Jaron Lanier’s been called a seer of silicon valley and was one of the first serious critics of social media — certainly the most vociferous. In addition, he’s been a VR pioneer and his biography sounds like it was written for the protagonist of a sci-fi story. In an age where social media is more popular and pernicious than ever, Lanier offers hope.
A wide ranging feature story in the new issue of GQ says, “[In Lanier’s] 2018’s Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, which is as clear and definitive an account of the damage companies like Twitter and Facebook and Google do to society and to our individual psyches as you’ll ever read. The book felt relevant again right now, I said, in a way that made my bones actually vibrate. Lanier had been early to the idea that these platforms were addictive and even harmful—that their algorithms made people feel bad, divided them against one another, and actually changed who they were, in an insidious and threatening manner. That because of this, social media was in some ways ‘worse than cigarettes,’ as Lanier put it at one point, ‘in that cigarettes don’t degrade you. They kill you, but you’re still you.'”
The story continues, “Lanier’s been lecturing on one topic or another for decades, and his arguments have gradually become less abstract and more pointed as time has gone on and certain platforms, like Facebook, Instagram, Google, Twitter, and YouTube, have annexed more and more of our lives. His thoughts on this subject have been influential enough that they may sound familiar to you by now: That anytime you are provided with a service, like Facebook, for free, you are in fact the product being sold. That social media companies are basically giant behavior-modification systems that use algorithms to relentlessly increase “engagement,” largely by evoking bad feelings in the people who use them. That these companies in turn sell the ability to modify your behavior to “advertisers,” who sometimes come in the old form of people who want to persuade you to buy soap but who now just as often come in the form of malevolent actors who want to use their influence over you to, say, depress voter turnout or radicalize white supremacists. That in exchange for likes and retweets and public photos of your kids, you are basically signing up to be a data serf for companies that can make money only by addicting and then manipulating you. That because of all this, and for the good of society, you should do everything in your power to quit.”