computer scientists or those very involved in computer technology.  There is a lot of tech language.  I’m pretty sure not many of our readers will benefit from this book. 

However, some things Lanier discusses in You Are Not A Gadget are very applicable to anyone who uses the Internet.  Lanier talks about social media like Facebook and Twitter.  He also discusses the Google empire as well as the cloud and hive mentality.  He even wrestles through cyber commerce and economics.  Another aspect I thought was interesting was how computer technology has affected music (specifically the MIDI file).  In some cases, Internet technology has stifled rather than stimulated our artistic abilities.

Here are a few provocative quotes.

“People degrade themselves in order to make machines seem smart all the time.  …We have repeatedly demonstrated our species’ bottomless ability to lower our standards to make information technology look good.  Every instance of intelligence in a machine is ambiguous.  …Did that search engine really know what you want, or are you playing along, lowering your standards to make it seem clever?  While it’s to be expected that the new human perspective will be changed by encounters with profound new technologies, the exercise of treating machine intelligence as real requires people to reduce their mooring to reality” (p. 32).

“When my friends and I built the first virtual reality machines, the whole point was to make this world more creative, expressive, empathetic, and interesting.  It was not to escape it” (p. 33).

“The most important thing to ask about any technology is how it changes people” (p. 36).

“What computerized analysis of all the country’s school tests has done to education is exactly what Facebook has done to friendships.  In both cases, life is turned into a database.  Both degradations are based on the same philosophical mistake, which is the belief that computers can presently represent human thought or human relationships.  These are things computers cannot currently do” (p. 69).

Again, I don’t think all our readers will want to get this book; it’s a tough and detailed read.  However, if you are a Christian who is heavily involved in computer science/technology, or if you’re a Christian who wants to seriously engage cyber ethics, I recommend this book.  His main point is clear: “This book is not antitechnology in any sense.  It is prohuman” (p. ix).

shane lems