“This book argues in ten ways that what has become suddenly normal — pervasive surveillance and constant, subtle manipulation — is unethical, cruel, dangerous, and inhumane. Dangerous? Oh, yes, because who knows who’s going to use that power, and for what?” – Ten Arguments…. by Jaron Lanier
Inventor of virtual reality and Microsoft scientist Jaron Lanier, whom I’ve written about before (You Are Not a Gadget and Who Owns the Future?) encourages us to embrace the internet but warns that social media has become so toxic it is making us unhappy, degrading the social fabric, and threatening our democracy.
He suggests we delete our Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter accounts – not permanently, but long enough to break our addiction. When we’re ready, we can reconnect with social media in a wiser, more detached (less hysterical) way. We should be like cats, he says. When it comes to social media, the best attitude is: take it or leave it.
Specifically, Jaron Lanier would like to see young people who have never experienced life without social media make a complete break for six months. “Get to know yourself” without the constant distraction and manipulation of social media, Lanier said in a recent interview. “Then, come back and re-engage.”
As for the rest of us, Lanier hopes some of us will disengage so that we can bring a different, more objective perspective to the conversation about the good and ill effects of social media.
The onus isn’t just on us, though; Lanier has been saying ever more urgently that we need a business model different from the current one, in which a few tremendously powerful companies serve advertisers and not us. I don’t think that is going to happen anytime soon. Geniuses that they are, Mark Zuckerberg and others are in over their heads and maybe not even sufficiently concerned. (Read this chilling op-ed, “The Expensive Education of Mark Zuckerberg and Silicon Valley.”
Reviewers have cited Lanier’s first argument as perhaps his most important:
“Argument #1: You are losing your free will
WELCOME TO THE CAGE THAT GOES EVERYWHERE WITH YOU
Something entirely new is happening in the world. Just in the last five or ten years, nearly everyone started to carry a little device called a smartphone on their person all the time that’s suitable for algorithmic behavior modification. A lot of us are also using related devices called smart speakers on our kitchen counters or in our car dashboards. We’re being tracked and measured constantly, and receiving engineered feedback all the time. We’re being hypnotized little by little by technicians we can’t see, for purposes we don’t know. We’re all lab animals now.
Algorithms gorge on data about you, every second. What kinds of links do you click on? What videos do you watch all the way through? How quickly are you moving from one thing to the next? Where are you when you do these things? Who are you connecting with in person and online? What facial expressions do you make? How does your skin tone change in different situations? What were you doing just before you decided to buy something or not? Whether to vote or not?”
Here are two provocative examples of social media manipulation Lanier cites:
“A lot of potential Hillary voters were infused with a not-great feeling about Hillary, or about voting at all. Were you one of them? If so, please think back. Were you seeing any information customized for you before the election? Did you use Twitter or Facebook? Did you do a lot of online searches? You were had. You were tricked. Your best intentions were turned against you.”
“After a dramatic series of awful killings of unarmed black citizens by police in the United States, the initial reaction from sympathetic social media users was for the most part wise, stoic, and constructive. It must be said that we might not even have heard much about these killings, their prevalence, or their similarities without social media.
….But…..behind the scenes, a deeper, more influential power game was gearing up. The game that mattered most was out of sight, occurring in algorithmic machinery in huge hidden data centers around the world.
Black activists and sympathizers were carefully catalogued and studied. What wording got them excited? What annoyed them? What little things, stories, videos, anything, kept them glued to BUMMER*? What would snowflake-ify them enough to isolate them, bit by bit, from the rest of society? What made them shift to be more targetable by behavior modification messages over time? The purpose was not to repress the movement but to earn money. The process was automatic, routine, sterile, and ruthless.
A slice of latent white supremacists and racists who had previously not been well identified, connected, or empowered was blindly, mechanically discovered and cultivated, initially only for automatic, unknowing commercial gain…..racism became organized over BUMMER to a degree it had not been in generations.”
(*BUMMER is a cumbersome Lanier acronym, “Behaviors of Users Modified, and Made into an Empire for Rent.)
“Quitting social media is the most finely targeted way to resist the insanity of our times.” – Jaron Lanier
“I hope, dearly, that our times will be remembered as a momentary glitch in a previously smooth progression toward a more democratic world.
But for the moment we face a terrifying, sudden crisis….. the general thinking was that once a country went democratic, it not only stayed that way but would become ever more democratic, because its people would demand that.
Unfortunately, that stopped being true, and only recently. Something is drawing young people away from democracy.”
I subscribe to The Poynter Institute’s newsletter, and in it a recent public opinion survey was cited that seems to bear this out: a plurality of Republicans, and even some Democrats and Independents, think Trump should be given the power to shut down certain media outlets. Forty-eight percent of Republicans in the survey believe “the news media is the enemy of the American people.”
Whether or not we agree with Jaron Lanier, I think engaged citizens need to cultivate a new kind of literacy: an awareness of how social media works and how non-human algorithms are changing our beliefs, behavior, and culture.
And, by the way, Lanier believes the President of the United States is addicted to Twitter.
When I was on a recent hike in the remote foothills of the high desert, someone pointed out the Facebook data center below us – one of the hidden data centers Lanier speaks of in an excerpt above. It is massive, windowless, and heavily guarded.
In a recent interview, Lanier spoke about the challenges that have crept up on us in the digital age: “The solution is to double down on being human,” he said.
If you’re not up for reading Ten Arguments…., you can find excellent interviews with Lanier about his book online.
(When I review a book, I often thank the author for writing it, usually on Twitter. I can’t thank Lanier in this way because he has no social media accounts.)
How do you feel about social media? We have a great discussion going in the comments. Please tell us what you think.
Next: Love and Ruin, by Paula McLain, a novel about the war correspondent Martha Gellhorn, Ernest Hemingway’s third wife (one of those notorious “enemies of the American people”)