There are lots of things to think about in Jaron Lanier’s book You Are Not a Gadget. In fact, one of least successful elements of the book is its title, which implies a much more circumscribed and traditional anti-technology, anti-smartphone argument, when in fact the book is way different, way larger.
Cognition is easy
Lanier’s main conceit is that technology is leading us into this dangerous area—dangerous tendency, I should say, because we do it to ourselves, we love it—of “metahuman determinism”. Metahuman determinism is when we over-simplify what it is to be human in order to attribute “humanness” to machines, or simplify what it means to have cognition in order to impute it to “thinking” machines. They’re not thinking! You’re not thinking! Human-ness is not so easily contained or described or rebuilt in silicon. To imagine so, we practice this radically reductive version of ourselves.
Lots of humans = super-human
Metahuman determinism is also what we’re engaged in when we imagine that getting a bunch of smartphones or a bunch of people-with-smartphones or a bunch of data-about-people-with smartphones together in one place or database will somehow cause intelligence or cognition to emerge out of the collective whole. “Emergent” is big in tech. This is where the title comes from, mostly: People’s very specific work responsibilities, or their movie-watching habits, or their dating profiles, or their 2 penny donations on indiegogo will create a metahuman whole, which will then be described, in hundreds of Silicon Valley startup pitches, as intelligent, smart, predictive,…human. Actual humans in this model are merely nodes. Or gadgets.
For me, the juicy part is this other idea Lanier brings up in the book but doesn’t dwell on. It’s in there but not the main point: This corollary to metahuman determinism is that we remove the human from things–works, people, figures, technologies—in order to worship them properly. We can’t and don’t worship humans!
Things that seem messy or human or born of a mother or learned don’t work. Jesus, however, and other gods, and really big celebrities, masterworks and the other products of “genius”, crop circles and aliens….They seduce us with their un-born-ness, their lack of contingency. Motherless heroes. We actively mythologize and make absolutes out of people—or else we suddenly rediscover or transfer all the humanity back into them so we can despise them. This is the ritual of the scapegoat. De-humanize, oversimplify, reduce, and then you can adore. Only then.
By happenstance I heard a version of this same idea yesterday, in the Hidden Brain podcast on “Grit”, attributed there by researcher Angela Duckworth to Nietzsche as his “messy origins” idea.
A neat corollary of that idea, according to Nietzsche, working in full psychologist mode 1, is that we worship geniuses because their apparently effortless mastery and lack of perceivable development spares us—for once!—of the need to feel envy or competition; we can simply sit back and watch the violin solo or whatever it is, becalmed by greatness.