I Am Not a Gadget. [UPDATED]

February 18, 2011 at 8:20 am (By Amba)

Jet lag proves it.

Awake against my will at 5:30 a.m., I didn’t plunge into the search for tax documents that is my most pressing obligation, because this wasn’t real time, this was jet-lag time — time out from sleep but also, given the wooziness, from productivity.  So I started reading Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget.  Tim, formerly “Theo Boehm,” read this book if you haven’t yet — you will find yourself consoled and vindicated.  If you don’t want to buy it, I’ll send you mine when I’m through.

I was intrigued from the get-go, but Lanier really had me on page 27, when he nailed the most annoying characteristic of Microsoft Word, a program with a stupid, wayward arrogance that I always attribute to and blame on the personality of its creator:

If you believe the distinction between the roles of people and computers is starting to dissolve, you might express that — as some friends of mine at Microsoft once did — by designing features for a word processor that are supposed to know what you want, such as when you want to start an outline within your document.  You might have had the experience of having Microsoft Word suddenly determine, at the wrong moment, that you are creating an indented outline. [Yes, yes, oh yes!  This is when I yell, “I HATE BILL GATES!”] While I am all for the automation of petty tasks, this is different.

From my point of view, this type of design feature is nonsense, since you end up having to work more than you would otherwise in order to manipulate the software’s expectations of you.  The real function of the feature isn’t to make life easier for people.  Instead, it promotes a new philosophy:  that the computer is evolving into a life-form that can understand people better than people can understand themselves.

Exactly.  One of Lanier’s many insights is that this information-worship is for all practical purposes a religion, offering its own hope of immortality (the “Singularity,” when human consciousnesses will be uploaded into a machine).  His response to the “digital Maoist” slogan “Information wants to be free” (even at the price of enslaving people) is, “Information doesn’t deserve to be free . . . Information is alienated experience. . . . Experience is the only process that can de-alienate information.  Information of the kind that purportedly wants to be free is nothing but a shadow of our own minds, and wants nothing on its own.  It will not suffer if it doesn’t get what it wants.”

On pages 29–31, Lanier has a little elegy to on Alan Turing that is breathtaking and heartbreaking, “The Apple Falls Again.”

And here’s a bit of provocation for you:  “Wikipedia . . . works on what I call the Oracle illusion, in which knowledge of the human authorship of a text is suppressed in order to give the text superhuman validity.  Traditional holy books work in precisely the same way and present many of the same problems.”

Read this book, so we can talk about it!

UPDATE: I’m in the middle of the book now and finding some things to criticize about it.  For one thing, though Lanier has some libertarian leanings, he is basically a liberal who puts the lion’s share of the blame on the Bush years for America’s current troubles.  For another, he is (like most prophets) a better diagnostician than prescriber; some of his ideas for how to fix the free-content problem (which is pauperizing journalists, musicians and the like) are pretty lame.  Can you imagine paying, even pennies, every time you read your favorite blogs?  How would you find new ones?  Would your intellectual curiosity be constrained by budgetary considerations?

Granted, no one has come up with good solutions to these problems.


  1. realpc said,

    I didn’t read it but so far I absolutely agree. I hate software that tries or pretends to be intelligent. Software can be extremely useful but it can’t be intelligent, and the pretense is utterly annoying and time wasting. Did you ever have a conversation with one of those “friendly” “helpful” automated phone answering systems?

    Computers can’t ever become “intelligent” and they can’t ever pass the Turing Test (convince people that they are actually human).

    The Singularity is just another crazy cult.

  2. mockturtle said,

    As I am not a writer, I cannot express it well but it seems that life is being redefined by technology. Not just changed, reoriented or enhanced but redefined. What can’t be reduced to digital input no longer exists. Sad.

  3. amba12 said,

    You would like this book. It would come as a relief to you because it would verify that you’re most definitely not imagining that. — and also that the process in its present form is not inevitable.

  4. Maxwell James said,

    Sounds great! As a frequent “Jeopardy!” viewer I was annoyed by all the fawning over “Watson” this week – a machine that won the competition because it was built to beat the human players to the buzzer. I read Ray Kurzweil’s op-ed the next day and it was predictably moronic.

