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The Little Big Book of Internet Jeremiads

January 9, 2010

Looking back, I spent an awful lot of time in the last year doing book reviews – needed research and thinking, yeah, but also a way of dancing around what really needed to be done in the way of actual novel writing.  I’m going to try not to do that so much from now on – although, for some reason, my post from a year ago on Proust Was A Neuroscientist continues to get more hits than any new posting, which given my love of/need for attention to/approval of my writing makes it tempting to do more book reviews rather than less. 

It’s definitely tempting to pick up this new book, Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadgetit sounds both interesting and off-base, from the Amazon interview in the link above.  I do reach for my mute button when I hear someone repeatedly use the word “Collectivists” – it reeks of Aynrandianism, which always makes me suspect the intellectual capacities of the speaker.  Still, there are comments like this that make me think the book might be interesting (underlining mine):

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. However, the information, the abstraction, that represents you is protected within that fortress and is absolutely sacrosanct, the new holy of holies. You never see it and are not allowed to touch it. This is exactly the wrong set of values.

It reminds me of those perpetual, unblockable “Your Opinion Counts!” messages – hey, if it counts that much, if you want it you can pay me a fraction of what you’re making by reselling the information, asshole!

He does seem spot on about how all our (completely voluntary, admittedly) participation in these schemes has turned the content we generate into so much Soylent Green makin’s for others to profit from. 

He also fulminates against the homogenizing effect of the whole “wisdom of crowds” business, and there’s no doubt that creativity is stifled when catering to the Will of the Masses is made the #1 priority – Google will focus-group a Pantone color to death and run all kinds of metrics on its click-appeal before any designer is allowed to use it to “create” (if building from a short list of pre-approved Lego blocks can be called creativity) a Google page, but

the truly remarkable designs that couldn’t have existed 30 years ago, like the iPhone, all come out of "closed" shops where individuals create something and polish it before it is released to the public.

This is the contrast that I want to highlight in the book – an “Alex” would be a really beautiful thing, and you could make millions on it…but to make billions, you have to cater to The Stupids, who outnumber us, oh let’s say at least 10 to 1?  At the very least, they’re a solid 25% of America, the people in those polls who can be counted on to support George Bush even at the end of his presidency, who say huzzah for Joe Lieberman, the Senator from AEtna, who has saved us from Socialized Medicine.

Even the Newsweek review of Lanier’s book serves up ads designed to lure in The Stupids – six ads that all basically say ACAI BERRIES EXPOSED READ THE SHOCKING TRUTH, one of which is an ad I clicked on to see what I got – it leads to an alleged “news” “article” that ends with “I, Jane Clark, have been thoroughly impressed. The Acai Optimum and ColoDetox XR diet lives up to every claim!”  Why these ads on this page?  Because although you and I, who would find Lanier’s book of interest and visit that page, would never click on an ad thinking we were really going to get facts, there are enough gullible people out there to make it worth it to the advertisers to carpet-bomb every web page with RENO MOM MAKES $900/HR WHITENING TEETH FOLLOWING THIS SIMPLE WEIGHTLOSS RULE. 

Whatever “it” is, dumbing it down is where the money is.  The world of Internet commerce is full of young people believing their own press about how cool they are because they work in “new media” – they dress in American Apparel and sway to the new Animal Collective song and go to work in offices where they create new ways of parting The Stupids from their money and they think they are awesome because their math skills allow them to ring up another Acai Berry sale somewhere on Earth.  They would, and in time will, cheerfully take a sophisticated AI capable of educating and uplifting people and transform it into something better than anything ever at “monetizing click-throughs.”

But I will resist, for now, the temptation to review the book. I never did finish reviewing Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman, since I put the whole project in cold storage before I finished the book, and nobody’s been visiting those postings anyway.  Call me shallow, but it’s hard to think about getting back to it now – all those stately, medieval images are hard to concentrate on after reading a review of Edmund White’s autobiography, in which he describes Sennett swanning around gay Manhattan parties in a little black dress.  I know, the man is not the work, but lordy what an image to block out – very “don’t think of an elephant,” I’m afraid.

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