Courtesy of Jaron Lanier

Psychology

Silicon Valley’s Philosopher-King Envisions a Brave, New World Without “Likes”

The moans and groans that accompany just about any utterance of the words “social media” were maybe mildly counter-cultural twenty minutes ago, but somehow already feel banal, basic and mostly useless. These sighs are probably the noises you’ll make as you shop past a book titled 10 Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. This involuntary reflex is fully understandable at this point—after all, how many times have we half-read study after study just to confirm what you already know about this nebulous and itching cancer?

Still we finger-paint private notes to our future selves on the broken glass surfaces of our phones and tablets, 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. We’ve got a problem, and we know it. Give us a 15-second gap in real-world stimulation and there we are: texting the void.

The title of this book says it all, and you already agree in advance: smartphone addiction—the sheer distraction of it all, the vanity, the plain vulgarity of constantly capturing and broadcasting your life into a zero-dimensional, disembodied space devoid of context. You’re an expert. Or are you?

One important thing you may have missed in passing is that this book is written by Jaron Lanier, a name you may not know. Jaron is one of the architects of digital media as we know it now and how we will come to know it still. He was there to bear witness to the internet’s conception, birth, early childhood, and now it’s deeply troubled adolescence. Despite his fame as a pop-tech author (best known perhaps for You Are Not a Gadget along with several TED talks), Jaron has a way of being, well, right about these kinds of things. Considered by most as the father of virtual reality, Lanier has been in Silicon Valley since the glory days and has consulted for just about every company there. He is the eyes on the ground, the Michael Moore and camcorder, a devout humanist hard at work high up in the scaffolding of a world we are now trying to navigate while it’s being welded onto this one. Jaron Lanier is a computer scientist, entrepreneur, and 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 at Microsoft, much like you, doesn’t seem to have much objection to this book either. Widespread agreement about the existence of some problem, if it’s 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 lowly users alike—the scope of the problem is societal. Mothers Against Drunk Driving, cigarette smoking and gambling are three interesting precedents Jaron offers up for how we have discussed and addressed past issues that were eventually acknowledged to be socially harmful.

“In this case, 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,” Jaron explains. If you’re old enough to remember how quickly online casinos came into being, the progression to social media is maybe less surprising. “Occasionally, pioneers of the gambling world complain about how social media companies ripped off their ideas and made more money.” What these pioneers were really developing was something considerably more exciting than interactive blackjack in 256 colors, they were busy carrying over an interesting “online exploitation of this intersection of math and the human brain.”
You may have heard different versions of the catchphrase 'if you’re not paying for it, you’re the product.' It’s an idea older than television.
A behavioral methodology was being inscribed in crude HTML to rig user feedback for maximum engagement. You can now easily find YouTube clips of former Facebook executives, for example, talking about how they engineered their software right down to the level of neurotransmission, delving and depriving bits and hits in order to hold your experience at just the right level of unpredictable. “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 those who weren’t so it was possible to have a point of comparison and to have a conversation that existed outside of it.”

BUMMER, (Behavior of Users Modified and Made into an Empire for Rent), Jaron’s playful acronym for what will be the focus of his attack, distorts social discourse so ruthlessly he fears we might not even have the luxury of hitting rock bottom. “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.” In his book, he describes the BUMMER system, which is essentially data-gathering software designed to be clinically addictive on top of being “free” to users, 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.”

Lanier recounts the history of this insufferable sporting event as the result of a series of well-intentioned mistakes, beginning with a libertarian attitude in young Silicon Valley where “everyone knew that software would eventually become more important than law.” In order to avoid “cybernetic totalism” (this crazy idea that code or those who wielded it would eventually rule in some kind of totalitarian way), early developers insisted that most code remain an open book and therefore, of course, free of charge. This was the original sin of the internet: Money was to be made through advertising.

But as early as 1992, just as computers were beginning to get properly networked, Jaron had already written a paper titled Agents of Alienation in which he sketched out a world where so-called “artificially intelligent” algorithms get in the middle of communication—ultimately manipulating and confusing society under the service of deeper, hidden commercial incentives. It’s worth mentioning at this point that the tech behind what became “AI” lies squarely in ancient history of our gilded Age of Information. 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.” In a memorable passage, Lanier goes on to point out that implementing this kind of statistically-driven, auto-piloted code is just 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[.]” 
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 […] I might have to wait a while, but it’ll be worth it.
You may have heard different versions of the catchphrase “if you’re not paying for it, you’re the product.” It’s an idea older than television and has traces in Marshall McLuhan’s writings back in the mid ‘60s and even finds an early invocation in a video piece by sculptor Richard Serra “Television Delivers People” in 1973. Advertising isn’t new and neither is our wariness in the face of it. But one of the cruxes of Jaron’s thesis here lies in his strict position that what we presently call online advertisements are, for the most part, categorically no such thing. Television couldn’t tap you on the shoulder. It couldn’t stare back. It certainly couldn’t do that while you were shopping at the store, and it couldn’t, as much as it wished, target individuals—only audiences. That a given media might adapt to or learn from an individual’s past activity isn’t the problem, Lanier emphasizes. There’s nothing wrong with, for example, Netflix recommending a movie based on what you’ve watched, and that’s because Netflix is a closed system in which you actually are the customer. What needs to go are those free services where your data is surrendered up front under Faustian legalese, and then your behavior is continuously teased out, packed up and sold out the back door.

