Book recommendation: You are not a gadget

Jaron Lanier is an interesting guy. He coined the term ‘virtual reality’ decades ago while working on first-gen immersive technology, and he and his team created the concept of an avatar — a virtual representation of one’s self within a computer generated world. He’s also a talented musician and deep thinker, having worked in experimental technologies for Microsoft and universities.

In this book, Lanier takes a step back from the day-to-day technological world we find ourselves immersed in, asking the big questions that the rest of us forget to ask: is this technology working for us or are we working for it?; is it making our lives better or worse?

You are not a Gadget was written around 2011, but I’ve only just gotten round to reading it now. Although I’m kicking myself for not reading it sooner, picking up this book six years after it was written makes it all the more impressive. Many of Lanier’s predictions — which by no means seemed certain at the time, like Facebook finding the holy grail of targeted advertising, and therefore making virtually unlimited money — have come to pass pretty much exactly as he predicted they might.

The book was really fascinating to me. As a professional scientist (and amateur engineer) who happens to find himself in the world of marketing, it was almost therapeutic to hear a voice that shares my concerns about the way that the internet is evolving, especially through big business interests and targeted marketing. And while I don’t share his views on everything — for example his unnecessarily binary criticisms of the Open Source community — his ideas were always thought provoking and caused me to question some of my own opinions.

Just as I’d encourage everyone in the marketing community to listen to Bill Hicks’ Satan’s Little Helpers bit, I’d encourage everyone working in software (regardless of whether you’re working on self-driving cars or a Twitter bot) to read You are not a Gadget. It might just help you bring your human side to the choices that you impose on others.