Technological Warnings from the Inside
Jaron Lanier is a founding father of the field of virtual reality and a Silicon Valley veteran with experience working for companies ranging from Atari to Microsoft Research. Without knowledge of his other writings, one might be surprised that he published a book in 2018 titled Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. In reviews, the most common criticism of the book was that it was unworkably idealistic — a fair point in a world where technology often feels inevitable. Mr. Lanier is asking readers to boycott some of the world’s wealthiest companies in the hope of forcing Silicon Valley to abandon the current advertisement-driven business model underpinning social media which is responsible for many of its problems.
Even a few year ago, this might have been considered technological navel-gazing, but public opinion seems to be shifting in Mr. Lanier’s direction as the negative effects of social media no longer appear minor or theoretical. For example, there is substantial evidence that the Myanmar military used Facebook to incite genocide against ethnic Rohingya — a crisis starting in 2016 that has resulted in thousands of deaths and a massive refugee crisis in Bangladesh. Add to this regular reports of election interference and social media-fueled vigilante killings of innocent strangers and a pattern suggesting real damage to civilization emerges. Thus, it is no surprise that Sri Lanka blocked social media after a major terrorist attack in April 2019 to prevent the spread of misinformation and the incitement of further violence. Regardless of whether one believes such moves are wise or effective, it indicates that social media is no longer considered a benign technology.
Considering that Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now is a brief 160-page book you can probably get at your local library, reading it is a minimal personal investment. However, we live in an era of TL;DR so here is a quick summary of the ten arguments that can be consumed in about four minutes. Hopefully it inspires the reader to pick up the original source. My apologies to Mr. Lanier for any imprecision.
1. Loss of Free Will — Much of the internet involves tracking users with algorithms that find statistical correlations from individual’s activities to characterize and categorize people for further marketing. Considering the level of surveillance, what used to be advertising is now essentially behavior modification. The techniques of behavioral psychology are being employed to stimulate users in both positive (“likes”) and negative ways in order to improve user “engagement” to the point of creating addiction. Unfortunately, negative emotions are easier to form — anger can be created instantly, while trust takes much longer. Thus, social media tends to make users less happy and less socially cohesive. This problem was not an intentional creation, but an unfortunate outcome of the adaptive algorithms meant to optimize profits. Equipped with a smartphone, many people are engaged in a continuous uncontrolled experiment run by Silicon Valley corporations.
2. Quitting is the Only Defense — The internet had created wonderful benefits for society, but there is a problem with the business model that rents out mass behavior modification to anyone willing to pay. This occurs on “free” services, particularly social media, where the true customers are advertisers and other manipulators. Because this hyper-advertising is so effective, the entire economy (including the darker parts) feels compelled to play the game or be left behind. Silicon Valley is recently expressing regrets regarding these negative social effects, but the outlandish profits keep them married to the current business model. Likewise, the network effect of everyone using the same social media platform means that, once an app becomes popular, we become locked in because it is too difficult to move and there are no equivalent competitors. Asking government to solve the problem is difficult because of lobbying and ideological disputes. Likewise, asking the companies to police themselves is both ineffective and allows them to retain an unhealthy level of power. The best way to free everyone from this dangerous situation is to delete your social media accounts to create the space for healthier models.
3. Incivility — Because the behavior modification that underlies social media has addictive qualities, it also encourages the same self-obsessed qualities of addicts. Furthermore, social media encourages aggressive and demeaning behavior because it garners attention — the ultimate online treasure. Social media encourages posing, nasty tribalism, attention-getting, and other manipulation that increases personal self-esteem at the expense of others.
4. Truth Under Fire — Social media makes objective reality subservient to pack mentalities, product placement, and political manipulation. The algorithms inadvertently reinforce conspiracy theories that get the most attention in any social group — for example, climate change denial among conservatives and anti-vaccine scaremongering among liberals. The platforms becomes awash in traffic that has no basis in reality. The social media companies and manipulators are making too much money to seriously attack the problem and neither the companies nor the regulators are completely sure how to do it.
5. Loss of Meaning — Social media algorithms and other users can remove the context of any words, images, or videos you put online. Since the most extreme views and images get the most attention, things you say are often edited to become more incendiary and your images are likely to be sexualized (especially if you are female). The idea of the “sound bite” has given way to even shorter tweets and algorithmically-optimized clickbait that are all the same decontextualized garbage.
