The Question Concerning Gadgetry

June 18th, 2010 | Category: Reviews

Are computers and devices taking over our lives? Will our technology eventually out grow and enslave us? How would we know? Walk into a coffee shop in any major metropolitan area and you’re likely to see what looks like humans enslaves by machines. Hell, look at any crowded freeway and you’ll see the same thing. As Jaron Lanier puts it in You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto (Knopf, 2010), “The Rapture and the Singularity share one thing in common: they can never be verified by the living” (p. 26). We won’t be able to tell when it happens or if it has already. Regardless, the debate continues.

“We keep waiting for the robots to crush us from the sky
They sneak in through our finger-tips and bleed our fingers dry.”

Milemarker, “Frigid Forms Sell You Warmth”

Echos of Bill Joy‘s decade-old concerns of a robot-run, dystopian future reverberate through several books of late, but none more disconcerting as Jaron Lanier’s. Disconcerting not because Lanier is one of the smartest, most insightful people on the planet, not because he understands the subtleties in the sentiment in the Milemarker lyric above, and not because he’s right about the future of the Web. You are not a gadget, but thinking about yourself through the most complex of your devices doesn’t mean that you are.

We’ve used metaphors to conceptualize and understand phenomena since early Greek philosophy. Thinking theorists over the years have compared the human mind to the clock, the steam engine, the radio, the radar, and the computer. The latter of which has been the most useful and generative, but unlike Lanier, I don’t believe that many people really think the human brain is just a big mass of microprocessors. It’s a metaphor, and it’s true only in the Nietzschean sense of being a “useful fiction.”

Same goes for the avatar maintenance of social networking (what I referred to a couple of years ago as “ambient identity“) and the influence of those sites on the concept of friendship. No one actually believes everyone on their “friends list” is their friend. As often as the idea is overheard in conversation, “Oh, we’re just Facebook Friends,” there’s no question that the distinction is understood. Lanier doesn’t give the young users of social media enough credit. This, I believe, is a huge mistake and indicative of a much larger sense of contempt bubbling under the surface of You Are Not a Gadget. It smacks of a “father knows best” brand of elitism.

Lanier gets a lot of things right though. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t be the looming figure that he is in the digital world, and his book wouldn’t be worth discussing in the first place, but the general distrust of users in these essays makes the book read like a new line drawn between orders Old and New.

It wouldn’t be quite right to compare Jaron Lanier to Ted Kaczynski, but it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to compare the ideas in their books. Technological Slavery: The Collected Writings of Theodore J. Kaczynski a.k.a. “The Unabomber” (Feral House, 2010) is as sober an account of the perils of technology as one is likely to find since Jacques Ellul lambasted our modern age half a century ago (to wit, Kaczynski cites Ellul as a major influence on his thought and writing).

Anyone discussing this book has to qualify it by saying that they don’t condone Kaczynski’s actions, but one has to understand those actions to see the full scope of his disdain for technology. He believed in eradicating what he saw as the oppressive structure of our technologically enabled society. His revolution required violence and subsequent human casualties.

Condoning his actions or not, you have to respect someone who practices what they preach. Kaczynski tried to return to what he saw as a more natural state, living as self-sufficiently as possible in a shack in bucolic Montana. Encroached upon there by the oppressive powers of technological society, he began fighting back with both mail bombs and strong words. The writing collected in Technological Slavery is passionate, serious, and without exaggeration. He argues against technology with as much intelligence and insight as he does with logic and focus. The only real madness here seems to reside in the introduction by philosophy professor and Kaczynski’s frequent correspondent, David Skrbina.

For better or worse, there’s no going back. Technology is not taking over our lives. It already took over our lives before any of us were born. Luddites, fogeys, and other haters of technology often draw a line across which we shouldn’t or shouldn’t have crossed, typically the latter – as if we could go back to some previous place in history and forget what we’ve invented. It’s not a Heideggerian all-or-nothing, but the line is arbitrarily drawn wherever one feels most comfortable, as if Kaczynski’s clothes, shack, and typewriter aren’t technology. We are different when different inventions exist in our world. There’s no going back. The only way out is through. As William Gibson pointed out,

I think what I’m most aware of is the extent to which people are unaware of the extent to which they’ve been interpenetrated and co-opted by their technology. And I take it for granted that I’ve been… I think a lot of people today have as this sort of a Rousseau-esque idea that it’s possible for humans to return to ‘The Natural State.’ But, in fact, I think it’s not, and if it were, they really wouldn’t like it. I mean, I’m immune to a number of really, really terrible diseases because I was inoculated against them as a child. That’s technology. I’m a male human in my 50s, and I still have most of my teeth. That’s technology. I’m myopic, to the point of near-blindness, and yet I can see. And that’s technology. It’s too close to us to be very aware of it. If we could be stripped of it – which we can’t be, because it’s actually altered our physical being – we’d be pretty unhappy, you know?

