The Internet at a Crossroads: An Insider Contrarian's View

I just finished You Are Not A Gadget:  A Manifesto, by Jaron Lanier.  I had never heard of him, but he is described on the back dust-jacket flap as "the father of virtual reality", having actually coined the term.  He was once a roommate of Richard Stallman, the apostle of the Free Software movement.

Lanier thinks it is time to reassess the Internet, measuring it against what his community had hoped it might be.  He scrutinizes a number of fashionable ideas:  Open Source, Web 2.0, Wikipedia, the Singularity and related theories, and finds them wanting.  All of them, he believes, are the products of a "cybernetic totalism" that devalues human dignity in the service of the collective "hive" of the Cloud.  Against this, he offers a Humanistic vision that protects and rewards the creativity of individual persons.

Librarians heard a lot about Web 2.0 back in the early to mid-'00's.  We must get on board with social networking, create MySpace and Facebook pages for our libraries, open ourselves to instant messages and text messages, populate virtual reference chat rooms.  We must "go where the users are", and become "Library 2.0".

I think that this was a worthwhile impulse.  There was a lot of buzz about Web 2.0, and libraries ought to have taken it seriously.  How has it panned out?  I have been doing chat reference for six years, as part of Florida's collaborative, state-wide Ask-a-Librarian project.  It is generous to estimate that a quarter of the chat inquiries we receive are appropriate for collaborative chat reference.  The remainder are noise from bored schoolchildren, or would be better placed as e-mail or phone calls to local reference desks.  Aren't phone calls "virtual reference"?

As a manifesto, Lanier's book is pretty gentle.  He is not "anti-Internet", he just wants us to think about the consequences of the choices that are being offered.  It is only about 200 pages, so take a look at it.

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