Like Jacob Marley in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, the moldering ghost of psychologist B.F. Skinner haunts the pages of Jaron Lanier’s new self-explanatory manifesto Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now.
Today, most people might only vaguely recognize Skinner’s name from Psych 101 classes. But in the 1960s and ’70s, Skinner and his work were front and center in the national conversation. Promoting a theory that came to be known as “behavior modification,” Skinner considered humans easily programmable animals, vulnerable to all kinds of manipulation and coercion—mostly beyond conscious reasoning—through a regiment of rewards and punishments.
During the Nixon era, Skinner’s ideas were wielded by the left in sometimes apocalyptic critiques of television and the advertising industry, and by the right against Soviet-style communism: Were people being hypnotized on a mass scale by malevolent outside forces into behaving against their self-interest?
Skinner would not recognize the language that we regularly use today to describe contemporary mass communications—trolling, gaslighting, fake news, hate-tweeting, hashtags. But the methods and the outcomes of the social-media age, at least according to Lanier, are straight out of Skinner, recast in the terms of modern cognitive brain science. In his well-known provocative and blunt style, Lanier gets right to the point in Ten Arguments’ chapter headings: “Social Media is Making You Into an Asshole,” “Social Media is Making You Unhappy,” “Social Media Hates Your Soul.”
As Lanier points out in his book, Skinner’s theories resulted in a lot of cheesy mind-control themes in movies and pop culture. But it’s only now—a couple of generations later, after the rise of internet culture—that mass manipulation and granular surveillance has become a practical business model. These practices on the part of social-media companies and other internet giants are, he writes, “unethical, dangerous, cruel and inhumane.”
On Monday, Oct. 29, Lanier comes to UC Santa Cruz as part of the Peggy Downes Baskin Ethics Lecture Series, co-sponsored by UCSC’s Humanities Institute and Bookshop Santa Cruz, with a message that cannot be better articulated than the title of his book. He’s making the case that the social media world robs people of free will, distorts relationships, creates destructive addictions, destroys political compromise and progress, and alters the functioning of the human mind, particularly young and developing minds. The most efficacious way out of this emerging hellscape is to delete your social media accounts. All of them. Permanently. Right now.
Lanier is not exactly a voice in the wilderness in his critique of the world that Facebook and Twitter have given us. Since the inflection point of the 2016 election, the voices of protest against online surveillance and manipulation have grown louder and more varied. Former Google product manager Tristan Harris is on a mission to convince the world that smartphones have hacked our brains and made us all addicts. Aza Raskin, the designer who invented “infinite scroll”—the technology that allows users to scroll feeds continuously—now admits to feeling remorse over his technology and asserts that apps are designed to be addictive. High-profile Twitter users are bailing—actor Stephen Fry said he quit Twitter because “too many people have peed in the pool.” Tech industry titans have, to various degrees, expressed regret over what the internet has become. Even Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg said the words “I’m sorry” while testifying before Congress.
But among them all, Jaron Lanier, 58, stands out as a kind of tech elder statesman/prophet. A pioneer in the development of virtual-reality technology, Lanier has in the last decade emerged as a voice of skepticism in tech’s heedless march to a new world order with his books You Are Not a Gadget and Who Owns the Future?. As he sees it, Lanier does not have a political axe to grind—he’s just as likely to critique the socialistic good intentions of an organization like Wikipedia as he is to crack on the centralized ultra-capitalism of Facebook.
However blunt and outspoken Lanier happens to be, he works to avoid the hot-take, button-pushing rhetoric that has made online life so miserable. He works at Microsoft. He has relationships with people at Google going back decades. He makes sure you know that he is criticizing systems, not people.
“There’s a lot of really fine people [in Silicon Valley] who have been caught up in a stupid system,” Lanier tells GT. “They really do have good intent, at least a lot of them. The problem is that we’ve painted ourselves into a very complicated, ridiculous corner, where it’s really tricky to figure out how to improve it. Much of the history of the internet was really about idealistic people who wanted to create a society based more on sharing and volunteerism. But it actually backfired totally, and created this hyper-centralized system that you can’t even call capitalism anymore. It’s kind of a return to feudal times.”
Lanier’s critique is specific—he’s not lamenting the nature of the internet, or the fact that everyone is spending too much time on their devices, or even the structure of social media platforms to connect people, or people’s desire to connect digitally. His criticism is aimed squarely at a business model that profits from sophisticated and powerful manipulation of people’s behavior, to which they have little defense.
By now, most users know they are being harvested as sources of data. “I don’t think people are being naïve,” says Lanier, “and I don’t think people are being cynical. I think people are being addicted. The service designed by these high-tech companies are deliberately designed to be addictive, at least if you believe some of the people from these companies like Sean Parker, the first president of Facebook.”
“Addiction” is a controversial term. Some believe that it can only apply to chemical addiction, like drug addiction or alcoholism. But cognitive science is increasingly coming to the conclusion that “process addictions” like gambling, shopping, sex and internet use, is potentially just as devastating. In fact, process addictions can be seen as chemical addictions when you consider the brain chemistry involved in such behaviors, which includes internal manipulation of dopamine, the brain’s feel-good neurotransmitter, and cortisol, its stress chemical.
