Thursday 4 April 2013

The IT recipe for failure

Jaron Lanier is one of my heroes.  He has dreadlocks, is an accomplished digital musician and pioneer of virtual reality, and his book You Are Not a Gadget describes the development of what he calls digital Maoism, where web users become a new proletariat toiling for the benefit of an all-powerful virtual bourgeoisie. “We're sending them to peasanthood, very much like the Maoists have,” he wrote.

Lanier’s target has been the idea that individual creativity is being undermined by the internet, partly because so few people seem prepared to pay for it – I speak as a writer – and partly because the prophets of a digital future are toiling towards a day when there will be no individual books, pictures or musical compositions; just one ‘mashed’ whole.

That was the idea behind Kevin Kelly’s predictions in the New York Times in 2006, and it is the meaning behind the innovations known as Web 2.0.

Now he has gone further and has written a closely argued diatribe about the design flaws in the current internet regime that allows a few monopolists to impoverish us.

More about this, and related issues, in my book The Human Element.  I mention this rather belatedly because of the book review by Bryan Appleyard, who I revere for his lonely campaign in favour of the human spirit against scientism and reductionism.  Because Lanier's new book takes the argument further, explaining how a handful of monopolistic internet giants are hollowing out the economy by stealing tiny bits of information that are rightfully owned by us.

Appleyard reviews Lanier along with Evgeny Morozov and his furious diatribe To Save Everything, Click Here.

What really scares me about the way IT is used is that its proponents believe it can replace human skills as well as machine skills.  There are those who believe that it can take over teaching from human beings, just as there are those who are working towards using IT for most medical functions.  There are even those who believe that virtual sex will be better than real sex, eventually.

The sad thing is not just that these people are wrong - that they have not understood the functions best delivered by machine and those that require some kind of human relationship to make them work.  The really sad thing is that so much attention, so much investment money, so much licence to re-think the world, is going their way.

It is a recipe for ineffectiveness.  Anyone who believes the most effective way of educating children is to plug them into an alogorithm will discover this very quickly.  Unfortunately, many of the world's movers and shakers really do.

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