This is Jaron Lanier on Channel 4, explaining how the “manipulation engine” behind social media is ruining our lives.
I read Jaron’s book, You Are Not a Gadget, some years ago in a hot Montreal summer and it made a great impression. It is not simply a surface-level tirade against social media but goes off into many interesting directions, notably into neurology and addiction and collective behaviour. The book struck me as a captivating and supremely well-informed insider’s perspective. The ramifications, moreover, are extremely serious and, as he says in the video, we have entered a period of “unreal and strange” politics where we “don’t know if elections are real or not”, and it’s all rooted in people sitting around “liking” things on Facebook and completing personality tests for fun.
I remember Lanier saying in his book that, as a Silicon Valley computer scientist of a certain age, he was disappointed with the way social media and the digital world in general have evolved. I feel similarly, albeit from a nerdy consumer perspective. I was an early adopter of mobile phones (I had a house brick phone in high school circa 1998 when nobody else my age had any such thing) and social media (I hassled my pals to join Friendster in 2002 to much bemusement; nobody could see the point in joining a digital network of people they already knew) and saw that they had great and exciting potentialities. I hate the way things turned out with Cambridge Analytica — surely only the first major democratic outrage of its kind that nobody seems to know how to address effectively.
This morning I was appalled to find that the nudge feature of the phoney Facebook account I use to administer the public Robert Wringham/New Escapologist Facebook page was naming people I know in real life as friend recommendations. How could it possibly know? Everything about this account — the registered name, the email address — is (I thought) completely separate to my real social media circle and address book. I have never used it to communicate directly with anyone and there are no (so far as I can tell) third party apps installed that should be capable of “listening”. This is deeply spooky and sinister isn’t it? It makes me want to raze my entire social media empire to the ground, but I worry about the ramifications for my “visibility” as an author. How did it come to this? The Internet used to be so much fun!
As you may remember, I ditched my personal Facebook account long ago and whenever I log in using the phoney account to make sure everything’s okay at the public page, I feel almost sick when I see the level of ugliness, how slow it is to load and how the nudge “service” is full of noisy (latterly sinister) claptrap. I’m really not interested in seeing such ugliness, let alone giving myself up to the mystical algorithmic forces of Zuckerberg and his moronic fratboy pals. As someone who left Facebook in the main, I can attest that life really is better without it.
So, if you are less cowardly and self-promotional than I am, learn from Jaron Lanier and salt the earth on all social media, for the good of society and for your own peace of mind.
I love Lanier’s remark in the video, by the way, that Silicon Valley are “not being evil, we’re being stupid,” which pretty much sums up most recent political and mass behaviour doesn’t it? It’s almost as if some intangible force came into the world a decade or so ago that shattered our attention spans, hacked the collective consciousness and made us all into dum-dums. I wonder what that could have been?
Owning something — locking it away in your house — doesn’t help anything. Leave it in the wild!
A Swedish artist and grandma called Margareta Magnusson has a nice way of putting this in her book, The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, a very nice little book written to remind us that we can’t take our things with us when we die, so let’s tread lightly in the meantime.
Beautiful things such as an African wooden bird, strange things like a singing magnetic pig, and funny things like a solar-powered waving bear are all things that I adore. My vice really is things. It took me a while to understand this, but you can enjoy all these things without owning them. Even though this may sometimes seem quite hard to do, training yourself to enjoy only looking at things, instead of buying them, is very pleasing and also a good habit. You really can’t take everything with you, so maybe it is better to try not to own it all.
When I browse through an interior design magazine I sometimes get so tired! Many of these homes look as if all the furniture has been supplied by the same shop. Colourless, plain, perfect and without any charm at all. Too many pieces for decoration arranged on parade or in strange, affected compositions. Who will want to dust them I wonder.
But there are many homes that have a lot to teach. Beautiful, practical and sparsely furnished. Truly inspiring homes that are easy to keep clean. I still try to learn from these rooms. I reflect and maybe rethink my own living space, and then probably will get rid of a few more things!
And here’s a short conversation with Margareta on video. Isn’t she fab? The interviewer takes her to see her storage unit for the purposes of death cleaning and Margareta says “what are you going to do with all this crap?”
I’m reading David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs: A Theory. It is delicious revenge for anyone who has ever had to pretend to work for hours on end in order to be allowed to go home again, and you should all read it.
There is a thousand quotations I could make from the book that are relevant to this blog, to Escapology, and to our hatred of pointless, busy work. But I will simply leave you with this lovely story of Graeber’s first job and a lesson in not mistaking a job for useful activity:
I well remember my very first job as a dishwasher in a seaside Italian restaurant. I was one of three teenage boys hired at the start of the summer season, and the first time there was a mad rush, we naturally made a game of it, determined to prove that we were the very best and most heroic dishwashers of all time, pulling together into a machine of lightning efficiency, producing a vast and sparkling pile of dishes in record time. We then kicked back, proud of what we’d accomplished, pausing perhaps to smoke a cigarette or skarf ourselves a scampi — until, of course, the boss showed up to ask us what the hell we were doing just lounging around.