  5. amba12 said,

    It’s a cybernetic cargo cult, is all.

  6. realpc said,

    I just read an article about Watson. It was able to understand the clues and respond faster than the human contestants, and it won. Does that mean it’s smarter than humans? It used some sophisticated tricks to figure out the important parts of the clues, without actually understanding. And it does not have an ability to reason.

    Computers have always been impressive at certain tasks and have out-performed humans in certain ways. From the beginning, people have expected computers to surpass human intelligence within a short time. However, they have not.

    I don’t consider anything computers do to be intelligent, and I think the concept is misused. Watson follows a set of rules to parse the clues and retrieve the information. The set of rules is enormous and complex — however, they are rules written by humans and mindlessly followed by Watson.

    When a human contestant plays Jeopardy, are they proving their intelligence? Maybe in a way, but we don’t usually consider an ability to remember trivia the main sign of intelligence. We also expect people to reason and make inferences, to grasp concepts, and to have a sense of humor. Watson has none of that.

    It is true that parsing natural language is a hard job for a computer, and it is true that Watson must be good at it. However I think it’s more brute force and massive processing power than actual language ability.

  7. mockturtle said,

    I’ve always wondered why the ability to regurgitate information is confused with intelligence.

  8. david said,

    Taking a class now, through the U. Chicago Political Science department, on “Secularism and its Discontents.” Authors like Marcel Gauchet and even Jurgen Habermas are acknowledging that a) secularism is in giving way to something post-secular, and that b) we create religions or adopt religious outlooks, impose religious frames on our experience, all the time. Even against our will.

    So, yes, the worship of information technology is in many cases just that.

  9. A said,

    That sounds like an extremely interesting class….

  10. wj said,

    Actually, what was significant about Watson, from a technology perspective, was its ability to parse natural language in order to figure out what the question was. As such, the software actaully has a lot of potential applications. (Unlike the Deep Blue chess playing system, which didn’t have much immediate application elsewhere.)

    Dvid, what is interesting to me is that the people who worship technology are almost never those with the most knowledge of it. If you spend your days wrestling with something, you rapidly lose any illusions about how wonderful it is. You may love your work, and you may appreciate what the technology does — but you don’t worship it. Too much understanding of something is detrimental to the religious mindset.

  11. realpc said,

    “what is interesting to me is that the people who worship technology are almost never those with the most knowledge of it. If you spend your days wrestling with something, you rapidly lose any illusions about how wonderful it is. You may love your work, and you may appreciate what the technology does — but you don’t worship it. ”

    That might be true sometimes, but Kurzweil is a computer genius, as far as I know, and he is the most prominent technology worshiper.

    “what was significant about Watson, from a technology perspective, was its ability to parse natural language in order to figure out what the question was”

    It does seem like maybe it is an unusually successful natural language processor. Or maybe not. Maybe it’s just vastly more powerful than previous attempts. It can plow through incredible masses of information using some clever tricks. But according to the one article I read, it is actually as dim-witted as any other software.

    When computers beat humans, it is usually something where fast and stupid beats smart and slow. I read somewhere that the real reason we are slower than computers is because we are so much smarter. The computer can whiz along because what it does is mindless repetition.

    A computer program is a list of instructions, like a recipe, that the computer will mindlessly follow. The power of the computer is its speed. ALL of its logic, ALL of its intelligence is really the logic and intelligence of its programmers. Even a simple little program actually depends on many levels of software.

    When I write a program, it is “high level,” meaning far from anything the machine can actually understand (all the machine understands is two words, “high” and “low”). My program rests on many successively lower levels.. Lots of programmers, over decades, have written them.

    The computer’s logic is in its hardware and the levels of software, and all of that was specified in detail by human beings. The idea of making the computer do a certain thing in the first place came from human beings. Later ideas build on earlier ideas.

    NONE of the ideas come from a machine. A computing machine is no more intelligent than your washing machine.

    So why does Kurzweil, a computer genius who knows all about how they work, believe they are, or will be, truly intelligent? Ever since the beginning of computer science, people have believed that. It is assumed in science fiction.

