Amongst the growing number of voices expressing their concerns about the possible ills of social media is American writer, philosopher, computer scientist and composer Jaron Lanier. He claims to be the first to have done so, which might be debatable, but he is, at least, one of the most qualified commentators being something of a Silicon Valley stalwart. He is a founding father of virtual reality having founded VPL Research, the first company to sell VR goggles and gloves after beginning his career at games developer Atari. He has also worked on applications for Internet2, and in the 2000s, was a visiting scholar at Silicon Graphics and various universities. From 2006 he began to work at Microsoft, and at Microsoft Research as an Interdisciplinary Scientist.
If these are his credentials, then the title of his latest book leaves you in little doubt about his opinions: ‘Ten arguments for deleting your social media accounts right now’ lays down a pretty clear agenda and the book, logically, is structured around these ten reasons. As he work his way through each argument, he constantly refers to his own acronym ‘BUMMER’ which stands for ‘Behaviour of Users Modified and Made into an Empire for Rent’ and instead of naming Google, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter and so on, he endlessly refers to them as ‘BUMMER’ companies. By 'BUMMER' he means that negative behaviour is rewarded and that it has to be, because this is the basic principle on which the systems rely - it's what almost all social media does and is where the profit comes from.
It's this downward behaviour, contests Lanier, that cultivates negative emotions making us sadder, angrier, depressed and leaves us feeling more isolated rather than connected. In turn, this makes users more susceptible to those who may choose to exploit this for their own ends. At an accepted level this is the internet advertisers, who it could be argued, are just being clever marketers, although Lanier thinks that internet advertisers would be better called manipulators.
"Advertisers seize the moment when you are perfectly primed and then influence you with messages that have worked with other people who share traits and situations with you...advertisers used to have a limited chance to make a pitch, and that pitch might have been sneaky or annoying, but it was fleeting. Furthermore lots of people saw the same TV or print ad; it wasn't adapted to individuals. The biggest difference was that you weren't monitored and assessed all the time time so you could be fed dynamically optimised stimuli- whether content or ad - to engage and alter you... this result isn’t total, but statistical. You become more like a zombie, more of the time, than you would otherwise be.” Advertising is where the profit comes from. They learn about us to change us, and they make money by selling that power to change to others.
The same techniques are used to a more sinister degree by political manipulators, lobbyists and even extremists - there was the Cambridge Analytica scandal; we are yet to find out fully what the Russians did to influence the outcome of the US election; social media played a role in the Arab Spring; and in whipping up fanatical fervour in Myanmar leading to genocide.
Not one to mince his words, Lanier then moves on to explain why 'social media is making you into an asshole' although he does tone this down with: "So what I should say is something like 'you're vulnerable to gradually turning into an asshole, or statistically you might very well be tuning into an asshole. So, no offence, but please take the possibility seriously." And to recognise the traits in his own personality. Social media often drives exaggeration and bragging, leading people become self obsessed and selfish "A personal mythology overtakes addicts. They see themselves grandiosely and, as they descend further into addiction, ever less realistically." I'm sure we can all relate to this as we all know someone seemingly obsessed with selfies coupled with 'this is me in Business Class' comments which seem designed to initiate jealousy. Then there's something about the remoteness of digital platforms that seems to make some users say things, nasty things, that they wouldn't do face to face or on the phone, so many conversations descend into spats, aggression, trolling and bullying. He admits to letting his 'inner troll' take control of him on occasion, as a blogger for the Huffington Post he'd find himself dragged into responding to nasty or stupid comments before realising he was resorting to the same behaviours.
Lanier is concerned about the effect social media has on truth, the spread of fake news and the lack of context which can make what you say meaningless. This is “destroying your capacity of empathy” because, by orienting you towards like minded groups, you cannot know enough about the information streams of others to be able to put yourself in their shoes. Or, as he puts it, “the version of the world you are seeing is invisible to the people who misunderstand you, and vice versa.” In the past you could get a more balanced view by reading other people’s newspapers but today you can't even see what their social media feeds consist of. This has had some very worrying results on journalism with the death of local newspapers and even many leading publishers struggling, but it also fans the flames of bigoted or extreme views, if the content you see is tailored by near limitless observations harvested about people like you,where's the counter argument? The context? The balance? The lack of which makes people vulnerable to manipulation and to a loss of empathy and respect.
If this weren’t bad enough, truth is being undermined, because in a world where tens of thousands of fake Twitter followers can be bought for a few hundred dollars, and where fraudulent reviews abound, we all seeing fake people every day. 'We modify our behaviour to fit in with them. A denial of service attack, or DoS, is what happens when a horde of automated computers bombards a website with requests and causes it to crash. “Fake people,” he writes, “are a cultural denial of service attack”: when fakery so overwhelms reality, the latter ceases to function.'
There's a growing body of research that supports his contention that social media makes you unhappy: 'Although not fully diagnosed, the excessive use of social media has health consequences. Depression ranks number one on the list of these syndromes, together with sleep deprivation.' Even Facebook has admitted that they can make people unhappy without realising why. Some of the reasons seem obvious from swiping at your phone rather than making conversation? Spending hours on a computer rather than with your family? Not getting enough 'likes'? Or someone you know getting lots of 'likes'? The rise in self harming and suicides? Loss of self esteem?
Whilst Lanier sometimes sounds a bit like a conspiracy theorist or a latter day hippy, his arguments are profound and you can relate to all of them, to a greater or lesser extent, as you read through either through personal experience or from worldwide events. He worries that our reliance on 'BUMMER' companies is turning us into robotic extensions of their machines which ruins our capacity for spirituality and empathy leading to isolation, disconnection and a negative effect on behaviours. These companies, he argues, have no appreciation for the “mystical spark inside you” as they're just massive money making machines running rough shod over human consciousness to rake in billions. Lanier's appeal to the human conscience makes the book well worth a read.
Published by Bodley Head, Penguin Random House, 2018.