Jaron Lanier’s “Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts” is worth reading as an introduction to the problem of behavior-manipulating internet platforms. I’m more looking forward to Cal Newport’s “Digital Minimalism” book coming out sometime next year, because I suspect it might provide a less extreme response to the problem of excessive social content creation and consumption and attendant advertising and user manipulation. In any event, here’s a bit from Lanier sharing some background on his thesis:
It might not seem like it at first, but I’m an optimist. I don’t think we have to throw the whole digital world away. But there is one particular hi-tech thing that is toxic even in small quantities.
The issue isn’t only that internet users are crammed into environments that can bring out the worst in us, or that so much power has concentrated into a tiny number of hands that control giant cloud computers. A bigger problem is that we are all carrying around devices that are suitable for mass behaviour modification. For example, with old-fashioned advertising, you could measure whether a product did better after an ad was run, but now companies are measuring whether individuals change their behaviours as they browse, and the feeds for each person are constantly tweaked to get the desired result. In short, your behaviour has been turned into a product – and corporate and political clients are lining up to modify it.
Finally, we can draw a circle around the real danger we face. If we could just get rid of the deleterious business model, then the underlying technology might not be so bad.
Some have compared social media to the tobacco industry, but I will not. The better analogy is paint that contains lead. When it became undeniable that lead was harmful, no one declared that houses should never be painted again. Instead, after pressure and legislation, lead-free paints became the new standard. …
Seems like a good moment to coin an acronym, so how about “Behaviours of Users Modified, and Made into an Empire for Rent”? Bummer.
Bummer is a machine, a statistical machine that lives in the computing clouds. Since its influence is statistical, the menace is a little like climate change. You can’t say climate change is responsible for a particular storm, flood, or drought, but you can say it changes the odds that they’ll happen. In the longer term, the most horrible stuff like sea level rise and the need to relocate most people and find new sources of food would be attributable to climate change, but by then the argument would have been lost.
Similarly, I can’t prove that any particular person has been made worse by Bummer, nor can I prove that any particular degradation of our society would not have happened anyway. There’s no certain way to know if it has changed your behaviour, but if you use Bummer platforms, you’ve probably been changed at least a little.
While we can’t know what details in our world would be different without Bummer, we can know about the big picture. Like climate change, it will lead us into hell if we don’t self-correct.
“It might sound like a contradiction at first, but,” Lanier writes at one point, “collective processes make the best sense when participants are acting as individuals.” This syncs with something I read years ago, which put forward the idea that referring to the public (individuals collectively) as “the masses” is basically derogatory, because it reduces individuals to mass behavior rather than focusing on (and seeking to elevate) individual experience, goodness, etc.
I deleted my Snapchat account earlier this summer, and deactivated my Facebook account a few weeks ago.