    I guess its easy to confuse what a computer does with actual thinking. All of our thinking and communicating, after all, is based on logic and memory, just like a computer.

    The real difference, it seems to me, is that at every instant our thinking is motivated and directed by our consciousness. We don’t know how it works, we are just users of our brains.

    A computer does not motivate or direct anything. It is a mechanism. Materialist philosophy says that we, and the other animals, are also mechanisms. It denies the importance of the motivating guiding forces.

    It’s the same thing in evolution theory — materialists deny any motivating guiding forces.

  12. Icepick said,

    Unlike the Deep Blue chess playing system, which didn’t have much immediate application elsewhere.

    Not entirely true. The Deep Blue architecture ended up doing some really impressive hurricane (and other weather) forecasting. The massive parallel computing arrangement had and has other applications outside of chess.

    Sidenotes: The Jeopardy promos for the Watson match featured Deep Blue’s accomplishments. Of course, they set the board up incorrectly, with a black square in the players’ right hand corners.

    Also, in the promos aired as part of the show, they featured a game in which Kasparov essentially resigned a drawn position. Deep Blue didn’t win that match because of superior chess ability, but because it (or rather its team) got into Kasparov’s head and had him convinced that they were cheating. Kasparov pretty much maintains that IBM was cheating to this day. And besides resigning in a drawn position, he also completely melted down in the last game, playing a very poor move that he himself had demonstrated was bad in prior analysis.

    At this point one can’t contest that computers outplay humans at chess – they do not make tactical mistakes, and they don’t get tired, and any human eventually will make tactical mistakes as they will eventually tire. But the final Deep Blue match was more interesting because of the result than the chess.

  13. Ron said,

    I’ve been fighting these fights for over 30 years and lost interest about 25 ago…

  14. realpc said,

    “computers outplay humans at chess”

    That’s like saying bicycles outperform humans at racing, or submarines outperform humans at swimming.

  15. Rod said,

    Computers can simulate human thought. Some robots are designed to simulate human action. A credible simulation requires extensive processor power and intricate software. Something as simple as the way we walk is still very hard to mimic mechanically, yet we seamlessly move one foot ahead of the other and allow our body to fall forward lust enough to maintain momentum, moving multiple muscles, while talking on a cell phone. And, we step over an object in our path and adjust our step without effort.

    Likewise, we understand the nuance of language and tone and gestures in our culture. Getting a computer to select among the multiple meanings of words and sift though the allusions in Jeopardy clues was an impressive task, and the next generation of computers will do it even faster and make the right choices more often.

    I think that means a computer will be created that will pass the Turing Test, but will that computer be “thinking?” Will it be “conscious?” I doubt it. Computers will not rebel and take over the world unless we give them authority, and only a very disturbed person would do so.

  16. realpc said,

    “I think that means a computer will be created that will pass the Turing Test”

    No, it doesn’t mean that. Intelligence is more than having lots of processing power and following complex rules. Intelligence is having the creativity and motivation to decide what you want to accomplish, and come up with the rules for the machine to follow. Computers will always follow rules they are given, and they will never initiate anything. They are amplifiers of certain aspects of our intelligence.

    It will always be easy to figure out if you are talking to a person or a machine. Watson used some clever tricks to process the clues, it did not understand. It was able to transform the clues into database queries with sophisticated guess-work, not understanding. And all those clever tricks came from the minds of the programmers, not the machine.

    The idea that AI is possible is part of the materialist mythology. It is accepted on faith, not evidence. There is no evidence whatsoever that a machine will pass the Turing test.

  17. louisemowder said,

    “One of Lanier’s many insights is that this information-worship is for all practical purposes a religion, offering its own hope of immortality (the “Singularity,” when human consciousnesses will be uploaded into a machine). ”

    While I’ve heard and read of the “Singularity” in science fiction and a few fanzine blogs, I’ve never actually run across *anyone*who actually believes that human consciousness would ever be uploaded into a machine.

    Nor have I ever encountered anyone, anywhere, who worshiped technology, or venerated information-management as a religion (Lanier must travel in some vastly different spheres than I, or a large majority of the people in the world, do.)

