Book reviews: You Are Not A Gadget | Googled
IN CASE you hadn't noticed, the war for the future of the internet has reached a crunch battle. On the shimmering plains of cyberspace, Rupert Murdoch and the music multinationals are sandbagging themselves against the oncoming waves of news-surfers and file-sharers.
Paywalls are being erected, the regulatory arm of Peter Mandelson is being bent – anything to get a regular buck off those rapacious hordes.
To the philosophical rescue comes Jaron Lanier, a pioneer of virtual reality in the early 1990s. You Are Not A Gadget is hardly a Luddite tract from some defender of old technologies and even older monopolies.
So when Lanier says that our beloved Twittering, YouTubing and Facebooking is about reducing our personhood to fit the limitations of software, about "becoming a source of fragments exploited by others", we should at least put the devices to sleep and pay attention.
Happily for Murdoch and his supporters, Lanier says that one of the ways technology can express a "digital humanism" is to allow musicians and journalists to make a middle-class living again. How? By turning every click on the internet into a tiny monetary transaction between seller and buyer, enabled by a very deep change in the internet's operating code. For Lanier, this would clean out the witterings of what he calls "the hive mind", and allow those who live by their craft to flourish on the net, rather than see their earnings and royalty cheques reduce to zero.
Lanier notes the paradox that an exponential rise in broadband and computing power hasn't resulted in the cyber-equivalent of a Mozart, an Orwell or a Thelonious Monk, but much more culture-as-nostalgia – the "YouTube" evening watching classic TV clips, or the Spotify rummage through old record collections.
As someone who plays between both of the industries that Lanier focuses on in this book, music and journalism, I can appreciate his angst about the diminution of originality. Yet I think he's wrong to suggest that a more closed and marketised internet will foment genius or even just excellence. Creativity is as much about reading and listening as it is about writing and composing.
The end of the old business models means that both music and journalism will have to boil down to what is enduring and scarce in their professions: the live performance and the heartfelt, self-produced song; the necessary investigation and the unfettered comment. Rather than the hype, flash and churnalism that clogged up too much of both professions in the good old days.
Something that Lanier refuses to do is to condemn Google as the cuckoo in the nest of content. Ken Auletta's meticulous account of this huge company's fundamental geekery should encourage Lanier that the basic infrastructure of this new era is being driven by highly creative individuals.
And Googlers know fine well that they're in the position of the old railroads and private utilities of the 19th century – in the queue to be nationalised when they become too big. Our future might not be the "digital Maoism" that Lanier deplores – but something more akin to a digital social democracy.
Let's have a debate about that, rather than worry too much about Kevin the teenager in his downloading frenzy. A war against enthusiasm could hardly be more pointless, or less winnable.
Pat Kane is author of The Play Ethic (www.theplayethic.com) and one half of Hue And Cry
This article was first published in The Scotland On Sunday on April 04, 2010