6. Loss of Empathy — Online micro-marketing is destroying shared social experience. Without a shared experience, it is more difficult to understand other people. The social media filter-bubble effect is well-known, but few understand how difficult it is to break out. Public events, radio, and even TV are open to everyone, but social media can be completely individualized. People have always misunderstood each other, but social media makes the experiences of individuals of opposing ideologies more opaque than ever.
7. Unhappiness — Despite the branding of social media as a platform for creating connections, research indicates that it creates feelings of isolation and unhappiness. It may be bullying or feeling judged by unreasonable standards of beauty, lifestyles, etc., or just taking you away from more satisfying real-world social interactions. All the positive social possibilities of the internet do not require the ranking and categorizing algorithms of social media platforms and the third-party manipulators they work for. If you want to connect to friends and family, or even meet new people, send them an email or a text.
8. Loss of Economic Dignity — The “gig” economy, where workers have no financial security, is exacerbated by social media due to the Silicon Valley conviction that a private entrepreneurial model is the key to fixing all problems. Likewise, we have a widespread expectation that useful internet services should be free. However, many of these “free” services are being provided, not just by third-party advertisers, but also indirectly by the unpaid labor of social media users. For example, Google Translate is putting human translators out of work — a common issue as AI services improve. Yet the service must be constantly updated since all languages evolve over time. This requires the efforts of human translators. Unfortunately, this work is done unknowingly for free by bilingual individuals using social media. Social media companies pay nothing for user data despite the fact that they have no business model without it. The money is flowing all one way — into Silicon Valley. Ultimately, it is not a sustainable business model and disrespects human dignity.
9. Political Discord — Social media encourages a mode of communication that prizes the viral meme over the rational argument. The algorithms do not understand truth or quality so their methods are crude and distorting. Regardless of ideology, the algorithms of social media tend to favor extreme views and incivility. While social media can create political empowerment, it’s better at encouraging political discontent than forming social cohesion. For example, the early optimism of the role of social media in fueling the Arab Spring is rarely discussed today based on the rather disappointing political outcomes.
10. Social Media Doesn’t Care About You — Social media companies are mining user data on a massive scale to create the artificial intelligence systems of the future. There is a vaguely science fiction religious conviction to this work and Silicon Valley is quick to push humans out of the way to achieve their goals.
If you agree with Mr. Lanier’s arguments, then you should probably go delete your social media accounts right now.
Four More Arguments
Before getting too excited about the social media backlash, consider the track record of such technological warnings. Mr. Lanier’s book is reminiscent of another technological warning treatise written over forty years earlier by Jerry Mander (no relation to gerrymandering). Like Mr. Lanier, Mr. Mander’s background would provide no hint of his technological philosophy. A graduate of the Wharton School and Columbia Business School, Mr. Mander spent fifteen years in advertising including a stint as president of an ad agency. Thus, one might be surprised that he wrote Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, published in 1978.
Since the book did not noticeably stem the spread of television, one might point to it as a prime example of the limited appeal of technological warning treatises. The methodical nature of such books, where arguments are explicitly enumerated and explored, is not intended to be entertaining in the same fashion as story-driven books on technology, typically written by journalists. Rather, technological warning treatises make a series of nuanced arguments attempting to persuade the reader to make an inconvenient choice. Not exactly a recipe for mass consumption.
Yet, there is a certain convincing authenticity that comes from works created by individuals who have been deeply embedded for many years within the technology and culture they are critiquing. Although some sections are clearly dated, to dismiss Four Arguments as a quaint piece of history is to miss some thoughtful analysis and foresight — as demonstrated by the recent recommendation of no screen time for children under five by the World Health Organization.
Although organized under four themes, the book explores a wide range of detailed ideas and examples over the course of 370 pages that describe the unredeemable qualities of television. To summarize the book is to fall victim to one of the primary themes of the book — modern technology encourages us to live in a world of easily digested sound bites. Nonetheless, the four fundamental interwoven ideas are as follows.
1. Television narrows our perception of reality by creating a mediated environment that separate us from nature and daily experience. It encourages us to see ourselves as separate from nature instead of part of it. To live in this artificial world is to deprive and atrophy the full range of our senses. In short, TV is not a substitute for the real world.
2. Television is a technology that centralizes the control of our experiences and allows Orwellian manipulation of what we believe to be important, acceptable, or even true. It is a powerful “influencing machine” that is harmful to democracy.
