Lanier's Not a Gadget

I recently read Jaron Lanier’s manifesto: You Are Not a Gadget. Lanier’s critique of Wikipedia and digital Maoism plays an important role in my discussion of Wikipedia’s reception. Hence, I was surprised to find the tone of Lanier’s book to be more muted than I expected. While he does make an argument against “cybernetic totalism,” it reads like learned musings that lead to intriguing pet-theories rather than a diatribe about Web 2.0. Jon Dron has written an informative review.

I did specifically wish to comment on something that makes me uncomfortable with a lot of cultural criticism: the critic’s POV. (I use Wikipedia’s acronym for “point of view” tongue-in-cheek in that critique is quite contrary to Neutral Point of View (NPOV).) In my exposure to cultural criticism, including Theodor Adorno’s seminal 1936 critique On Jazz, I’ve had the uncomfortable sense that much of this is simply the subjective, disenchanted complaints of a grouch who attempts to convince us that his or her opinions are anything more than his or her opinions. Actually, it’s not even that they are trying to convince us, but that anyone who does not agree with their subjective opinion is obviously part of the problem that they are railing against in the first place. I think it is important to be skeptical, to be critical, and to have personal opinions. (Despite the provocative title, Mark Bauerlein’s The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future is an excellent example of persuasive criticism beyond opinion.) But sometimes the critic’s statements seem over “totalizing.” In Lanier’s case, consider his distinction between first- and second-order expression – using terms that have an authoritative mathematical/logical sort of feel:

First-order expression is when someone presents a whole, a work that integrates its own worldview and aesthetic. It is something genuinely new in the world. Second-order expression is made of fragmentary reactions to first-order expression. A movie like Blade Runner is first-order expression, as was the novel that inspired it, but a mashup in which a scene from the movie is accompanied by the anonymous masher’s favorite song is not in the same league. (p. 122)

Now, I love Blade Runner; I think it is genius. And of course, a YouTube mashup is not in the same league as the complete film. But, it is something, and maybe something people value, even if lightly. I laughed at some of the recent Hitler parodies from Downfall and was sad to see them removed. But video mashups in no way diminish the value of the original film. And in the case of Blade Runner, it is a second-order expression of a written book, and one that is famous for its cyber-noir aesthetic that so famously synthesized so many existing elements of visual culture. Later, Lanier writes without qualification or caveat: “The web should have developed along the ThinkQuest model instead of the wiki model – and would have, were it not for hive ideology” (p. 146). Well, if wishes were horses, beggars would ride, and the subjectivity and ahistorical conceit in such a statement simply boggles the mind.

Ported/Archived Responses

Joseph Reagle on 2010-07-14

Thanks for the note Andy.

Joseph Reagle on 2010-04-28

Hi Joe, I don’t think I was trying to prove a point, only point out my discomfort with “criticism” that is little less than unsupported personal opinion. However, I do appreciate reasoned arguments, historical specifity, statistical validity, and ethnographic detail.

Joe Clark on 2010-04-28

I’d say you have not proven your point here.

Andy Famiglietti on 2010-07-14

Stumbled across this while looking for something else and had to leave a note. As someone with a fair amount of “cultural criticism” in his education I actually mostly agree with your critique here. Criticism can be totalizing and ignore other points of view! That said, later generations of critic have gotten somewhat hip to this, and Adorno’s dismissal of Jazz is almost universally (in my experience) seen as a major point against him, even by those who like his other work.

I also find it hilarious that Lanier’s example of something “genuinely new in the world” is Blade Runner, a film thick with references and appropriations of earlier source material. I love Blade Runner too, but its just Film Noir with robots…

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