    There is a deeply compelling, mystical and truth-revealing quality to sensory events. The power of deep pleasure or pain to force you to re-evaluate your intellectual or abstract decisions can’t be ignored by anyone who has actually experienced his or her body in one of these ways.

    I don’t believe that anyone who has actually made contact with the forces that bodily sensations create can ever truly worship information technology, or mere information, alone. Is this what Lanier is referring to, when he says, “Experience is the only process that can de-alienate information.”? Somehow, I doubt it..

  18. Rod said,

    Real, I think you misread what I was saying. As I understand the Turing Test, it posits that a computer will be intelligent life when it can give responses such that someone corresponding with it would not be able to tell that she was communicating with a computer. I think a machine will be created that can give such responses, but I don’t think it will be a thinking, conscious being. That is why I said,

    “but will that computer be “thinking?” Will it be “conscious?” I doubt it. ”

    Perhaps I should have put the word “pass” in quotation marks? In other words, I don’t think the Turing Test is a valid test of intelligent life.

  19. mockturtle said,

    Thanks for the update, Annie! I think I’ll skip it. Anyway, I’m happily immersed in Dostoevsky right now. :-)

  20. realpc said,

    “I think a machine will be created that can give such responses, but I don’t think it will be a thinking, conscious being. That is why I said,”

    “I don’t think the Turing Test is a valid test of intelligent life.”

    I think it would be a pretty good test. There have been computer programs that fooled people for a while, but nothing ever comes close to really passing the test, and i can’t imagine anything ever will. We will always be able to tell we are talking to a machine, because everything it says must be in some way predictable. Everything it ways will be “canned.”

    I don’t know where our consciousness and intelligence come from, I am just sure they are not manufactured somehow in our brains. The brain is part of the body, and the body is a machine used by the mind to interact with this physical world.

  21. Icepick said,

    That’s like saying bicycles outperform humans at racing, or submarines outperform humans at swimming.

    Well, I have yet to see a bicycle run by itself. I also have yet to see a submarine do the backstroke. I have seen computers play pretty mean games of chess. Wait, let me check….

    I have to date played 7605 games against the BulletB program on the Internet Chess Club. I’m currently +950. Disappointing, but those are 1 1 games, and I’m just not that good with a mouse, so my current ratio is probably about as good as I can hope for long term.

    Based on my experience of playing a few thousands of games against people live, and another several thousand against people over the internet (still looking for a day where I can play against people on all seven continents in one day – personal best is five continents in one day) I think I can be a reasonable judge of whether or not a computer can or has played chess.

    And the judge SEZ – Computers can and do play chess.

    As for the Turing Test – too few human beings can pass it

  22. Icepick said,

    A further elaboration, lest I be accused of merely jabbing again.

    Machines have been built that do most PHYSICAL feets better than humans. (I believe John Henry got his ass whupped long ago.) Autonomous machines (robots) started getting used in manufacturing decades ago. And adding machines have been faster than (most) humans for a long time now.

    But what happened over the last few decades with chess playing computers was a different matter altogether. Chess was chosen for a reason – namely that it was a very difficult game that didn’t come down to a simple formula. (Unlike, say, tic tac toe.) The variety of different pieces also separated the game in complexity from checkers. (Checkers HAS been largely beaten by the computers. Only Marion Tinsley could match them.) Chess requires memory (a specialty of computers), calculation (another specialty of the silicon monsters), pattern recognition (not a strength – or at least it wasn’t a few decades ago), and positional judgement.

    That last was somewhat mysterious – the good chess players knew better than the poor ones when a position had something in it. The very good players had a better sense than the good ones. The very best were better still, and the true greats leave everyone baffled. But it’s hard to define what the “it” is. It was more than just pattern recognition, although that was part of it.

    I remember an anecdote about Bobby Fischer. He was playing in some open tournament somewhere in his youth. He walked by the board of an aquantence, looked at the position for maybe five seconds, and wandered off. Years latter he ran into the man again and asked him, “Did you win that game against so-and-so?” THe man replied that he hadn’t won, so Fishcer quickly explained to the man what he should have done to win the game. A mere glance at a complex position was enough for Fischer to judge the position accurately and formulate the winning plan. FIVE SECONDS. Such powers mystify us regular players.