There’s no returning to a previous state of any sort. We have to proceed with what we have. So, if you wish to believe in the power of humanity over the power of technology (as I believe both of these authors do), then you have to trust the next generation to do well with the tools that we leave them.


Ellul, J. (1964). The Technological Society. New York: Vintage Books.

Heidegger, M. (1969). The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays. New York: Harper Torchbooks.

Kaczynski, T. J. (2010). Technological Slavery: The Collected Writings of Theodore J. Kaczynski a.k.a. “The Unabomber.” Port Townsend, WA: Feral House.

Lanier, J. (2010). You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto. New York: Alred A. Knopf.

Milemarker. (2002). “Frigid Forms Sell You Warmth,” from Frigid Forms Sell. Jade Tree Records.

Neale, M. (director). William Gibson: No Maps for These Territories. London: Docurama.

Further Posting:


  • Gyrus said:

    There’s a complexity hidden by Gibson’s point (which is well taken). Whenever I think of this an old silly joke comes up:

    “I’m glad I wasn’t born in France.”


    “I can’t speak French.”

    What I’m getting at is, to imagine being stripped of all our technology paints an entirely false picture of whatever “pre-technological” humanity was. (Of course there’s never been any such thing – it’s entirely likely that our ancestors, like modern chimps, used tools of some sort. Let’s assume we’re talking about nomadic hunter-gatherers here – the transition to sedentary agriculture is as useful a transition in “technological intensity” to talk about as any.)

    Anyway, imagining modern technology suddenly vanishing, and holding the ensuing mess as a reason to value this technology is as silly as the person in the joke thinking that not being able to speak French would be a problem if he had been born there.

    In a way this backs up the maxim “there’s no way back”, in that it veers towards a kind of strong cultural relativism that makes any comparison between cultures really difficult. But “there’s no way back” shouldn’t be allowed to slide too easily into “there’s only one way forward”. I think this is the irreducible value of “luddite” critiques. Even if they fall into the delusion that we can happily reverse to a pre-industrial or pre-agricultural world, they bring into question the forward momentum of current technology.

  • Roy Christopher (author) said:

    Agreed, Gyrus. I’m in no way advocating laissez-faire technological determinism. The current forward momentum of technology should certainly be questioned, but my position on how to do so is admittedly still developing (a lot of my recent books reviews are little pieces of this ongoing development). With that said, I haven’t seen it done in a way that I can fully subscribe to yet. I mean, I’d love to see a city built strictly for bikes and mass transit instead of for cars, but that’s my bias, my preference (though at our current rate, I might get a glimpse of one). To use that preference as a basis for critique is sloppy, selfish, and — in the case of the books above — intolerably condescending.

  • Dave Allen said:

    Two things, both from other, brighter minds than mine..

    “we break stuff before we know what replaces it, and we invent things before we know what they are for.” Frank Chimero

    Frank Chimero article

    “If electronic media were hazardous to intelligence, the quality of science would be plummeting. Yet discoveries are multiplying like fruit flies, and progress is dizzying. Other activities in the life of the mind, like philosophy, history and cultural criticism, are likewise flourishing, as anyone who has lost a morning of work to the Web site Arts & Letters Daily can attest.” Steven Pinker

    Steven Pinker op-ed

  • Tracy Seeley said:

    I appreciate this thoughtful review. I’ve been thinking about many of the same issues, especially the implications of Web 2.0 on actual social interaction among people who live in physical proximity. But I also struggle with the effects of digital media and the internet on my own habits of work and thought. It’s easy to not only lose a morning of work to Arts & Letters Daily (as Steven Pinker writes in the quote above)–It’s also easy to lose my train of thought and focus because of my new brain wiring. Skim, click, move on–makes it harder and harder to dig deep and stay with an idea or story. This means more lost work than a morning, I fear, over the course of a week. At any rate, I’ll keep clicking and pondering. Thanks for this post.

  • What Means These Screens? Two More Books | Roy Christopher said:

    […] these assessments are stiflingly negative and sometimes they are uselessly celebratory. Jaron Lanier’s recent book flirts with the former, while other current thinkers lean toward the latter. For instance, where […]

  • Well Red Bear » What Means These Screens? Two More Books said:

    […] these assessments are stiflingly negative and sometimes they are uselessly celebratory. Jaron Lanier’s recent book flirts with the former, while other current thinkers lean toward the latter. For instance, where […]

  • Touching Screens: Digital Natives and Their Digits | Roy Christopher said:

    […] Steve Jobs “coded a part of her OS” a bit much, this clip reminds me of a story  by Jaron Lanier from the January, 1998 issue of Wired about children being smarter and expecting more from […]