A review of
You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto
by Jaron Lanier
(Alfred A. Knopf, 2010)
This review first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 34, number 01 (2011). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal go to: http://www.equip.org
Jaron Lanier is a pioneer in virtual reality technology and a Silicon Valley insider. He argues, however, that much of what he helped create now threatens the dignity of human beings. As Thoreau put it, “We have become tools of our tools.” This led Lanier to write his first book, a quirky manifesto on the Internet and digital technologies. Lanier realizes that those who, like himself, create computer technologies are doing more than merely producing “cool stuff.” He fittingly observes that “technologies are extensions of ourselves and…our identities can be shifted by the quirks of gadgets. It is impossible to work with information technology without also engaging in social engineering” (p. 4).
Lanier’s main apprehension is with those who nearly deify the Internet by claiming that, given enough technological advancement, it will develop into a kind of global, mystical identity called “the noosphere.” (Lanier does not mention this, but this term is taken from Teilhard de Chardin to refer to a future state of human evolution.) Some, such as Kevin Kelly, think that this computer-generated reality—also called the “hive mind”—will transcend the abilities of any one person and open up new vistas of possibility for identity, economics, and culture in general. Lanier laments, however, that advocates of the hive mind threaten to leave the individual human person behind. The first section of Lanier’s book is thus titled, “What Is a Person?”
Oddly enough, Lanier does not claim to know the answer to this question. He writes, “‘What is a person?’ If I knew the answer to that, I might be able to program an artificial person in a computer. But I can’t. Being a person is not a pat formula, but a quest, a mystery, a leap of faith” (5). Lanier resists the idea that humans will someday become appendages to technology, since he respects human individuality and creativity. Yet he has no coherent worldview in which to place human personhood—beyond taking “a leap of faith.” Lanier’s faith has nothing to do with Christianity (which does not require an irrational leap of any kind) or any other world religion. He rejects both the intelligent design of the world (178) and the Bible as a source of divine revelation (46–47).
Christianity affirms that human beings are made in God’s image and likeness (Gen. 1:26) and therefore are not reducible to mechanical parts; nor are they subsumable under any nonpersonal category of being. A human being is not just another machine or gadget. We are, rather, finite sub-creators under an infinite-personal Creator, who have been assigned to cultivate and develop the world for the glory of God and for human flourishing. We are both material (made from dust) and spiritual (having received the breath of life) (see Gen. 2:7). This means that we possess a material substance (the body) and a spiritual substance (the soul), and one is not reducible to the other. King David proclaims that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Ps. 139:14). Moreover, the Bible offers a way of life that values human beings and encourages them to live for the glory of God and to further His Kingdom (1 Cor. 10:31; Matt. 6:33).
Without this biblical foundation, Lanier’s worldview founders. He openly admits his double-mindedness about human persons. He cannot find “one single philosophy” for life. When he is considering the human brain (neuroscience), he takes humans to be mere mechanisms without immaterial souls. But as a “technologist,” Lanier takes “a mystical view of human beings,” acknowledging that his “first priority must be to avoid reducing people to mere devices. The best way to do that is to believe that the gadgets I can provide are inert tools and only useful because people have the magical ability to communicate meaning through them” (154). He admits, “I am contradicting myself here” (154). Of course, contradictions cannot be true. We cannot possibly be mere machines and magic makers at the same time and in the same respect. But biblically, we realize that while neuroscience tells us much about our brains, it can never penetrate to our souls, which are every bit as real as our brains, and can exist apart from the body (2 Cor. 5:1–10).
Lanier is not a gadget, but he does not know what he is. Given his ignorance, his assessment and advice about the digital world lack a sure foundation in knowable truth.
Douglas Groothuis is professor of philosophy at Denver Seminary.