“I don’t care if there are no more dishes coming in right now — you’re on my time! You can goof around on your own time. Get back to work.”
“So what are we supposed to do?”
“Get some steel wool. You can scour the baseboards.”
“But we already scoured the baseboards.”
“Then get busy scouring the baseboards again!”
Of course, we learned our lesson. If you’re on the clock, do not be too efficient. You will not be rewarded, not even by a gruff nod of acknowledgement (which is all we were really expecting). Instead you’ll be punished with meaningless busy work. And being forced to pretend to work, we discovered, was the most absolute indignity — because it was impossible to pretend it was anything but what it was: pure degradation, a sheer exercise of the boss’s power for its own sake. It didn’t matter that we were only pretending to scrub the baseboard. Every moment spent pretending to scour the baseboard felt like some schoolyard bully gloating over our shoulders — except, of course, this time, the bully had the full force of law and custom on his side.
So the next time a big rush came, we made sure to take our sweet time.
I’ve just turned the final page of The History of Mr Polly, one of H. G. Wells’ non-sci-fi novels. It is Escapological.
Mr Polly is a member of the provincial lower-middle class. He is poorly educated (set up, like most of us, to join the workforce or else serve as cannon fodder) but likes to read and is at heart a romantic chap.
He carries a secret anger at his obvious destiny to marry his cousin (something which sends shiver down the spine of the modern reader, but all Wells really means by this is “someone nearby and of similar stock, no soulmate”) and to open a small shop. He is also frustrated by the apparent acceptance of other people to this same lot. When he laments it in public, he meets with the usual “know your station!”- and “no point thinking you’re going to escape”- and “ooh, I should be so lucky to have time for books!”- type remarks.
Polly is driven to suicide:
The end! And it seemed to him now that life had never begun for him, never! It was as if his soul had been cramped and his eyes bandaged from the hour of his birth. Why had he lived such a life? Why had he submitted to things, blundered into things? Why had he never insisted on the things he thought beautiful and the things he desired, never sought them, fought for them, taken any risk for them, died rather than abandon them? They were the things that mattered. Safety did not matter. A living did not matter unless there were things to live for…
He had been a fool, a coward and a fool, he had been fooled too, for no one had ever warned him to take a firm hold upon life, no one had ever told him of the littleness of fear, or pain, or death; but what was the good of going through it now again? It was over and done with.
I like that “safety did not matter” remark. Even today people talk about “risk” as if (a) there weren’t perfectly valid and orthodox career paths available within those apparently risky — usually artistic or entrepreneurial — lines, and (b) forgetting that “risk” is only to flirt with failure while settling for safe mediocrity is failure; it’s like deliberately throwing yourself off a cliff when you’re afraid of falling.
Cometh the hour, Polly bungles his suicide and ends up burning down his shop and some other buildings on the street. In so doing, he saves the life of the deaf old woman who lives next door and is championed a hero instead of an arsonist. He is also given insurance money for the shop.
The drama of all this and Polly’s realisation that his actions (albeit unintentionally) led to change wakes him up from his previous assumption that one’s future is already decided.
We are rewarded for sticking with him through desperate times with this lovely passage:
But when a man has once broken through the paper walls of everyday circumstance, those unsubstantial walls that hold so many of us securely prisoned from the cradle to the grave, he has made a discovery. If the world does not please you you can change it. Determine to alter it at any price, and you can change it altogether. You may change it to something sinister and angry, to something appalling, but it may be you will change it to something brighter, something more agreeable, and at the worst something much more interesting. There is only one sort of man who is absolutely to blame for his own misery, and that is the man who finds life dull and dreary. There are no circumstances in the world that determined action cannot alter, unless perhaps they are the walls of a prison cell, and even those will dissolve and change, I am told, into the infirmary compartment at any rate, for the man who can fast with resolution. I give these things as facts and information, and with no moral intimations. And Mr. Polly lying awake at nights, with a renewed indigestion, with Miriam sleeping sonorously beside him and a general air of inevitableness about his situation, saw through it, understood there was no inevitable any more, and escaped his former despair.
He could, for example, “clear out.”
It became a wonderful and alluring phrase to him: “clear out!”
Why had he never thought of clearing out before?
He was amazed and a little shocked at the unimaginative and superfluous criminality in him that had turned old cramped and stagnant Fishbourne into a blaze and new beginnings. (I wish from the bottom of my heart I could add that he was properly sorry.) But something constricting and restrained seemed to have been destroyed by that flare. Fishbourne wasn’t the world. That was the new, the essential fact of which he had lived so lamentably in ignorance. Fishbourne as he had known it and hated it, so that he wanted to kill himself to get out of it, wasn’t the world.