Friday, March 25, 2011

You Are Not a Gadget, by Jaron Lanier

All that's wrong and right with Lanier's "Manifesto" you can find in this quote:
The digital flattening of expression into a global mush is not presently enforced from the top down, as it is in the case of a North Korean printing press. Instead, the design of software builds the ideology into those actions that are the easiest to perform on the software designs that are becoming ubiquitous. It is true that by using these tools, individuals can author books or blogs or whatever, but people are encouraged by the economics of free content, crowd dynamics, and lord aggregators to serve up fragments instead of considered whole expressions or arguments. The efforts of the authors are appreciated in a manner that erases the boundaries between them.
Lanier doesn't write well. There's simply no good reason in contemporary American writing to refuse to use contractions, to construct possessives using "of" and not an apostrophe, to build your central claims in the passive voice (with its consequent over-use of the "be" verb), and to prefer Latinate nouns over their more common Saxon synonyms. Poor writing, poor editing, from start to finish.

What makes Lanier's prose especially frustrating—on to what's right with the book—is that he has an incredibly fertile mind. The book brims with luminous ideas, provocative warnings, dismissive salvos. His insights, for instance, into the link between software design and the quality of contemporary thought are illuminating and timely.

So suffer through the sentences. The rough ride is worth it—even if it takes you, as it did in my case, a few months to finish. You Are Not a Gadget is a fascinating analysis of the delights, dangers, and possibilities of the Post-Gutenberg Age.

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