In his recent book, You Are Not a Gadget, Jaron Lanier (an odd-looking genius; click here for info and images of him) argues that while the internet excites our creativity, it’s dangerously dehumanizing. He argues that modern trends on the internet protect hoard mentality over individuality, provide a safe haven for depersonalized acts of aggression and theft, and blind us to the human perspective.
That last point is an interesting one. Lanier is an eccentric Silicon Valley guru who is often credited with coining the term “virtual reality.” One problem with the web, he says, is that it allows us to take slices of what people write—lines of their arguments, phrases from their novels, plays, or poems, and other sound bites of their expression—out of context. Cutting and pasting (as if ideas were born in the air and not in a specific brain) can be dangerous. For one, detextualizing human voices like that gives us the opportunity to dumb down other people’s arguments when we quote them. Second, it promotes a false idea of what “information” really is.
An example: If you want to make an argument around some topic like health care, you can scan the web for information. You can cut and paste, forming a pool of data, which makes you feel educated on the subject. But in scanning for facts on the web, you probably don’t do a lot of leg work to understand those facts in context. This is especially true given the fabric of the web: Most articles are, themselves, just tapestries made from the cutting and pasting of other arguments. We are all cutting and pasting to suit our viewpoints, without doing the hard work of understanding the origin and context of the other side. In turn, our conversations have become increasingly combative and polarized and decreasingly sensitive to mediation, or what the other side means.
Some people have defended the fact that the web gives us oceans of information with the phrase “information wants to be free.” That is: What in the world would we lose by putting facts and arguments out there for the taking? But Lanier says that argument misunderstands what “information” is. “The problem with [that phrase],” Lanier says in a neat interview (click here), “is that it anthropomorphizes information. Information doesn’t deserve to be free. It is an abstract tool; a useful fantasy, a nothing. It is nonexistent until and unless a person experiences it in a useful way. What we have done in the last decade is give information more rights than are given to people. If you express yourself on the internet, what you say will be copied, mashed up, anonymized, analyzed, and turned into bricks in someone else’s fortress to support an advertising scheme.” In part, he means that the web has helped us imagine that information is autonomous or formed without the influence of human need or perspective. In turn, we have forgotten that any slice of “information” is an argument that some person built in order to experience a certain time and place. We have privileged data over the meaning that is born from human context.
Lanier goes on to give succinct advice for how to use the web—how, for instance, to cut and paste—by drawing an analogy to Hip-Hop, which is another culture that has thrived through cutting and pasting, or through appropriation. Imagine listening to Hip-Hop as if music were just notes formed in a vacuum and not the expression of a specific human being’s experience, he says (in a neat blog here): “Would that be culture? Hip-Hop is about people—some vastly more talented or ethical than others—but the actors are humans with character and history, not information fragments.” If you’re going to listen to or create Hip-Hop, you’re going to want to understand how the different styles behind the different song clips contribute to the whole. Now I’m going to quote Lanier at length, because his voice does deserve more than a sound-bite. Here’s his advice for respectfully citing a voice on the web:
“If you are being expressive and want to do some appropriating of your own, may I suggest some ways to do it that you will probably find rewarding, even though some effort is involved?
a) Internalize what you want to appropriate first, so that it comes out of you as both an appropriation and as your personal expression. A golden example would be Thelonious Monk learning stride piano and then turning out his Monkified stride entwinement—and I realize it might be intimidating to bring up a stellar example like that...but that's the path to meaningful culture.
b) Don't appropriate something just because there's some hit of novelty in it, even though you have no idea what it meant to the people who made it originally. That's what missionaries do to the cultures of native peoples. Connect, understand, or empathize with the people you appropriate from, to the degree you can. It's often hard to understand or connect with other people, even in the best of circumstances, just because that's the human condition. Any little bit of awareness across mysterious interpersonal chasms you achieve is a triumph, and the only source of meaning. (That doesn't mean that all appropriation has to be based on sympathy. What I'm saying applies equally well to such things as satire and criticism.)”
Neat, right? Lanier is arguing that a lot of our work on the web (think Wikipedia) has been depersonalized insofar as we think that the web supplies us with impersonally delivered “information” rather than with work by different individuals with different ideas, cultures, styles, or values. We need to remind ourselves that behind every post is a person who lives in a town, has an agenda, and lives with a style in this space we know as our joint reality.
Ilana Simons is a clinical therapist, literature professor at The New School, and author of A Life of One's Own: A Guide to Better Living through the Work and Wisdom of Virginia Woolf. Visit her website here.
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