An ad in BUMMER space is taxonomically different, Lanier argues, more closely resembling the kind of direct manipulation you might find in a controlled behavioral experiment. It’s complete with electrical stimulation, opaque prompts, and—crucially for Lanier—some real customer watching behind a one-way mirror. Over time, these types of platforms serve you up a media world based on information that was never bought from you but was sold many times over to people on the other side of the glass.

Cambridge Analytica was the obvious and loud example where you can see the BUMMER feedback loop roundtrip. Some 87 million American Facebook users’ “psychometric” profile or data was accessed, and though this was a massive breach of privacy for which Facebook took some serious heat, that’s hardly the point. The end result of this process—an “ad” visible only to the individual and long since forgotten—was to present back a highly customized and micro-targeted version of the world. Using thousands of points of personal data, Cambridge Analytica has offered its services to more than 200 elections in countries across the globe and has given numerous demonstrations to militaries flaunting its effectiveness in psy-op deception.

In a media-saturated world such as our own, Lanier argues that the realities engendered by these platforms become indistinguishable from truth—resulting in profound implications for our most basic notions of empathy, truth, free will and, of course, politics. “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 determined by the output of your activity on BUMMER platforms. It’s easy to think Lanier is only talking about Facebook and its children, but Google is considerably older and probably even more deeply ingrained into global web culture and services. Since the force behind social media is social pressure, the story gets even worse. If we combine addictive BUMMER designs and business models with some basic psychology, societal discourse can only trend downward.
Lanier envisions a future where your data is considered labor, where what we plant in the global digital garden is proportionally compensated at harvest.
Delete is one of the few fully semantic verbs on your computer keyboard (just opposite its baby sister, Escape) that describes a real action we can enact with agency. Delete doesn’t exist in the real world, and Jaron’s titular call for mass account destruction is understandable in that he locates so much of the problem at a computational root. Though a simple keystroke does seem a fitting enough start, it’s much harder to actually pull off. Despite overwhelming acknowledgment of some big problem, most people still won’t feel compelled to go ahead and zap their hard-won profiles and golden follower-ships. But civil disobedience always begins with a rough draft, and the very proposition of a boycott almost always raises awareness among consumers even if they may not actually be able to participate. It also causes companies to learn from the posing of a well-defined threat. Jaron’s very cheekily BUMMER-compatible title may be a bit of a stretch for most of us to believe, let alone heed right now. Our internal dissonance is still too quick to speak up in defense: Has there ever been a perfect place for artists or activists to express themselves? Has there ever been a reciprocating context for new voices and ideas to be heard? Most of us will stay on as contestants in this pageantry, at least for now.

In his brief history of the internet and breakdown of today’s ruling platforms, Lanier uncovers what should serve as a simple reminder: It could all be otherwise. This is in fact the forgotten meaning of "soft” in “software” —its malleability, modality and constant evolution. That social media ended up so quickly as BUMMER is really an arbitrary though sadly understandable result. Similar network services could be designed and function just as well, or even better. The fact that we are all journaling, sharing, and getting into ever-ascending debates over “-isms” is, at least in theory, a goddamn beautiful thing. Unfortunately, in practice this still means entering into an economic arrangement that compromises the dignity of everything we say and produce. In the case of our personal data, it compromises possibly the closest thing we can verifiably even identify as ourselves.

Jaron ends our call with an 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, it turns out, isn’t just an existential problem for corporate platforms, but for users too. He writes, “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 […] I might have to wait a while, but it’ll be worth it.”

Lanier envisions a future where your data is considered labor, where what we plant in the global digital garden is proportionally compensated at harvest. While there aren’t any real-world examples of this right now, Lanier sees a glimmer of hope. He offers as a model “peak TV,” a major shift that flew in the face of the widely held idea that no one should ever pay for movies or music in the future. He writes, “Why couldn’t there also be an era of paid ‘peak social’ and ‘peak search’?”

10 Arguments draws a precise target where before we may have found only a fishy feeling. Lanier convincingly demonstrates some of the real economic and political consequences where these platforms have wreaked havoc in what must be some of the most heartbreaking passages in tech literature history. Arab Spring, the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Black Lives Matter, Parkland High—in each case, “BUMMER was right there, as it always is, probing for ways to damage society.”

Beyond just listing 10 reasons to leave this or that platform, Lanier, as always, provides a humanistic indictment and overview of media and technology that delivers a desperately needed step toward an empowering literacy of new media.