Silicon Valley’s Philosopher-King Jaron Lanier Envisions a Brave, New World Without Social Media
Note: an edited version of this story from an early draft was published over at Playboy on July 26th, 2018. Here is the full version of that story.
The moans and groans that instantly attach themselves to any utterance of the phrase “social media” were maybe mildly counter-cultural and provocative twenty minutes ago, but somehow already feel banal, tired and useless. Passing by a new book on the shelf titled 10 Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, you can almost hear the silent chorus of our hushed involuntary reflexes; gnashing teeth, rolling eyes and swallowed sighs singing in concert. How many nights have we sat on that hillside, talked too loud too late in the kitchen, stepped over the writing stenciled on the sidewalk, or half-read study after study only to confirm what we already know about this itching curse? How many notes have we finger-painted to our future selves onto the glass surface of that cartoon legal pad? Notes that are instantly synced to servers across the globe in the name of permanence, but that we can barely bring ourselves to read in the morning. It appears we’ve got a problem, and like most irritants connected directly to the nervous system, we struggle to get behind it just as automatically as we crawl back, circle it to exhaustion, collapse, cozy up, and hit it all over again. Give us 15 seconds alone and there we are: texting the void. Like a news headline in the feed that you “like” without the energy to read the article, you agree in advance with the cover of this thin handsome book and make for the exit. On the subject of social media after all, you’re a war-torn expert. Or are you?
One important thing you may have missed in passing is that the book in question was written by Jaron Lanier, one of the architects of digital media as we know it, and how we will come to know it still. Jaron was present to bear witness to the internet’s courtship, conception, birth, early childhood, and now it’s deeply troubled and volatile adolescence. Despite his fame as a pop-tech author (best known perhaps for 2010’s You Are Not a Gadget and his TED Talk appearances), Jaron has a way of being, well, right about these kinds of things. Considered by most as the father of Virtual Reality which he largely helped create in the early 80s, Lanier has been in Silicon Valley since the glory days and has consulted for just about every company to take root there. He is the eyes on the ground in digital space, a devout humanist working high up in the scaffolding of the non-terrestrial world that we find ourselves groping to navigate as it’s welded to the one we wake up in. Jaron Lanier is a computer scientist, entrepreneur, and maybe one of the only philosophers in the classical sense you can find working outside of academia.
It turns out that Silicon Valley, Jaron explains over the phone from his office deep in the employ at Microsoft, like most people doesn’t seem to have much objection to his book either. 10 Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now is at least a universal hit in the high fives and head nods department, and such widespread agreement about the existence of some big problem — if it’s really as bad as Jaron claims it is — shouldn’t be surprising since on this particular issue we’re all in the same boat. Us and them, tech titans and ordinary users alike, the problem Jaron aims to illuminate and eradicate is truly societal in scope. Jaron offers Mother’s Against Drunk Driving, cigarette smoking, and gambling as three precedents for how we have addressed past issues that were eventually acknowledged as socially harmful. But in the case of social media he explains, “we have an addiction process that’s most similar to gambling but it’s coupled to an essential function of how people connect to each other.” If you’re old enough to remember how quickly online casinos came into being even on Web 1.0, the progression to simlar socially motivated game structures can be seen as a part of the same progression—substituting social pressure and media in place of money was par for the course.“Occasionally, pioneers of the gambling world complain about how social media companies ripped off their ideas and made more money,” Lanier explains, but what these pioneers had really developed was something considerably more signifigant than blackjack in 256 colors, they began carrying over an interesting “online exploitation of an intersection of math and the human brain,” methodologies largely borrowed from behaviorism and marked up in crude HTML to rig user feedback for maximum “engagement”. It’s easy enough now to find YouTube clips of former Facebook executives, for example, talking about designing their software right down to the level of neurotransmission using the same knowledge imported from the fields statistics and psychology. Everybody knows that social media is similarly optimized to cleverly delve and deprive us of the bits and hits of social feedback—holding our experience at just the right level of unpredictable to keep us engaged—but only a minority today see this as a design intended to nurture addiction in the clinical sense. “The thing that’s different this time is that in the past even if there were a lot of people addicted — maybe even if most people in the case of cigarettes — there was at least some reservoir of who those weren’t, so it was possible to have a point of comparison and to have a conversation that existed outside of the addiction.” Hearing Jaron’s boyishly upbeat voice now over the phone in freestyle after having poured over the highly structured arguments in a book where modest technicalities are often sweetened in an almost fun Berkeley hills panache, confirms to me on some deeper level just how deadly serious he is. “We have a number of existential threats all happening at the same time — WMDs, climate change, peak population, fresh water — I just don’t see how we survive all of those while we’re also making ourselves stupid with social media”. Lanier will go on to argue that social media distorts personal, social and scientific discourse so ruthlessly that we might not even have the luxury of hitting rock bottom. It was much easier to stomach his description of social media in the book as: “a global game that takes up the whole earth, with everyone pitted against everyone else and most of us always losing. Worst sport ever.”