3. Television has negative mental and physiological effects because it habituates us to inactivity, social isolation, and passive engagement. It induces an almost hypnotic state and then fills the mind with images created by other people who underestimate the power of those images (or worse yet, by people who fully understand the manipulative power they possess).
4. Television is limited in the content it can effectively present — mostly simple linear image-laden messages devoid of real-life experience and context. It is well-suited to telling action-based stories of violence and lust, but not idea-driven stories of peace and satisfaction.
If any of these ideas sounds familiar, they should. There are several common themes between Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now and Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. First, while the internet and television have each opened up new worlds and educational possibilities, they have also tended to close us off to natural human interaction and the world around us.
Another common thread is that, while each technology was initially seen as liberating, it created a technological elite. Each technology concentrated the ability of powerful actors to propagandize and exert control over a much larger group of people. In the case of television, the power was concentrated towards governments in authoritarian nations and towards corporate sponsors in more capitalistic nations. In the case of social media, the technology appears to be more broadly democratic on the surface, but power is again concentrated towards the providers of the technology — governments, telecommunications companies, and social media companies.
A third theme is the natural co-operation of technology and capitalism. Mr. Lanier does not see a problem with the internet, just the funding structure of social media. It’s an interesting point. If Facebook was structured more like Wikipedia, another platform where users provide uncompensated data, but are not tracked and micro-marketed to, would election influencing be an issue of the same magnitude? Mr. Mander, on the other hand, sees a more inseparable tie between technological and capitalistic power. Television separates humans from nature which allows manufactures and advertisers to repurpose natural resources and sell them back to us. Television, a commodity itself, becomes a tool to efficiently generate demand for all other commodities and enrich those who control the programming — corporate advertisers.
It is in this last point where Mr. Lanier and Mr. Mander diverge a bit. Whereas Mr. Lanier is more of a technological reformer, Mr. Mander is more of a technological skeptic. He argues that most people are wrong to believe that technology is inherently neutral and that only human actions give it moral meaning. Instead, he believes that technologies have inherent qualities by their very design which can be positive or negative. For example, a gun can be used for many benign purposes such as hand-eye coordination games, but its most obvious and fundamental use is to kill.
Along the same lines, to accept a particular technology is to accept the natural effects and social structures that come with it. To accept automobiles is to also accept roads and the division of nature; suburbs with commuter traffic; petroleum exploration, extraction, and refineries; air and noise pollution; automobile accidents, etc. Mr. Mander emphasizes this point to argue that the defects of television are “not reformable.” This should give us pause considering that some of what Mr. Mander wrote about television in the 1970s now seems prophetic. For example, American politics has become extremely polarized and a generally accepted contributing factor is the essentially incompatible versions of reality expounded by the preferred cable news sources of each political party.
We will end with a short quiz because, if you have read this far, you are probably the type of person who enjoys quizzes. The following is a collection of quotes from either Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now or Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. Guess which book the quote comes from.
1. “We go through life believing we are experiencing the world when actually our experiences are confined within entirely human conceptions. Our world has been thought up.”
2. “Advertising exists only to purvey what people don’t need. Whatever people do need they will find without advertising if it is available.”
3. “It is little wonder, therefore, that we have seen the sudden growth of Eastern religious disciplines, yogic practices, martial arts, diverse exercise regimens and many forms of meditation. They help relieve the agonies of uncalm minds pacing their narrow cages.”
4. “The great majority of us have no say at all in choosing or controlling technologies. These choices, as I’ve described, are now solely within the hands of this same technical-scientific-industrial-corporate elite whose power is enhanced by the technology they create.”
5. “We believe ourselves to be living in a democracy because from time to time we get to vote on candidates for public office. Yet our vote for congressperson or president means very little in the light of our lack of power over technological inventions that affect the nature of our existence more than any individual leader has ever done. Without our gaining control over technology, all notions of democracy are a farce.”
It was a trick quiz. All the quotes came from Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television to demonstrate how universal and persistent socio-technical issues are. Humans create technology, use it, and then slowly come to realize that their creations have social impacts far beyond their expectations. This is why technological warning treatises are so valuable. They ask us to question, as Mr. Mander says, “the most pervasive of the technologies that become invisible to us.” Only by questioning the purpose, effects, and value of the technologies that are ubiquitous in modern society can we hope to avoid being mastered by our own creations.