Biology Education Page of Jing Gao

Book Review

You are Not a Gadget is a book written by Jaron Lanier and published in 2010. A Silicon Valley veteran who is best known as a pioneer of virtual reality, Lanier now adopts a critical view of the world of computers and the online community. Lanier bills the book as a manifesto whose ultimate goal is to draw our attention to the dehumanizing, restrictive, and destructive effects that the digital world has brought to our lives, culture, and society. Prominent in his critique is his attack on the hive mind, or online collectivism. According to him, hive mind is the online version of mob rule, capable of launching flame wars and witch hunts on individuals. Lanier also criticizes the anonymous nature of most online interactions because he says it makes us “less kind” and brings out the “troll” in us (p. 60-61). Likewise, he is also skeptical of Web 2.0 giants such as Wikipedia and Facebook because he thinks they encourage uniformity and conformity and stamp out individual voices; what he yearns for is the “flavor of personhood” of individual web pages during the early years of the World Wide Web. Moreover, Lanier denounces the open culture of the Web, which he says allows artistic creations such as music to be pirated without proper compensation to the rightful owners. This, according to Lanier, takes away the incentive to add innovative changes to music, so the current music industry is in a sad state of stagnation. In effect, this provocative book reminds us that we need to be alarmed about the way computers are shaping our lives.

One strength of this book lies in the plethora of examples Lanier provides to support his argument. For instance, he discusses in length the vengeful and dark side of mankind enabled by the anonymous design of the Web and the hive mind. He cites, as example, a 2007 incident in which a series of “scarlet letter” postings in China roused the online trolls to seek out the accused adulterers. In speaking out against the suppression of individuality by Web 2.0, he contrasts the now popular Wikipedia and the once popular ThinkQuest. While many ThinkQuest entries were poor and the good ones required much work, Lanier contends that they were “far more original and valuable than those of Wikipedia” (p. 145-146). On the other hand, Lanier says that central to the workings of Wikipedia is “the idea that the collective is closer to the truth and the individual voice is dispensable” (p. 146). In speaking out against the creative stagnation in the current music industry caused by file sharing and the Web’s open culture, he posits that if he went up to people and asked them to identify the decades some songs were from, most would have difficulty differentiating current music from the 1990s’ music but they would not have much difficulty with identifying music from the earlier decades. These and other examples build a strong and cogent case for his argument.

Another strength of this book is that Lanier also praises computers and the positive effects that they bring to our lives. While this book is undoubtedly a scathing criticism of the world of computers, it is still important for Lanier to present some positive aspects of computers so his argument will seem less biased. For instance, he shares his love for an oud forum where oud players from around the world and with all sorts of socioeconomic backgrounds can come together and help one another. Lanier points out that even though the software that the forum runs on is not perfect, he still celebrates it because it provides the platform for the interaction. In essence, he is reminding us that he is not “anti-net” so his criticism of the digital world is not without deep consideration and extensive research (p.71-72).

While the book has several major strengths, there also are weaknesses that either weaken Lanier’s argument or limit his message to only a select few, namely those who are well-read. The weakening in Lanier’s argument can be attributed to the fact that some of the examples he uses to illustrate the negative effects of computers are flawed or not clearly explained. For instance, Lanier puts the blame for the global financial crisis of 2008 on cloud-based computing because he says it facilitated the shielding of corporate corruptions from regulatory scrutiny. The problem with this is that Lanier does not clearly explain how cloud-based computing makes it possible for corporations to engage in unethical and irresponsible transactions or how the market and hedge funds work. Without a clear explanation, it is challenging for the average reader to understand the connection between cloud-based computing and the global financial crisis of 2008. In addition, Lanier also complains that the Web’s open culture has caused the current era of music to be stagnant and bland, having not progressed in any innovative way from the previous decade’s music. His criticism of the current music industry is interesting because he is a musician himself, but he fails to realize that music is a personal and subjective experience. As long as a song appeals to and connects with the listener, does it really matter that the song is not stylistically unique? The answer is no. Ask that same question to today’s teenagers and adults, and the answer is still no.

Another weakness of this book is Lanier’s frequent use of specialized technical terms and esoteric terms of his own creation throughout the book. For instance, the terms “hive mind” and “lock-in” appear quite often in the book. Although these terms are not difficult to understand, the average reader will have the opposite experience because he or she is seeing these terms most likely for the first time. Even worse, Lanier invents such bizarre terms as “realistic computationism” and “numinous neoteny” that even the well-read reader will find difficult to process. If Lanier wants to spread his message about the negative effects that computers have brought us, then he needs to write in a less scholarly or even maybe less pompous way so that the message can reach a wider readership.

This fascinating book helped reinforce two important implications for both general education and science education. First, it is important that teachers, administrators, and parents monitor students’ online behaviors. As reported by Lanier and as broadcast by TV stations throughout the country, online bullying is a serious and persistent problem that affects many school-aged teens. What started out as a minor spat can quickly escalate into an overblown flame war and witch hunt. The anonymous nature of some online interactions provides the vicious a place to hide while tormenting others online. To prevent online bullying and altercations, educators and parents need to be vigilant about students’ online behaviors. Second, teachers have to teach their students about the importance of acknowledging ownership of creative work. With the open culture of today’s Web, it is easy for students to have quick access to any information they need. But students have to know that that information belongs to someone else, and the owner needs to be acknowledged. For this reason, teachers have to teach their students the importance of citing sources and giving due credit to whoever deserves it.

I have learned a tremendous amount in this technology class and I plan to use some of the great things I have learned in my teaching. Blogging is an activity that I have never done before this class, but now I see that it can be a great way to log the chronological development of the class and to get students involved by having them post comments. Class management can be made easier with a course-management tool called Moodle. Similar to Blackboard, Moodle is a website that allows teachers to post class news and assignments and maintain discussion forums. What is different about Moodle is that it is free, so the formidable task of raising money is removed for cash-strapped schools that want a course-management system. Finally, to make the class more interesting, students can be engaged to create or play educational games and projects on websites such as Scratch. When students are engaged and believe that they are having fun, learning is improved.


Lanier, J. (2010). You are not a gadget: a manifesto. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.