We all have this gripping, first-hand understanding of the pull from our nostalgically nicknamed “phones”, and though many of us continue to brashly declare our immunity or dominance, the argument that social apps are addictive by design doesn’t generally stretch the imagination. But there is a second layer to Lanier’s new definition of social media that is crucial to understanding his urgent call for mass deletion. To make this point, Lanier backs up to revisit the history of the toxic arcade in our pockets, framing it largely as the unfortunate result of a series of good- intentioned missteps.
The libertarian ethos of young Silicon Valley where on a given day Jaron might have be found swimming in the glitch of the earliest VR waterfall, was largely the result of knowing the power they were dealing with. In particular, as Jaron recounts: “everyone knew that software would eventually become more important than law.” This collective hunch that code or those who wield it might eventually rule in some kind of totalitarian way seems to inch itself towards actuality more and more everyday now, but in foreseeing this far-out possibility, early developers more or less successfully argued that software should be free and open source, an idea that of course sounded great to consumers while at the same time tethering essentially all commerce from any network activity to advertising. This was the original sin of the internet. By 1992, as computers were just beginning to get properly networked and companies like Apple and Microsoft were gearing up to show off their proto-Siri AI assistants (Newton and Bob, respectively) Jaron was sketching out a kind of dystopian collision in a paper that was ultimately published in 1996 called Agents of Alienation. In this essay, Jaron argued that so-called “artificially intelligent” algorithms might wedge themselves in the middle of communication, ultimately manipulating and confusing society’s attention under the service of deeper, hidden commercial forces; a system that would surely be abused by bad actors. Please don’t let this early premonition pile onto the much-hyped and fearsome brandname of AI as we find it today—it’s important to remember that AI lies squarely in ancient history on the timeline of our gilded Age of Information. As Lanier writes, “we forget that AI is a story we computer scientists made up to help us get funding once upon a time, back when we depended on grants from government agencies.” The problem of AI for Lanier wasn’t (and still isn’t) that computers might gain sentience, steal our jobs and enslave us — far from it. Instead, the threat as far as Jaron sees it is pretty mundane: padding a program with layers of self-optimizing automation not only leads to strange and sloppy results, it simply delegates far too much faith and power to the stark process of computation. In a memorable passage from 10 Arguments, Lanier goes on to point out that implementing these kinds of statistically-driven, auto-piloting “AI” code doesn’t so much lead us to doomsday Hollywood sci-fi pyrotechnics as it does to a proliferation of lazy engineering: “Making a supposed AI program that customizes a feed is less work than creating a great user interface that allows users to probe and improve what they see on their own terms[.]”
There are hundreds of variations of the catchphrase “if you’re not paying for it, you are the product.” This notion is at least as old or older than television. It left vivid trails in Marshall McLuhan’s eccentric and wildly popular musings on “the electric media” in the mid-60s and it even finds an obscure invocation in a video piece by sculptor Richard Serra, Television Delivers People in 1973. High-frequency electronic advertising isn’t new, nor at this point is our wariness in the face of it. But one of the more difficult cruxes of Jaron’s thesis lies in his strict position that what we presently call advertising on social media should categorically be considered no such thing. An ad on social media is taxonomically different, Lanier argues, since the medium draws an unbroken haptic loop between the user and advertiser: iterations of detailed monitoring and analysis are followed by increasingly personalized messaging. As much as television may have wished it could know just about everything about us, or maybe tap us on the shoulder at the supermarket, TV and print ads could only fight for our attention in a fleeting moment determined by broad strokes. Lanier believes the ability for direct manipulation that is approaching the individual level now on social media more closely approximates a kind of behavioral experiment. This sounds a bit tin-foil hat crazy until you stop to look in your pocket and, well, there it is: complete with electrical stimulation, unpredictable and often opaque prompts that continuously tease out a reaction, and — crucially for Lanier — some real customer who measures results behind a one-way mirror. These “free” user-data based business models where human activity gets conjoined to casino-like software are what Lanier playfully terms: B.U.M.M.E.R. (Behavior of Users Modified and Made into an Empire for Rent).
