The Rise of Digital Maoism

One might guess that a computer scientist who is touted as a pioneer of virtual reality would be a fan of that whole social media thing. After all, Jaron Lanier works as a genius-in-residence of sorts at Microsoft, which is one of several big companies pushing cloud computing, the technological innovation that’s brought a lot of Web 2.0 companies to life.

So it can be a tad jarring to read Lanier writing about how “something started to go wrong with the digital revolution around the turn of the 21st century.” Concepts like crowdsourcing and collective thought are creating a “digital Maoism” that favors the group over the individual. Anonymity is bad; trolls rule the Web and scare off articulate critics. Google, Microsoft, Amazon and IBM are becoming “lords of the cloud,” who are now in charge of a lot of vital information, and we’re all just mindlessly shoveling that data to them in the hopes of making faster connections on Facebook and Twitter. A mashup culture is trivializing all culture.

I’m not sure, but I think that more or less captures the gist of You Are Not A Gadget, the book or “manifesto” just published by Lanier, who is an interdisciplinary scholar-in-residence at the Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology at the University of California, Berkeley. The reason I admit to not being sure about the book’s thesis is because I read it quickly to meet this column’s deadline. Full disclosure: I do feel the need to go back and digest it at a much more leisurely pace. The fact is, I want to. Much of it is indeed higher-level theory and analysis of the relationship between technology and people, between our machines and our souls, if you will, a la Ray Kurzweil. Yet for every section that bogs down a bit in deepthink about concepts like “cybernetic totalism,” there are paragraphs that dazzle with a new way of looking at participatory technologies like Wikipedia or the types of financial algorithms that helped bring about the latest recession.

The Mob Blog Mentality

The book would seem to be tailor-made for the section in your local Barnes and Noble that could be titled “The Internet in Trouble.” It would sit next to other fairly recent like-minded volumes such as Andrew Keen’s The Cult of the Amateur and Jonathan Zittrain’s The Future of the Internet (And How to Stop It). Web 2.0 defenders use books like these to write columns and editorials taking them to task for daring to challenge this new two-way communications tool that is bringing more average people into the conversation, even as it remakes industry segments like music, media and journalism. That’s what I thought when I read Caterina Fake’s Huffington Post column taking on Lanier’s manifesto in The Wall Street Journal, which was an excerpt from You Are Not A Gadget. Fake helped develop Hunch and Flickr, the former a recommendation Web site, the latter a popular photo-sharing service.

Gee, I wonder where she comes down in this debate?

“There are so many things wrong with Jaron Lanier’s recent manifesto … that I hardly know where to begin,” she writes. “He has a particular lens through which he is viewing our latter-day participative media. He seems not to have built participative Web sites, hailing from a Mondo 2000-era view of the world.” Those who give away rights to content are not being stripped of their dignity; anyone contributing anything online, whether art, news or opinion is not blindly joining the “hive-mind,” as he writes. “Lanier does not understand that people do things for reasons other than bolstering their egos and making money,” Fake said.

However, the comments that followed on the Huffington Post actually helped to prove some of Lanier’s points about the dynamics of online mobs. Fake laid out the parameters of the attacks on Lanier’s manifesto, and others followed her lead. (Most agreed with her take on things — no shock there.) Indeed, nearly all the comments were anonymous. However, nearly all were also more or less respectful and articulate, not the slash-and-burn kind of nameless comments that can be found elsewhere on places like YouTube and various fan sites.

“What I’m saying … is that the user interface designs that arise from the ideology of the computing cloud makes people — all of us — less kind,” Lanier writes in You Are Not A Gadget. “Trolling is not a string of isolated incidents, but the status quo in the online world.”

Bubbling Cauldrons of Contempt

This plays into something I’ve noticed with (unfortunately) news Web sites and bulletin boards that service journalism, particularly broadcast journalists. We can be a very trollish bunch, judging from the comments that can be found on, which monitors developments in cable and broadcast news. It’s a great site, one of my first bookmark stops, and it features solid original reporting, but I’ve long ago stopped reading the comments. They’ve all become a collection of red state vs. blue state insult-mongering. I’d like to think that most of the people writing these aren’t actually working in newsrooms, but who knows?

I feel the same way about TVSpy, which used to be a very valuable online resource for job listings, advice and information about salaries, news directors, etc. But a long time ago, the Vault bulletin board section of the site denigrated into anonymous critiques of talent and trends.

TV Spy was around before the advent of Web 2.0; TVNewser is more of a product of its culture of interactivity and participation. But that participation seems to revel in cynicism and personal attacks. The level of criticism against Lanier has been of a better quality, but there’s still this sense of “how dare you?” associated with those taking aim at You Are Not A Gadget. The technology field obviously has room for this much dissension; all Lanier is asking for is a return to the personal in our fascination with personal technology. In that respect, I detect a hopeless romantic in this writing. Indeed, pictures of Laniers sometimes show him performing as a musician, what appears to be another obsession of his, along with examining the impact of technology on culture and thought.

Better Ways to Interact

Early in his book, Lanier lists some things that everyone can do if they want to avoid the problems he’s addressing:

  • Don’t post anonymously unless your life is truly in danger.
  • Try creating a Web site that says more about you than the templates provided by popular social media networks.
  • “Post a video once in a while that took you 100 times more time to create than it takes to view.” (This would appear to help everyone appreciate the act of creating something of value, a quality that Lanier says is now taken for granted thanks to participatory, mashup culture.)
  • Write a blog post that takes weeks of reflection rather than minutes/seconds of knee-jerk reaction.
  • If you must tweet, tweet how something makes you feel, rather than describing “trivial external events.”

I will try to adopt as much of these points as I can, but even if I don’t — and even if I don’t agree with some of his thoughts — I’d like Lanier to keep talking about them and pushing this discussion into the mainstream as much as he can, particularly when it comes to the idea that anonymous, nasty attacks cheapen any debate. I’m not arguing for censorship; comment moderation and ID registration have been discussed here before as possible alternatives, as has the notion of simply ignoring the screamers in the Web chat room.

I don’t think I’m a gadget (not even Inspector Gadget) but I’m always on the lookout for ways to be a better person. If Lanier can help with that, great. As I said, I think he’s an optimist and romantic at heart, and in this week where we celebrated Martin Luther King’s birthday, it would be wise to remember the preacher’s words when you read somebody getting nasty online and not having the courage to sign their name: “When evil men shout ugly words of hatred, good men must commit themselves to the glories of love.”

TechNewsWorld columnist Renay San Miguel started his journalism career with his hometown newspaper in Texas in 1979. He moved to television in 1985, anchoring, producing and reporting in Austin, Dallas and San Francisco before joining CNBC as a technology correspondent from 1997 to 2000. Following a stint with CBS MarketWatch, which included filing tech stories for the CBS Early Show, San Miguel joined CNN Headline News in 2001 as an anchor/tech reporter. He also contributed digital content for After his 2007 departure from CNN, San Miguel founded Primo Media and now freelances in television/online reporting and media consultation.

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