Social Media—What a Bummer

The technologist and musician Jaron Lanier believes that social media and companies like Facebook and Google are practicing behavior modification that harms the individual and society and undermines economic dignity. In his new book, 10 Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, he makes the case that the only way to “escape the insanity” is to immediately quit these services.

It’s worth noting that Lanier is not anti-technology. He began computer programming in the 1970s. In the 1980s he worked for the video game manufacturer Atari, and founded a virtual reality company before most of us had even heard about the idea. He currently works at Microsoft Research.

Behaviorism’s Victims  

The first argument Lanier offers is that we are “losing our free will.” Through algorithms that monitor our behavior and activities, Google and other free social media are changing our behavior without our even knowing it. We are becoming the products of a type of behaviorism popularized by B.F. Skinner. Lanier writes:

We’re being tracked and measured constantly, and receiving engineered feedback all the time. We’re being hypnotized little by little by technicians we can’t see, for purposes we don’t know. We’re all lab animals now.

Lanier uses the acronym BUMMER to explain the new business model: “Behavior of Users Modified and Made into an Empire for Rent.” BUMMER is a “statistical machine that lives in the clouds.” It gathers data from users to whom it has no responsibility and uses that data to manipulate the user and make tremendous profit while simultaneously undermining the economic dignity of the user. As a number of commentators have noted, with Google and Facebook we are not the customers, we are the product.

Advertising and behavior modification are not new, of course. In the past, we looked at television spots, and companies would track how well the product sold. Now the advertisers are watching us, tracking our individual behavior and manipulating our feeds to determine what we see. All of this, according to Lanier, does more than undermine our free will: it harms politics, “makes what we say meaningless,” brings out the worst in us, destroys our empathy, and “hates our soul.”

Free Is an Illusion  

One of the most interesting and counterintuitive of Lanier’s arguments is that the open source, free-to-everyone model epitomized by Google and Facebook undermines economic dignity.

At first glance, it seems great that these services come to us gratis. “Being free is what propelled these services to become so big so fast.” Many people have used the free services to connect with customers and grow their business in a way that would have been cost-prohibitive with traditional advertising. And as economists generally argue, free search and email leave us with more disposable income to spend on other things, which helps the economy grow.

But free is an illusion. Free has a price, and the price is much higher than we realize. We are trading our data, our privacy, and our mental and social health for free services. We are also trading away potential economic viability that Lanier says leads to wealth.

In 10 Arguments (and in his TED Talk, “How We Need to Remake the Internet”), Lanier describes the economic mistake on which Google and Facebook were originally based. Digital culture and the idea of free services and open source code had, he says,

a lefty, socialist mission about it, that, unlike other things that have been done, like the invention of books, everything on the internet must be purely public, must be available for free, because if even one person cannot afford it, then that would create this terrible inequity. Now of course, there’s other ways to deal with that. If books cost money, you can have public libraries. . . . But we were thinking, no, no, no, this is an exception. This must be pure public commons, that’s what we want. And so that spirit lives on. You can experience it in designs like the Wikipedia, for instance.

But at the same time, we also believed, with equal fervor, in this other thing that was completely incompatible, which is we loved our tech entrepreneurs. We loved Steve Jobs; we loved this Nietzschean myth of the techie who could dent the universe.

Or as he puts it in the book: “Everything is supposed to be free, but everything is also supposed to be about hero entrepreneurs, and entrepreneurs make money.”

Entrepreneurship Without a Market?

For a long time I’ve wondered at the simultaneous admiration of entrepreneurship and the dislike of the market economy in Silicon Valley. Classic crony capitalism is one reason for this contradiction. Another is a general lack of knowledge of the sources, institutions, and cultural requirements of an entrepreneurial, commercial society.

In any case, free doesn’t pay for dinner, so they used an advertising model to square the circle. Google and Facebook would be free, but with ads. Lanier notes that they started out innocently, but now they are engaged in mass behavior modification. Moreover, this business model has led to a massive blind spot:

There are Silicon Valley people who believe that everything in the world can be reinvented/disrupted by tech startups. We’ll disrupt medicine, education, transportation, even the cycle of life and death, but we have a blind spot about our basic method of operation. We have enshrined the belief that the only way to finance a connection between two people is through a third person who is paying to manipulate them. We feel locked into this certainty, but the trap is only in our heads.

Public Platform or Private Publisher?