Most people will report that the ads they see on social media are mostly benign or overtly tailored, and perhaps most at this point are , but we can at least now begin to see the equipment under the hood. Cambridge Analytica though usually thought of primarily as a privacy scandal, was an obvious and loud example where the B.U.M.M.E.R. feedback loop can be seen making a full roundtrip. Of the some 87 millions American Facebook users whose profile data was breached and then graphed out along psychological axes, we can be sure the end result of this mining process was the dispatch of some “ad” — some media selected from a suite of micro-targeted messages that was surely long since forgotten by anyone who ever had the pleasure of seeing one. Using the thousands of points of data already available about a person on platforms like Facebook, Cambridge Analytica and it’s parent company SCL Group has offered it’s services in over 200 elections in countries across the globe and has given numerous demonstrations to militaries flaunting its effectiveness in mass psy-op deception. Though maybe an extreme case, and one that is partially the fault of an easily squashed permissions bug, Lanier holds that in an increasingly media- saturated world the private media realities engendered by these ongoing automatic ad loops amount to nothing less than an “epochal development”. That we may all be seeing vey different things with little to no overlap carries in tow some profound implications for foundational ideas of empathy, truth, free will and, of course, politics. Plato’s cave updated for the 21st Century. “B.U.M.M.E.R. is neither liberal nor conservative; it is just pro-paranoia, pro- irritability, and pro-general assholeness.” These systems and the masses of data volunteered through them cannot be parented, easily regulated or managed and the consequences quickly escalate from political bubbles to profiling and self- radicalization. As Lanier writes, “What news you see, whom you’re introduced to as a potential date, what products you are offered […] what loans you can get, what countries you can visit, whether you get a job, what education you receive, the outcome of your auto-insurance claim, and your freedom to congregate with others” have all already been documented cases and will only become more likely to be determined by social media platforms. To catch the elusive B.U.M.M.E.R. in action, Lanier convincingly recounts a few real economic and political events where these systems have wreaked havoc through the mechanical escalation of outrage. In what must be some of the most heartbreaking passages in tech literature history, he goes down the list: Arab Spring, LGBTQ rights, the 2016 US presidential election, Black Lives Matter, Parkland High — in each case, “B.U.M.M.E.R. was right there, as it always is, probing for ways to damage society.” When you mix our given nature as social animals with a nearly unbreakable inborn bias for negative events with the calculus and commercial motives of the B.U.M.M.E.R. machine, the chalkboard in Lanier’s classroom quickly beholds what seems to display as a mathematical proof that in these spaces societal discourse can and will only trend downward. If this all begins to sound a bit like a cyberpunk fantasy, bear in mind Jaron is best taken with a dash of the future. Or just give the system another twenty minutes to boot up.
Revisiting the brief history of the Internet, Lanier helps exhume a simple reminder: it could all be otherwise. The long forgotten meaning of “soft” in “software” was a reference to it’s malleability, modality, and continuous evolution. That social networking services have hardened so quickly into inescapable B.U.M.M.E.R. “apps” is really an arbitrary result, but it is still one that is fragile and undoable with a single keystroke. “Delete” is one of the few fully meaningful verbs on the computer keyboard (sitting just opposite its baby sister “Escape”), to executes a real and final gesture, it’s the closest thing to a kind of digital mortality. Delete doesn’t exist in the real world, but in the world of code it constitutes one of the most primitive creative acts possible after the genesis of a program’s first print out: “hello world”. Jaron’s titular call for mass account destruction — no less right now — sounds extreme to most, but from the refreshing point of view of a computer scientist, he offers the healthy reminder that there’s no reason why it coulnd’t feel perfectly natural. Hearing the way Jaron makes his seemingly bold suggestion when he speaks is a lot more telling; any trace of his italicized alarmism is quickly drained, he speaks calmly as though it was just another of the thousands of edits each of us make in a day. If you buy into Jaron’s assessment that much of what plagues social networks is the structure and design of the medium itself, you therefore locate much of the problem at a computational root — why resist the simple desire to edit? Social networks will come and go. And that we are now all journaling, sharing, and getting into ever-ascending debates over -Isms is, at least in theory, a goddamn beautiful thing. But if all leisurely activity becomes (or has become) computational in nature, it might benefit us to learn to think and act a little more like a programmer. Social networks, don’t need to force us into civil and economic arrangements that compromise the dignity and value of everything we produce. They don’t need to expose everyone to the fallout of algorithmically manufactured discourse. And in the case of our personal data, social networks don’t need to compromise what may in fact be the closest thing we can even successfully indicate as our Self.
During the end of our talk, Jaron leaves off with a somewhat unexpected remark about economics: “one of the reasons we engage in commerce is to reduce the level of judgment we need to have of each other; if somebody else wants to buy something I don’t have to judge them and that’s an important emotional payoff from markets.” Monetization isn’t just an existential problem for corporations running social platforms, it’s also a big problem for the users who produce all of their value but can only return attention or exhaustion from great investments of time and energy. As he puts it in 10 Arguments: “I won’t have an account on Facebook, Google, or Twitter until I can pay for it — and unambiguously own and set the price for using my data” adding, “I might have to wait a while, but it’ll be worth it.”
10 Arguments brings a clear target under crosshairs where before we found only a fishy feeling. Beyond just listing ten reasons to leave this or that platform, the book demonstrates a deeply compelling indictment of media technology while encouraging creativity and playful innovation in the face of overwhelmingly stale and injurious monopolies. Though it’s clear to most that social media is a bad deal, our conflicted dissonance is still quick to rear its head: has there ever been a perfect place for artists or activists to express themselves? Has there ever been a completely fair and reciprocating context for new voices and ideas to be aired? Delete or not, Lanier’s book provides a humanistic and confrontational reading of the digital tools we’ve inherited. 10 Arguments will serve as a much needed example toward empowerment and literacy in new media.