Jaron Lanier, Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2018), 146pp.
In his little book called You Are Not a Gadget (2010), Jaron Lanier contrasted "the lifeless world of pure information" with the rich mystery of being human. He defended human intelligence, judgment, and artistic creativity against the pseudo-wisdom of computer algorithms, search engines, and aggregators. Information technology, he argued, is necessarily a form of social engineering, and the results have been horrible. That manifesto considered dozens of examples, but they are "really just different aspects of a singular, big mistake. The deep meaning of personhood is being reduced by illusions of bits."
His next book, Who Owns the Future?(2013), examined the impact of big data on the economy. He called it a work of "futuristic economics" and "speculative advocacy." Today only a tiny minority of people benefit from the information economy. "Those who keep the new ledgers, the giant computing services that model you, spy on you, and predict your actions, turn your life activities into the greatest fortunes in history." Lanier calls these "Siren Servers." Google, Facebook, Amazon, and credit agencies are only the most obvious examples. They collect, correlate and sell massive amounts of data about us. A click on the New York Times, for example, activates over a dozen of these spy agencies. Just how many Siren Servers are out there? "My sense," writes Lanier, "is that there are many dozens of unavoidable ones, plus thousands of others that will touch your life on occasion."
It's no surprise, then, that Lanier's newest book goes a step further; it's about "how we can remain autonomous in a world where you are under constant surveillance and are constantly prodded by algorithms run by some of the richest corporations in history, which have no way of making money except by being paid to manipulate your behavior." Thanks to sophisticated algorithms that parse massive amounts of big data, today's "advertising" is actually mass behavior modification, the purpose of which is addiction (not mere user "engagement," which is a pathetically weak word). This behavior modification (Facebook has even bragged about it) is very effective, which is why companies like Google and Facebook sell our personal information to advertisers for vast sums of money.
All of this is driven by a business model that Lanier calls BUMMER — "Behaviors of Users Modified, and Made into an Empire for Rent." The algorithms can soothe or savage us. They appeal to our worst instincts. They are powerfully addictive. They undermine virtues like truth, kindness and empathy. We have made a bargain with the devil: "let us spy on you, collect your data, turn it into algorithms to modify your behavior, addict you to our site, and in return we will give you free stuff like music, social media, and search engines."
Lanier urges us to quit these addictions right now. He himself does not participate in any social media. He's an important voice because of his impeccable geek cred. All four of his books have been best sellers. For over thirty years, as a consummate Insider, he has pioneered all sorts of computer technology. He admits that long ago he counted himself as one of Silicon Valley's "merry band of idealists." In the 1980s he was one of the inventors of virtual reality (see his 2017 memoir Dawn of the New Everything). He's also an artist, scientist, musician and composer who has a world class collection of rare instruments. In 2010 Time Magazine named Jaron Lanier one of the 100 most influential people in the world. So, listen up. Take action. Delete now, and recover your freedom.