Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now
June 19, 2018
Jaron Lanier uncovers the ways in which our behavior is being modified by social media, and makes ten arguments for quitting it.
"The telescreen received and transmitted simultaneously. Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a low whisper, would by picked up by it … There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to."
—George Orwell, 1984
Jaron Lanier opens his new book, Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, extolling the independence and autonomy of cats—the animals behind "the memiest memes and the cutest videos" online—while comparing social media users to dogs. I know that sounds a little rough to the social media users among us (I am one), but let's let him explain:
Please don't be insulted. Yes, I am suggesting that you might be turning, just a little, into a well-trained dog, or something less pleasant, like a lab rat or a robot. That you're being remote-controlled, just a little, by clients of big corporations. But if I'm right, then becoming aware of it might just free you, so give this a chance, okay?
Okay… that still sounds pretty rough. But, like Orwell's telescreens, the smart speakers on our counters and smartphones we carry with us both receive and transmit, and social media companies are using (and selling) the data we transmit to engineer what we receive back. That is not necessarily, or inherently, problematic. It could be used benignly, even to enrich our lives with great content and services. Lanier rejects the comparison of social media to the tobacco industry—as being harmful by its very nature—opting instead for a lead paint analogy. "When it became undeniable that lead was harmful," Lanier reminds us, "no one declared that houses should never be painted again. Instead, after pressure and legislation, lead-free paints became the new standard." The problem with social media is that the toxic ingredient is its very business model, "in which the incentive is to find customers ready to pay to modify someone else's behavior."
Lanier does not make the analogy, or even mention the name, but this is where I hear the echoes of Orwell. There may not be Thought Police, but there is certainly an open attempt at thought control and behavior modification, which has implications for our personal autonomy and freedom of thought—because social media companies use what we transmit to engineer what we receive back, and what we receive back is often an attempt to engineer our behavior. Lanier questions:
How can you 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?
Lanier coins an acronym—BUMMER: Behaviors of Users Modified, and Made into an Empire for Rent—to explain the business model. But, contrary to the tone I've probably set here so far, Lanier remains hopeful that the promise of social media can be salvaged. One reason might be that he is a long-time member of the tech community himself, and has been raising these concerns for some time and seen others in the community come around. Both Sean Parker, Facebook's first president, and Chamath Palihapitiya, former vice president of user growth at Facebook, have made public statements about how the company has changed us, and society, in profoundly negative ways. But another reason Lanier is hopeful is that he doesn't think BUMMER is a good long-term business strategy, that it is doomed to fail. I remain somewhat skeptical of that—bad business models have lasted centuries in the past, and social media is but a baby—but I do think that acknowledging what social media is doing to us, individually and collectively, is an important step to wrestling with its implications (again, both individually and collectively). He calls it "the cage that goes everywhere with you," noting that "Algorithms gorge on data about you, every second," which is sold to third parties who want to, and have gotten very good at, manipulating our behavior. Lanier notes that such behavior modification can cure addictions, but that it can just as easily create them. And it is, of course, in the current interest of companies building and using these platforms to get users addicted.
The damage to society comes because addiction makes people crazy. The addict loses touch with the real world and real people. When many people are addicted to manipulative schemes, the world gets dark and crazy.
His conclusion, and the purpose of the book, are both straightforward:
This book argues … that what has become suddenly normal—pervasive surveillance and constant, subtle manipulation—is unethical, cruel, dangerous, and inhumane.
It may be hard to get too worked up about the "cages" we voluntarily carry with us when there are children being pulled away from their parents and put in very literal cages along our southern border, but there is an argument that these developments aren't as unconnected as they may appear at first glance. In fact, there are ten specific arguments Lanier makes for deleting our social media accounts that have implications on topics like "the insanity of our times," on "our capacity for empathy," and on the current state of politics that may directly correlate the two. His arguments are:
You are losing your free will.
Quitting social media is the most finely targeted way to resist the insanity of our times.
Social media is making you into an asshole.
Social media is undermining truth.
Social media is making what you say meaningless.
Social media is destroying your capacity for empathy.
Social media is making you unhappy.
Social media doesn't want you to have economic dignity.
Social media is making politics impossible.
Social media hates your soul.
Winston Smith, in Orwell's 1984, writes in his journal, that "Until they become conscious they will never rebel, and until after they have rebelled they cannot become conscious." That has always seemed like an inescapable logical absurdity, an unsolvable Catch 22. But what if the act of rebellion and of becoming conscious is, in fact, the same act? What if deleting your social media accounts, even for a short time, is the best way to better know yourself, to know how you might be manipulated, and taking fuller control of your thoughts, your actions, and your life?
The book, Lanier admits, doesn't even cover all the potential problems related to social media. Far from it:
The book doesn't address the problems related to family dynamics, to untenable pressure places on young people, especially young women (please read Sherry Turkle on those topics), the way scammers can use social media to abuse you, the way social media algorithms might discriminate against you for racist or other horrible reasons (please read Cathy O'Neil on that topic), or the way your loss of privacy can bite you personally and harm society in surprising ways.
It also doesn't discuss much in the way of its potential power for people. For instance, David Hogg writes to the powerful interests opposing the student movement he has helped spawn in #NeverAgain: "you may have the Second Amendment and guns, but we have the First Amendment and Twitter."
I'd argue that, even if you decide not to delete your social media accounts after reading Lanier's Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now (I've left for extended stretches in the past, but don't plan on doing so at this moment), getting the reasons why a longtime veteran of Silicon Valley suggests you should will make you more free to make decisions about how you use them, and how you allow them to use you—why, in short, you should become more like a cat.
We have 20 copies available.