Lanier

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?

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About

Robert Wringham is a humorist and the editor-in-chief of New Escapologist.

4 Responses to “Lanier”

  1. Antonia says:

    This sounds creepy, indeed. A few days ago, I came across this article (posted by a friend of mine on FB, funny uh?) which goes even further in detailing the manipulation of our lives through new media. I honestly find it hard to take in its full extent, but… what do you all think?
    https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2019/jan/20/shoshana-zuboff-age-of-surveillance-capitalism-google-facebook?CMP=fb_a-technology_b-gdntech&fbclid=IwAR1_7MyW49tfNweb3fCbkh9qgshh_Pu5avssiLSTH5D8NyBLixnaf8msIcs

  2. Some time ago I wondered if a nicer social media platform with a less manipulative business model could be the solution. I tried something called Ello (which I wrote a little bit about here: http://newescapologist.co.uk/2014/12/20/escape-facebook/) but ultimately not enough people used it as a Facebook replacement for it to gain popular traction. It has since been remodelled as way specifically for artists to connect, which obviously isn’t as inclusive or as useful.

    I also worry about the implications of social media on the private self: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2019/jan/31/how-facebook-robbed-us-of-our-sense-of-self

  3. Antonia says:

    Thanks, I’ve read the article and found it frighteningly true. I have recently read a research report, based on large and accurate datasets – about the impact on children and adolescents’ lives of being always ‘connected’ via the internet (through a range of social media). Depression, anxiety, mental health issues and even suicide featured among the effects. Very scary. And very complex topic too, as we cannot just forbid using the phone or other internet-connected devices to our children all along (although my plan is to delay the time of access as long as possible).
    But besides the invasive and (also, albeit possibly not only) damaging role of social media on our children’s and our own mental health, I am now getting concerned about, and willing to understand more in depth the potential manipulation of personal data shared through such media. I see that the article you linked also refers to the latest Shoshana Zuboff’s book. I think I must read it sometime soon…!

  4. I don’t know what the solution is. If we, as individuals, stop using social media then I suppose we help our own mental health. But the societal problem remains. Lanier says the Silicon Valley companies need to change their business plans to be less manipulative but I’m not sure how anyone would successfully agitate for that.

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