“You Are Not A Gadget” by Jaron Lanier

Jaron Lanier is perhaps a rarity: a techno-enthusiast who is also sceptical about the path along which technology is taking us. As a pioneer in the field of virtual reality, and with tech credentials as long as your arm, Lanier is well placed to comment on this. He has been around long enough to see tech trends come and go, and lived through not a few false dawns – his own early efforts in VR among them. He is therefore critical of what he has come to see as the naive enthusiasm of tech pioneers, who are often more concerned with whether they can than how best they should. From operating systems to social media, the tech we use is often designed not with human experience and usefulness in mind, as technological practicality and efficacy. If people are more easily processed as chunks of information that distort and restrict their natural human qualities, then so be it. Tech doesn’t serve people; people serve tech – which in turn serves business, the concerns of politics and governance (q.v. Snowden, Cambridge Analytica, and so on).

Lanier is also refreshingly sceptical on the question of AI and consciousness. Unlike many in the tech field, Lanier pours scorn on the idea that computers can be conscious, accusing his colleagues of naive and philosophically illiterate chauvinism (something I can get behind!). And it is here that Lanier’s theme comes together: we are not machines, and we shouldn’t be tempted by that view simply because it makes it easier to conceptualise. Technological or computational feasibility shouldn’t determine what we are or how we behave; the horse is driving the cart.

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Gareth Southwell is a philosopher, writer and illustrator from the UK. He is the author of the near-future sci-fi novel MUNKi, which concerns robots, the hunt for the Technological Singularity, and people swearing in Welsh.

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