Stephen Baker

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Memo to Jaron Lanier: What about snow?

February 10, 2010General

New York from Montclair

See that slight clearing in the sky above Manhattan? When I woke up yesterday in Montclair (NJ), the sky was entirely blue. And by mid-afternoon, clouds had moved in from the south and the west, and nothing remained of the clear sky but that strip of blue to the east.

Last week I read Jaron Lanier's manifesto, You Are Not a Gadget. In it he argues that much of the technology we've been embracing, from MP3 music to Facebook, limits us to formats and menu options conceived by software architects, and that we risk losing much of the richness and diversity of the human experience. His book is worth a read, especially the first 50 pages or so.

But it got me to thinking about snow, and about the storm that was barreling down upon us yesterday. Several generations ago, I'm assuming, a least a few of my ancestors would have looked up at the blue morning sky and known that a storm was on its way. Maybe it was in the a wind, or a wisp of cloud on the southern horizon. Maybe it was in the feel of the air, or even the smell. Over the course of a million years, humans had developed not only the sensors to pick up changing weather, but also the mental app to process it and make appropriate decisions. (Batten the hatches! Milk the cows, stock the larder...)

We still have that app in our heads, but for most of us, it has atrophied. We rely on technology to show us the path of the coming storm. Are we poorer for that? Are we losing touch with our planet? I'd say yes. But this is the path we've been following for centuries. We started by building tools to ease the work on our muscles. Now we take elevators to offices (and then try to compensate, after work, with the Stairmaster). We've also been backing up the brain. Ever since the advent of books, we haven't had to remember what we once did. And calculators replaced many of the arithmetic apps in our heads.

Our communities and networks of friendships? The development of cars and suburbs changed those long before Facebook arrived.

This is not to say that Lanier doesn't make good points. The way we process information and relate to friends and colleagues is undergoing an important shift, and we should be awake to what we risk losing. My only point is that such dilemmas are not entirely new.

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