April 28, 2019

Why I Won't Delete My Social Media Accounts

A couple of days ago a good Facebook friend of mine asked me my thoughts on a couple of interviews released by Jaron Lanier. An American computer scientist who is considered by many to be one of the central figures in the history of immersive virtual reality, Lanier has now ascended to guru status in tech circles, issuing warnings about a digital world he helped make. In the interviews, like in his latest book—Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now (2018)—he talks about Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google and how the tech and social media giants are using algorithms to record data about their users and to shape how we see the world and what we’re shown online. In particular, he contends that sites like Facebook and Twitter are dopamine farms that are reprogramming how you think and feel. He says they’re also causing political instability, and are changing the global economy for the worse.

At first, I thought I could write down a quick reply in the comment section, but then again I thought that the matter is too serious to be taken lightly, I mean I didn’t want to get off lightly. Therefore I realized it was worth writing a blog post at least. And here I am. Let me first say that I’m no expert on the subject here, even though last year, intrigued by a couple of reviews, I had a quick read of the above-mentioned book. (I also had the opportunity to read something about James Williams, yet another guru of computer science, a former Google product strategist who became a philosopher at the University of Oxford and whose research addresses the philosophy and ethics of attention and persuasion—in harsh opposition to the giant of the I-tech and on the same wavelength with Lanier, he argues that digital technologies privilege our impulses over our intentions, and are gradually diminishing our ability to engage with the issues we most care about.)

But let’s now get into some of the most fundamental and relevant concepts of Lanier’s thought. Take for instance the well-known concept of random reinforcement—addiction fed not by reward but by never knowing whether or when the reward will come. Well, Lanier puts it like this:

When the algorithm is feeding experiences to a person, it turns out that the randomness that lubricates algorithmic adaptation can also feed human addiction. The algorithm is trying to capture the perfect parameters for manipulating a brain, while the brain, in order to seek out deeper meaning, is changing in response to the algorithm’s experiments; it’s a cat-and-mouse game based on pure math. Because the stimuli from the algorithm don’t mean anything, because they genuinely are random, the brain isn’t responding to anything real, but to a fiction. That process—of becoming hooked on an elusive mirage—is addiction. As the algorithm tries to escape a rut, the human mind becomes stuck in one.

Roughly speaking, the reasons for freeing ourselves from social media include their tendency to trick us with illusions of popularity and success, to spend too much time isolating ourselves and disconnecting from the real world in order to maintain the perception of being connected, to twist our relationship with the truth, to rob us of our free will with relentless targeted ads, and to make politics terrifying. In other words, they bring out the worst in us. More specifically, here are “the ten arguments for deleting your social media accounts right now” (and the titles of the chapters of the book) in a nutshell:

1. You are losing your free will. Social media has become a space where everyone is posting for likes and comments…
  • Sean Parker, first president of Facebook: “We need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever....It’s a social-validation feedback loop... exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology....The inventors, creators -- it’s me, it’s Mark [Zuckerberg], it’s Kevin Systrom on Instagram, it’s all of these people -- understood this consciously. And we did it anyway...it literally changes your relationship with society, with each other...It probably interferes with productivity in weird ways. God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.”
  • Chamath Palihapitiya, former vice president of user growth at Facebook: “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops we’ve created are destroying how society works.... No civil discourse, no cooperation; misinformation, mistruth. And it’s not an American problem -- this is not about Russian ads. This is a global problem... I feel tremendous guilt. I think we all knew in the back of our minds—even though we feigned this whole line of, like, there probably aren’t any bad unintended consequences. I think in the back, deep, deep recesses of, we kind of knew something bad could happen...So we are in a really bad state of affairs right now, in my opinion. It is eroding the core foundation of how people behave by and between each other. And I don’t have a good solution. My solution is I just don’t use these tools anymore. I haven’t for years.”

2. Quitting social media is the most finely targeted way to resist the insanity of our times. In this chapter, Lanier introduces an acronym under which all social media’s ills can be umbrellaed: “BUMMER” or “Behaviors of Users Modified, and Made into an Empire for Rent.” The Bummer machine is made up of six parts, indexed by the following mnemonic: A for Attention Acquisition leading to Asshole supremacy; B for Butting into everyone’s lives; C for Cramming content down people’s throats; D for Directing people’s behaviours in the sneakiest way possible; E for Earning money from letting the worst assholes secretly screw with everyone else; and F for Fake mobs and Faker society.
3. Social media is making you into an asshole. Meeting your inner troll, etc. This might be one of the most compelling reasons for either quitting or never joining social media.
4. Social media is undermining truth. Myths and lies spread across the internet like wildfire…
5. Social media is making what you say meaningless. Because it strips it of context.
6. Social media is destroying your capacity for empathy. “If you don’t see the dark ads, the ambient whispers, the cold-hearted memes and the ridicule-filled customized feed that someone else sees, that person will just seem crazy to you. And that is our new Bummer world. We seem crazy to each other because Bummer is robbing us of our theories of one another’s minds.” Hence the explosion of nastiness, a great blossoming of “assholes.”
7. Social media is making you unhappy. The author states that due to targeted advertisements, if you look up something unhappy you will start seeing ads similar to that search and will create an even greater sense of sadness…
8. Social media doesn’t want you to have economic dignity. The reason BUMMER is a huge issue is because the internet is free. Lanier thinks that if each user pays a small fee, advertisers will not be targeting audiences and people can live in greater harmony online…
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.“ But above all, BUMMER may have no party affiliation but, as stated before, is pro-asshole.
10. Social media hates your soul. A couple of quotes:
  • “Usually Google has had a way of coming up with the creepier statements, but Facebook has pulled ahead: A recent revision in its statement of purpose includes directives like assuring that ‘every single person has a sense of purpose and community’. A single company is going to see to it that every single person has a purpose, because it presumes that was lacking before. If that is not a new religion, I don’t know what is.”
  • “When you use BUMMER, you implicitly accept a new spiritual framework. It is like the EULA agreement—the user agreement—that you clicked “OK” on without reading. You have agreed to change something intimate about your relationship with your soul. If you use BUMMER, you have probably, to some degree, statistically speaking, effectively renounced what you might think is your religion, even if that religion is atheism. You have been inducted into a new spiritual framework.”