    Then there was the story of Capablanca explaining an endgame to some other masters. He stopped by an analysis session and started explaining the position to them, one they had been working on for some time at that point. He said something along the lines of “this piece should be here, and that one there, and then White wins easily.” They asked for variations and he replied that he didn’t need them – once he knew where everything went the rest was elementary. I’ve heard similar stories about (amongst others) Bisguier (an under-rated American GM), Kasparov, Tal, and especially Karpov. Even Kasparov (the greatest chess player ever – human player anyway) seems in awe of Karpov’s ability to just know where the pieces belong.

    So this positional judgement thing was a great challenge. It was a perfect problem for the programmers.

    In the early years they hoped to mimic a human approach to the game. Tht was the great hope of early pioneers, including Mikhail Botvinnik, the greatest of the Soviet players (and their longest tenured world champion). Botvinnik also happened to be an engineering whiz, and he hoped to construct a machine to mimic the human mind’s functions. He failed miserably.

    Early on the programmers realized that the strongest element of a computer’s ability was the calculation aspect. So they put more and more effort into algorythms to evaluate positions along strictly mecanistic means, and to calculate as many positions as possible. No gestalt in this approach, nothing “holistic”. This approach bore fruit.

    And it was ultimately this approach that led to the creation of programs that could best all but the strongest humans. And as it stands today, the humans really can’t hope to win a match save by glitch in the machine. They might tie (the match, not any individual game, which they still win on occasion) with best play, but that’s all they can really hope for. In about five years I doubt they will have any hope at all of even winning a single game off the best programs. It’s changed that much.

    In addition, these programs have shown people new ways to play the game. Their calculatuing abilities have revealed any number of flaws in old approaches to specific positions. About ten years back they even started occasionally started showing new strategies and positional motifs in certains positions. (I remember a game with a Re3 lift that kind of blew everyone’s mind – computer programs weren’t supposed to DO that.) But it wasn’t understanding, it was more and more calculations.

    These days the best of the younger grandmasters show unmistakable computer influence on their style of play – not just in the opening preparation but throughout the game. (I thinking most notably of Magnus Carlsen’s relentlessness and Hikaru Nakamura’s tactical wizardry.) The computer programs have changed the game. (The oldtimers generally don’t seem to like it – they believe it has removed much artistry. I don’t entirely agree, as their is much bueaty in the new stuff as well. Times change.)

    But the sad upshot of all of this has been that computers don’t think like people when playing chess. The more … call it … holistic approach never worked. Botvinnik would have been disappointed, as is his latter successor Kasparov. The big loss isn’t for chess, it’s for understanding how human thought works, and determining if it can be duplicated. Chess just didn’t hold the answer.

    OTOH, we have observed two things in the meantime. First, that computers CAN solve extremely complex problems through systematic refining of brute force algorythms. Second, that humans can learn to mimic that approach, within limitations. So some things have been learned.

    But there is still hope that the computer guys can do something different. The hope now rests on coming up with good Go programs, as that game turns out to be much more difficult for programmers to figure out. I’ve heard they hope to have some success with poker playing programs, but I expect that to be a bit less worthwhile. Poker can be reduced to mathematics fairly easily (for a computer at least), and some clever application of game theory ought to insure enoguh variability that I expect such a program to be better than pretty much all humans in the not distant future. (Assuming it hasn’t happened yet. I only follow that preipherally.)

    But the upshot has been this – the brute force “materialist” approach works. And I mean that both from a chess esthetics viewpoint (conputers, like Victor Korchnoi, are suckers for grabbing all the material they can get) and as a programming solution to complex problems.

  23. amba12 said,

    Wow. Can we turn that into a post in its own right? It deserves to be read and reread.
    In J’s honor? He used to be enthralled by chess. The only reason he didn’t play more was that he was afraid he’d get sucked in and never come out. He loved to watch brilliant play. He would be fascinated by this.