The idea of the free, open source model, combined with behavior modification, has led to at least four serious social and economic issues:

First, while all the software may be built on free, open source platforms, Lanier notes that the most important parts of the manipulative code are “hyper-secret” and run on private computers “placed in super-secure locations you’ll never visit.” Free and open ended up private and secret.

Second, when a product is free it removes the responsibility from the provider and puts in on the user. To put it simply: If you are silly enough to use our products—then we have the right to spy on you and take your data. Again, it means that we have become the product.

Third, Google and Facebook not only use algorithms to modify behavior and shape what we see, they are increasingly deciding what content is allowed. Prager University, for example has sued Google for removing some of its videos because Google disagreed with the content. This raises the question of what a search engine actually is and the difference between a public platform and a private publisher. Limiting information and modifying our feeds, Lanier argues, “destroys our capacity for empathy” because we rarely engage with differing viewpoints.

Fourth, he argues that the free-to-everyone model has actually limited commerce and created a situation where all the money goes up to the top. In this he overlaps with George Gilder, who has written, in Life After Google, that we need to remove the “walled gardens” of Facebook and Google and create opportunity for lots of micro-transactions, which Gilder thinks will happen through market forces and pressure from blockchain technologies.

The Problem of Profit

Lanier has put his finger on a certain confusion about the social benefit of profit and paid economic transactions. Some of this is connected to deeper philosophical problems including materialist views of the human person and empiricist rationality that dominate Silicon Valley. But it also reflects a widespread view of profit as something negative and harmful for society.

A friend who is a successful young entrepreneur tells me of other young entrepreneurs who are embarrassed by the fact they make a profit. He has to spend time explaining why profit is important for their business and for society. Of course it’s true that profit can be bad when it is gained through exploitation, injustice, or immoral products. But when justly gotten, profit has important social benefits. It allows for businesses to reinvest and grow. Profit enables people to build wealth. It enables philanthropy, and profit has a multiplier effect on the economy through profit-sharing and rising wages. Profitable companies also create the tax base for security and public services. Profit also gives us signals about cultural and moral trends.

But perhaps we are missing another crucial social benefit of the for-profit model that Lanier and Gilder seem to be pointing toward. Paying for goods and services doesn’t just benefit the ones who get the money; it benefits the person paying.

Commerce Creates Social Capital

Paying for a good or service implies specific obligations for the seller and claims for the buyer. This doesn’t happen when things come to us free of charge; in that case, the user/recipient has no claim. There is no way to constructively complain. Perhaps more important, on the side of the provider there is no real responsibility. We see this with charitable giving, and with foreign aid, where good intentions outweigh any negative consequences. With Facebook and Google we get spying, data-mining, manipulation, and a faux morality of “Don’t Be Evil.” When a group of materialists and techno-utopians have that as a moral code, run for the hills.

In contrast, paid transactions are real social interactions with claims and obligations. By themselves these are not sufficient for a flourishing society, but these claims and obligations do constitute a type of social capital that is important for society. We also need the more foundational, “thick” social relations that come from families, religion, and authentic communities. Commercial transactions can’t provide this, but they are not supposed to.

The idea of the free flow of information, combined with the ride-sharing and gig economy, sounds altruistic. But Lanier worries that it leads too many people into the informal economy, where they can’t build the long-term wealth that is important for both personal and social stability. As the Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto has shown, a large informal economy is one of the main problems faced by the poor in the developing world.

Instead of everything being free, where only a few people at the top make money, we need more commerce and more transactions. This, Lanier argues, will also reduce the toxicity and behavior modification that social media spreads. He writes:

When social media companies are paid directly by users instead of by hidden third parties, then they will serve those users. It’s so simple. Someone will be able to pay to see poisonous propaganda, but they won’t be able to pay to have that poison directed at someone else. The incentive for poisoning the world will be undone.

Lanier vows that “I won’t have an account on Facebook, Google, or Twitter until I can pay for it.” Only then, he adds, will “I unambiguously own and set the price for using my data, and it’s easy and normal to earn money if my data is valuable. I might have to wait a while, but it’ll be worth it.”

There is a lot to think about here. 10 Arguments deserves to be read alongside the aforementioned Life after Google, and Jay Richards’ The Human Advantage, which addresses the future of work in an age of artificial intelligence.

Some of Lanier’s other books include You are Not A Gadget and Who Owns the Future.  I don’t always agree with everything he says, and like all of us, he too has his blind spots.  Sometimes I think he is right for the wrong reasons. But his work is thoughtful and worth considering.

If you do read Lanier’s book and it convinces you to delete your accounts, at least share this essay post before you log off.