Sunday, November 25, 2018

Review: Jaron Lanier, Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now

This book is what I have come to expect from Jaron Lanier: a snarky, exasperating introduction to some valuable and interesting ideas. So, whyfor the four stars? Because it is timely and because it has some important things to say.
Broadly, Lanier argues that: (reason 1) social media has turned into a giant stimulus-reward behavior modification system which leads to compulsive engagement and (reason 2) it is selling the time and attention of participants and doing so in a way which affects both them and society as a whole in a negative way. To put it in other terms, it is a giant continuous engaging distracting hard sell and surveillance system. Now, behavior modification has its limits. Notoriously, once someone stops participating in a behavior modification program, the program stops having effect, which is why, for instance, alcoholics have to keep returning to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. But with social media, the program never stops. It is the television that is never turned off, always yammering in the background, always distracting.
Lanier goes on to explore the consequences of this in the subsequent eight chapters, one for each argument. These are less convincing, and Lanier, who after all was a Silicon Valley impresario, making the pitch for his position, throws out arguments rapidly, hoping some will stick. He is better, I think, in interviews, and here he is explaining to Harper Simon of the LA Review of Books:
The problem, however, is that behind the scenes there are these manipulation, behavior modification, and addiction algorithms that are running. And these addiction algorithms are blind. They’re just dumb algorithms. What they want to do is take whatever input people put into the system and find a way to turn it into the most engagement possible. And the most engagement comes from the startle emotions, like fear and anger and jealousy, because they tend to rise the fastest and then subside the slowest in people, and the algorithms are measuring people very rapidly, so they tend to pick up and amplify startle emotions over slower emotions like the building of trust or affection. – from an interview with Simon Harper in the LA Review of Books[1]
Some of the book is unexpectedly timely: covert advertising, targeted through Facebook’s vast surveillance system, influenced the outcome of elections in the USA and UK, both in negative directions, and when Facebook came under investigation, it proceeded to attack its critics by trolling up anti-Semites. And this pales in comparison to the Myanmarian use of social media to assault its Rohingya minority, Chinese use of social media to abuse its Muslim population, and the vast “social credit” system that China is attempting to build, which will certainly lead to a society where social media trolls are a major factor.
I will briefly protest yet again that lasting citations must include more than URLs; URLs, as Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World-Wide Web, foresaw and Sarah Kenzidor recently found to her sorrow, are ephemeral.
So, a timely book with some serious flaws. Read it anyway.

[1] Simon, Harper, “Delete Your Account Now: A Conversation with Jaron Lanier.” LA Review of Books, October 8, 2018. Available at


mike w. said...

i believe you meant to say Myanmar's rather than Malaysia's use of social media against the Rohingyas.

Raven Onthill said...

Right you are! I've corrected it.