“We can look at earlier examples when there was mass addiction tied into commercial interest that was detrimental to society,” says Lanier. “A good example for me is cigarette smoking or drunk driving. These two things used to be really common.”
In those cases, he says, “all these people were addicted and couldn’t see the problem. The key thing is that there were a few people in society who weren’t addicted and they were able to have a different point of view. This is kind of like that. I feel like we need to have some people outside of the addiction system, just to provide some perspective.”
The compulsion to participate in social media can be justified in many different ways—from addiction to “FOMO” (Fear of Missing Out) to the perfectly natural curiosity to share information in a social setting. But the results, says Lanier, have been crippling economically, politically and socially.
“There is still this bizarre idea that if you share your data through these online systems, you’re creating some sort of fair, socialistic economy,” he says. “When we talk about companies like Uber—it’s ride “share”; share, share, share, as if we’re creating socialism. When in fact, if you look at what actually happens, in terms of the real world and concrete results, more and more money and power concentrates with whoever is closest to the biggest computer running the scheme.”
Economics shapes behavior; the “gig economy” has brought the “attention economy,” as online concentration of wealth and power have left many young people in a more precarious position. “Right now, the only thing people can earn online is attention,” says Lanier. “So people are just trying to get attention. And to do that, they become more horrible and obnoxious. If people were able to get paid in a meaningful way, that would be different. There might still be plenty of horrible and obnoxious stuff, but there would be a lot more people trying to do things that are useful and essential.”
Much of the economic inequity inherent in Silicon Valley, according to Lanier, is less a result of robber barons in search of monopolies and more a perverse result of idealism, as if the creators of the internet designed a commune but built a casino. “We made a huge mistake with this open source/open culture thing. We thought when people shared with each other, things would get more fair. In fact, what’s happened is that other people who weren’t sharing were able to just take advantage of everybody else in order to centralize all this power and now it’s hard to do anything about it.”
The Way Out
Ten Arguments goes well beyond economics. Lanier claims that social media destroys exactly that humanist connective tissue that great art works to create: empathy. Social-media bubbles reinforce tribalism and weaken the impulse to commonality, allowing people to become both victimizers and victims. Even Donald Trump, who is to progressives the walking embodiment of everything awful about the modern age, is a victim, in that he’s an addict of Twitter, and that has shaped his behavior. “Elon Musk is another one,” says Lanier. “It’s exactly the same pattern (as Trump). He became addicted to Twitter. Then he debased himself and started destroying everything.”
So could it get worse before it gets better? Lanier is a yes vote on that question. “I think there’s tremendous danger in the United States that there will be some kind of theocratic takeover of companies like Facebook and Google. I could see something like Trump complaining, feeling like everyone in the world is against him because that’s his worldview. Then the government would impose an ethics panel on top of Google and Facebook. We would appoint some respected theologians and it’ll progress just as it has happened in China, some sort of ideological control police on the internet. That might sound paranoid and bizarre, but it sounds like a reasonable and possible future for this country.”
Is there a way out? Lanier says that he is not doctrinaire when it comes to systems. None of them are perfect. Entropy always wins. “Humanity has never devised a method of organizing people that hasn’t devolved in some terrible way.”
The internet is also crippled, Lanier believes, by its low hurdles to entry. He shared that his wife had been ill of cancer in recent years, and the Laniers’ efforts to find out more information resulted in frustration. “There were some kinds of information that we really wanted to get online. But there was this gigantic ocean of fakers and scammers and snake-oil people. I’m sure the real information was out there. We just couldn’t get to it because there was too much crap. If it’s infinitely cheap to share your crap to get attention, there’s going to be a lot more crap.”
There are models of online systems that work without destroying societal and economic norms. “What I think would be the best system is some kind of cross between Etsy and Kickstarter and Netflix. With Netflix, you realize that, ‘OK, it’s going to be peak TV, so I’ll pay for it. And if I pay for it, I want everybody to know that if they make a video that gets watched a lot, they don’t have to negotiate with YouTube and be chosen by some magical king, and that they are guaranteed a payday.’ Period.”
If anything gives Lanier hope, it’s that his skepticism of online culture is no longer such a hard sell. “There was a time, back in the ’80s and ’90s especially, when the opinions I had cost me friends. And it was very difficult. There was just this really intense orthodoxy on how things should be done. At that time, I was the black sheep.”
But not lately, he says.
“There’s been this astonishing turnaround in recent years. If we go back even five years, when I would be at a college campus—or a high school, for that matter—and talk about some of the concerns I have, people were like, ‘No, you don’t get it. This stuff is wonderful. We love sharing everything.’ But now, there’s not even a space to talk about the criticism, because everybody shares it. At least in the community of young people, we don’t need convincing anymore. We’ve moved on to talk about solutions.”
Jaron Lanier, author of ‘Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now,’ will present the Peggy Downes Baskin Ethics Lecture ‘How the Internet Failed and How to Recreate It’ on Monday, Oct. 29 at 7 p.m. at the UC Santa Cruz Music Recital Hall. The event is sold out.