Facebook, Google and The Rapture
Jaron Lanier wants to be known for his music and his appreciation of cats (He likes to say he is one). But where he is best known, and most useful, is in his appreciation of the internet. In You Are Not A Gadget (2010), he created a manifesto to free us from the clutches of the corporations installing their systems in our daily lives. Now, things are much worse. Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now is a more specific and desperate appeal. The social media corporates have improved their models to be far more intrusive and behavior-modifying than anything we have ever seen outside of fiction. They no longer even bother to sugar-coat it. They make billions from personal data, even if it’s just clicks. Their customers use it to change user behavior. Because it works.
Lanier creates a new acronym, BUMMER, which stands for Behavior of Users Modified, and Made into an Empire for Rent. BUMMER reduces freedom, ends economic dignity and destroys souls. It is an inherently cruel con game, he says. “We have enshrined the belief that the only way to finance a connection between two people is through a third person who is paying to manipulate them.”
Memes feed the BUMMER machine, spreading negativity and reinforcing artificial intelligence’s (AI) ability to digest anything humans create. Facebook and the others of its ilk are becoming the new ransomware of the internet, he says. He gives the example of Facebook offering whole onsite teams to both the Trump and Clinton campaigns in 2016. (Only Trump accepted.) Facebook is a gatekeeper to brains, and/or an existential mafia. Lanier says it is like paying indulgences to the medieval Roman Catholic Church.
Every meme and trope sends the BUMMER AI machine creating new buckets to sort users, stereotype them, and sell the results to advertisers. It really doesn’t matter what users like or who they follow. Whatever they click adds to their demise as persons and adds to their value as targets.
This is strong stuff, and Lanier’s easy text draws readers into a very dark tale. The ten arguments in a nutshell:
1. You are losing your free will. If you don’t quit, “you are not creating the space in which Silicon Valley can act to improve itself”.
2. Quitting social media is the most finely targeted way to resist the insanity of our times. It’s more efficient at harming society than at improving it. Simply quitting can change the world.
3. Social media is making you into an asshole. Lanier says Donald Trump is a victim of his own addiction to twitter (37,400 tweets). For the most powerful politician in the world, his behavior is no better than a teenaged troll. He is not alone.
4. Social media is undermining truth. A twitter account called Blacktivist turns out to be owned and operated by the Russians. “They’re using our pain for their gain,” says Tawanda Jones, a real black activist. The twitter account @realJaronLanier isn’t. He has no account.
5. Social media is making what you say meaningless.
6. Social media is destroying your capacity for empathy.
7. Social media is making you unhappy.
8. Social media doesn’t want you to have economic dignity. This is the most jarring argument. Lanier says the free model everyone pushed for in the 80s and 90s gave rise to the ad model, and with it the ability to create uncountable millions of fake humans and their corresponding spam and troll activity.
9. Social media is making politics impossible. “There are so few independent news sites, and they’re precious … Our huge nation is only a few organizations away from having no independent newsrooms with resources and clout.“
10. Social media hates your soul. Facebook’s statement of purpose now says it is “assuring“ that “every single person has a sense of purpose and community” to which Lanier adds “because it presumes that was lacking before. If that is not a new religion, I don’t know what is.” Google has funded a project to “solve death”, to which Lanier adds “I’m surprised the religions of the world didn’t serve Google with a copyright infringement takedown notice.” Google’s Ray Kurzweil’s stated purpose is to upload everyone’s consciousness to Google’s servers. His “Singularity” is AI’s answer to The Rapture, Lanier says.
I don’t agree with everything Lanier writes. He spends a lot of time misapplying the solitary/pack switch. People act differently as solitary operators than they do in a pack (So do wolves, birds, and electrons). He narrows it to the point where he can apply it to social media: independent operators aren’t irrational trolls because they don’t follow pack rules and pack sheltering. In a pack, users can hide and be as obnoxious as they want, because nearly everyone is obnoxious at some point, and it is no longer outrageous. The solitary person is self-reliant, independent, and self-conscious. S/he can supposedly walk away from troll taunts and clickbait, and not contribute any either.
He gives the false example of Linked In, which he considers the least corrupted social media service. But people on Linked In are the most packbound and cowed of all. They are all afraid to step out of line lest it wreck their career path. Everything everyone posts there is Pabulum.
The pack, for better or for worse, is the condition of all mankind today because our numbers are too high to tolerate loners. We need traffic lights and everyone must obey them. We need sanitation facilities because we produce far more refuse than the planet can absorb. Noise ordinances kick in at 10PM. Loners are automatically suspect. Security defeats freedom. We have no choice but to bow to the pack.
The book is a straight line descent from the friendly to the fiendish. It gets heavier and more worrying with every step. But the solution is always present, at least to Lanier. It’s the subscription model. If people have to pay, the fake people will disappear, fewer will sign up, services will become manageable and reliable, the quality of the discussion will improve and the overall value will skyrocket. Assumptions and generalizations about Homo sapiens will diminish and AI will have a harder time taking over.
Good luck with that. Really.
(Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, Jaron Lanier, May 2018)