Most of us can recognize people who think like us. It’s the ease we have in following arguments, the familiarity in the way someone moves from one idea to the next. Sometimes it is subtle, but when you share your thinking mother tongue with someone, there is comfort in that shared vernacular.
Most of us can also recognize when we run up against someone who has a completely different way of thinking about the world. I’ve had that sensation of dis-familiarity when I’ve sat with someone suffering from schizophrenia or Alzheimer’s. But I’ve also been exhilarated when I encounter an extremely different way of seeing the world. That’s what I have been feeling from the very beginning of the brilliant and provocative book, You Are Not A Gadget, by Jaron Lanier. A technologist who has been at a the forefront of software design and the Web, Lanier lays open many of the missteps made a long time ago that we have had to adjust to and accommodate. But things didn’t have to be the way they are, and paying attention to those errors is of importance in our decisions going forward.
Lanier describes his book as a manifesto, and in many ways it has the rhetorical power of a political declaration. Chunked into manageable, bite sized passages, You are Not a Gadget is a fistful of extraordinary insights and wisdom that come from a mind that can stand still and drill down 50 feet. He’s got extreme verticality, that’s for sure. And since I’m more horizontally inclined—more adept at covering lots of territory rather than staying in one spot and digging deep—the perspicacity of Lanier’s thinking just keeps coming with every page.
The thing about Lanier is he doesn’t take anything for granted. Everything is scrutinized. One of his key concepts that explains where things have gone wrong is what he calls “lock-in.” Once a software design is formalized and ubiquitous, everything must conform to that structure. Good ideas that don’t fit that particular approach cannot be considered. Lanier offers a number of great examples of this, but the one I particularly like is his discussion of the ubiquitous software concept of the file.
An even deeper locked-in idea is the notion of the file. Once upon a time, not too long ago, plenty of computer scientists thought the idea of the file was not so great.
The first design for something like the World Wide Web, Ted Nelson’s Xanadu, conceived of one giant, global file, for instance. The first iteration of the Macintosh, which never shipped, didn’t have files. instead, the whole of a user’s productivity accumulated in one big structure, sort of like a singular personal web page. Steve Jobs took the Mac project over…and soon files appeared.
UNIX had files; the Mac as it shipped had files; Windows had files. files are not part of life; we teach the idea of a file to computer science students as if it were part of nature. In fact, our conception of files may be more persistent than our ideas about nature. I can imagine that someday physicists might tell us that it is time to stop believing in photons, because they have discovered a better way to think about light—but the file will likely live on.
The file is a set of philosophical ideas made into eternal flesh. The ideas expressed by the file include the notion that human expression comes in severable chunks that can be organized as leaves on an abstract tree—and that the chunks have versions and need to be matched to compatible applications.
That’s from page 13, and so much more follows. The book’s five parts each deal with topics of profound importance:
What is a person?
What will money be?
The unbearable thinness of flatness
Making the best of bits
I’m still swimming in this sea of extraordinary ideas and will be for a while. I am sure I will have more comments to make about the book as I continue reading it Until then, here’s a Lanierism to keep a spirit hopeful: “If it’s important to find the edge of mystery, to ponder the things that can’t quite be defined—or rendered into a digital standard—then we will have to perpetually seek out entirely new ideas and objects, abandoning old ones like musical notes.”