  24. realpc said,

    [the brute force “materialist” approach works]

    That statement doesn’t mean anything. There is no connection between brute force programs and materialism. A brute force program is not clever, which just reinforces my point that the cleverness is all in the programmers, not in the computer. The computer provides the mindless fast repetition, and the programmers provide the rules.

    How do you see all that as supporting materialism? I assume that you define materialism as the theory that the brain is some kind of computer that generates intelligence? Do you really believe the chess-playing computers are making up their own strategies?

  25. realpc said,

    “I have yet to see a bicycle run by itself.”

    That is my point. You have never seen a computer play chess without being programmed for it — in complete detail. You have to pedal a bicycle, drive a car, and you have to program a computer. It is as mindless a machine as any other.

    The materialist fallacy that the brain is a computer than generates intelligence led to the fallacy that computers can think. If a computer can think, then so can an adding machine or an abacus.

    Even computers that can supposedly learn are just following rules that determine how and what they can learn. But computers aren’t so good at learning anyway.

    Computers are extremely powerful and useful machines, but they do not and cannot make their own decisions.

    Of course, materialism says that we don’t make our own decisions either.

  26. realpc said,

  27. Icepick said,

    There is no connection between brute force programs and materialism.

    This, and related comments, prove that you’re no chess player. as any patzer rated over 1400 would know exactly what is meant.

  28. Icepick said,

    You have never seen a computer play chess without being programmed for it — in complete detail.

    I have yet to see a person play without being taught how the horsie moves, which color square should be in which corner, how castling works, or the bizarreness that is en passant capture. A machine is programmed precisely, a human less so.* But those machines sure as hell play the game, and well.

    And I bet you didn’t exactly create yourself. Somewhere your parents and other adults were involved, in your conception, gestation, birth, upbringing, etc. Complaining that a computer hasn’t created everything for itself is asking for the impossible, and also asking for something you couldn’t do for yourself.

    (The BulletB program I mentioned is one that has been “lobotomized” to play at around a certain strength at certain time limits. The Crafty program upon which it is based is a pretty solid free-ware program developed promarily by Dr. Robert Hyatt. Interestingly for me, the program’s origins date back to 1968, the same year as my birth. I’ve been lucky enough to play a few games (fewer than five, I think) where I have managed to draw a non-lobotomized version of Crafty. )

    * But the humans are catching up. THere’s a reason that we have so many people who’ve become grandmasters at 13 these days. Playing programs and especially databases have drastically altered the learning curve. The kids are getting programmed too these days. Or does that mean they don’t think either?

  29. Icepick said,

    Can we turn that into a post in its own right?

    Since you ask and mention J, yes. As for avoiding the games charms, that was a smart move. H. G. Wells’ description in this piece is wonderful. Here’s the best extract:

    The passion for playing chess is one of the most unaccountable in the world. It slaps the theory of natural selection in the face. It is the most absorbing of occupations, the least satisfying of desires, an aimless excrescence upon life. It annihilates a man. You have, let us say, a promising politician, a rising artist, that you wish to destroy. Dagger or bomb are archaic, clumsy, and unreliable–but teach him, inoculate him with chess!

    I must say, however, that the game does have some charms. The Dutch GM Hans Ree once said, “Chess is beautiful enough to waste your life for.” If you don’t understand that statement, if you don’t feel it in your soul, you aren’t really a chess player.

    About three years ago I started entering all my existing live game scores into a database. I forget what the total is, but it’s around 300 games, if memory serves. Those are just the live tournament games, plus some games from high school matches, and together they span 27 years now. Not a great big number, not by any stretch. I’d play every weekend, given the opportunity, but they haven’t always presented themselves. But I played regularly with a couple of die hards back in my Maryland days. One of them has played in over 655 EVENTS since late 1991, and the other has played in over 1273 EVENTS in the same period of time. They’re both lifetime Class B players at best. But they’re out playing every chance they can get. And that’s just the rated events they PAY to play in. I can find one of them online just about every day, looking for more action. I just checked a recent tournament they both played in, and I recognized every player in the tournament. Dedication, baby!

    So the short bit is that yes, it can dominate/ruin one’s life!

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