What shall I say about this book? Well, if I’m being honest, ever since I read Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now the first definition that comes to my mind when I think of Lanier is exaggerated. Don’t get me wrong, I think the book is interesting and thought-provoking. Maybe nothing really new—these or similar ideas have been debated for some years now—but a good summary and exploration of the big personal and broader societal problems associated with social media. Despite his critical approach to the whole social media thing, however, Lanier has not lost hope. Speaking in general terms, that is, without specific reference to social networks, he thinks that “we can definitely make better interaction devices than we have.” As he told Wired in 2017, “there are lots of displays and sensors yet to be built. There’s so much to improve. But I love that. […] We’re in a perilous time. But I really believe in the human capacity for increased creativity and intelligence and wisdom, and I think if we present the tech in such a way that people have an ability to really see it and master it, they’ll rise to the occasion.”

As for social networks, he argues that If users rebel, Facebook, Twitter, etc. have an incentive to change for the better. “Whoever you are,” he explains in the book, “I hope you have options to explore what your life might be, especially if you are young. You need to make sure your own brain, and your own life, isn’t in a rut. Maybe you can go explore wilderness or learn a new skill. Take risks. But whatever form your self-exploration takes, do at least one thing: detach from the behavior-modification empires for a while—six months, say? Note that I didn’t name this book Arguments for Deleting Your Social media Accounts Right Now and Keeping Them Deleted Forever. After you experiment, you’ll know yourself better. Then decide.”

Put down this way, it would seem a rather moderate and balanced approach. But this is only one side of the story. The other is the depiction of a dark future and an even worse future based on the systematic amplification and exaggeration of issues that are real but not that dramatic. To say nothing about the contradiction in which the author finds himself: he explains how social media is making America tribal, but at the same time he goes out of his way to add extraneous content attacking Republicans. He attacks president Trump for his alleged addiction to tweeting, while ignoring those who gang up on him using bot networks and troll factories. Unfortunately, the obsession with politics turns an otherwise interesting book into a partisan attack. He starts his book nicely—with a metaphor comparing cats and dogs to social media users to show a divide between those who use social media and those who don’t—and he ends up just another unashamedly biased political commentator.

In any case, if we were to follow what seems to be the logic of his reasoning, we should also stop reading books and newspapers, watching television, using email, etc. In reality, every progress brings with it negative side effects, new challenges but also new opportunities. Every innovation carries both advantages and unpredictability, both desired and unintended collateral effects. Social media is just a tool, and like most tools, it can be used well or horribly or anywhere in between. It is not social media that “makes politics impossible,” nor is it politics that makes social media awful. Both social media and politics are tools. Paraphrasing the NRA saying (“It’s not guns that kill people it’s people that kill people”), it’s not social media that makes people into assh*les, it’s assh*les that make social media a sh*tty place.

5 comments:

  1. Well, Rob, what a surprise to find you here. "Now that I am retired, I can finally spend more time doing what I love most: writing." This also could describe me pretty well. I read this long article which is enough for me and I won't read Lanier's book. It is not the first time I hear that kind scary discourse and my response has always been a shrug of the shoulders. I like social media, mostly FB. It is a way for me to express myself. Like you, I like to write. Mostly fiction. Writing is easy. Being read isn't. What's wrong in putting that material on Facebook? And what's wrong with taking a bit of pleasure in connecting with those rare fellows that reacted favorably to your prose? Social media is destroying my free will? By getting out of FB, I will resist the insanity of my time? Making me an asshole, undermining the truth, making what I say meaningless, destroying my capacity for empathy, making me unhappy? What a bunch of clichés and platitudes. Get real! In your text, I like:
    But I really believe in the human capacity for increased creativity and intelligence and wisdom, and I think if we present the tech in such a way that people have an ability to really see it and master it, they’ll rise to the occasion.”
    In reality, every progress brings with it negative side effects, new challenges but also new opportunities.
    Social media is just a tool, and like most tools, it can be used well or horribly or anywhere in between.

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