Oct 5 2018 – CBC The Current
Jaron Lanier says evidence shows addictive design was deliberately used for platform
We are lumped into groups of millions of like minded users based on data collected from us from many sources. Then thousands of tiny unnoticeable social experiments performed over time on each group to figure out the best way to slowly manipulate them without them realizing. Robbing many of part of their free will.
Guest: Jaron Lanier
JARON LANIER: everything for people. It’s a truly malicious ugly force in the world.
PC: But the argument is: social media has some good too. And I’m thinking you know it allows people to organize and find like-minded people in order to find a community, campaign on issues that they care about. If we abandon social media wouldn’t that be a setback for civil society?
JARON LANIER: Well first of all the benefits that you describe are real. I wouldn’t deny that for a second, although I would describe them as being intrinsic to the internet not so much the social media companies that have come to take it over. What’s happened with the social media companies is this good, which I absolutely believe is real. I absolutely believe in what you just said. But this good has been ruined. For instance if you look at the Arab Spring which are sometimes called the Twitter revolution or the Facebook revolution, it turned out that later ISIS got more mileage and better mileage out of using the same tools in the Arab Spring had. And the region turned to chaos and hasn’t developed. It hasn’t been pretty at all. A similar thing happened in the United States where the Black Lives Matter movement, which I found admirable, the data from all those people who were posting about Black Lives Matter and using it to organize was used by the algorithms and a totally blind way just to figure out who they could engage. And with the algorithms ended up doing was identifying and introducing to each other a whole world of American racists that had been latent. And it created this kind of rising neo Nazi, Ku Klux Klan revival that’s just been horrible. That’s this really darkened our nation.
PC: But do you attribute it like all of that to social media?
JARON LANIER: Well I don’t want to oversimplify the world. I think we can say that social media brings out the worst in people, that it invented what is the worst is a different claim that would be harder to make, but that it brings out the worst. I think it is easy point to defend. I mean the thing is you see it all over the world, in both rich and poor countries and in countries with all kinds of different histories. You see it in the Rohingya crisis, you see it in rural India in Africa. But you also see the same phenomenon in Eastern Europe and even in Scandinavia now, all over the place. So when you see it everywhere you have to say ‘Okay there’s something going on here’ that you can’t explain in other ways. These political problems arise after Facebook becomes prominent, along with other degradations like a rise in teen suicide. I don’t think this is something where you can say oh it’s multifactorial and then just put it aside. You have to say ‘No this is actually a dominant factor’.
PC: Let me ask you about one more. The hash tag Me Too. It’s certainly galvanized a lot of people, namely women, to come together around the world to find support and lean on each other and arguably to out some of the perpetrators, or at least alleged perpetrators.
JARON LANIER: Yes. So if my theory is right we’ll see a sort of reaction to Me Too. That’ll be disproportionately powerful at some point. So I’m making a prediction and we’ll see if it’s accurate or not.
PC: Okay. Of course there are demographic differences about who’s engaging in social media and who is not. And of course that leans towards young people they are some of the most immersed in social media. What impact do you think that is having on their perceptions about the world and their view of the future?
JARON LANIER: I have to correct you actually that was true at a certain point. I don’t know 10 or 15 years ago. At this point the demographics were much more complex than that .and in fact some of the youngest demographics are quite skeptical about social media. When I’d visit a high school or an undergraduate campus ten years ago, and I would say the same things I’m saying now, it really sounded alien and bizarre to the students. Now I get cheered. I run into kids saying ‘I won’t date anybody who has an account in any of these things’. And you know there’s that. And meanwhile there’s actually quite a large component of the older demographics on Facebook in particular. I mean it varies per platform. So the demographics are really shifting and in a way that I think is positive. But can I just say one thing? I think a lot of what drives people to stay on these things is an almost accidental fear that if I’m not on these services, I’ll just disappear. I won’t know anybody, nobody will know about me. My life will disappear. So I write books, which leads me to be in your interview, and I’m seemed to be a successful writer. So far as I can tell I’m about as successful as I could reasonably expect to be. And yet I’ve never had these accounts. And it’s possible that if you just get rid of this stuff you’ll discover you really didn’t need it.
PC: It’s the old FOMO thing right. Fear Of Missing Out.
JARON LANIER: Yes. You can still text your friends. You can still make your own Web site. Remember doing that? You can still really do all the things you might want to do without using Facebook. And if you get off Facebook all of a sudden it takes much less time to get informed by the news and you get better informed that’s been I think well demonstrated. So you know a lot of it is a groundless fear.
PC: Is the real idea behind asking people to delete their accounts, I mean are you actually expecting a mass exit. I mean the call to arms so to speak that you’re making, do you think it’s going to make a difference?
JARON LANIER: Well here’s the analogy I would make: in the past society has faced a number of instances of mass addiction that led to mass destruction and we were able to reform ourselves despite there being massive commercial interests. So one example is public cigarette smoking. It used to be ubiquitous and now it’s gone. Another example is drunk driving. It used to be cute. Now it’s gone. And in both cases what happened is there were enough people, a minority probably, who simply didn’t drink and or didn’t smoke. And that small portion of society was enough to start a conversation. There were just some people who were outside of the addiction and could see it and could articulate that this addiction wasn’t doing us any good. And everybody eventually responded to that reasonable argument. So in the same way here, my goal ultimately is just to have enough of a sliver of the society that can be outside of the addiction that we can have a rational argument. And I believe that once we can have a rational discussion, once we can have that discussion then I think I trust in people and I think that will start to make the same corrections that we did for cigarettes and alcohol. So there’s a lot of people trying to do non-commercial versions of social media, most of which are better. You can write books and magazine articles, you can have meetings, you can give talks. You can do all these things and then you’re actually more connected to people. I mean it’s actually better when you do it that way.
PC: What responsibility do big tech and social media companies have in trying to solve some of the problems you’ve laid out?
JARON LANIER: As you know I believe we do have responsibility. And that’s why I speak up so much. You know I’m a member of the loyal opposition in the tech world you might say. But at the same time society can’t ask the tech platforms to solve all the problems because that makes the tech platforms too powerful and too central. So every time you petition Facebook to do something like get rid of fascists or cruelty or pornographers or whatever it might be, there are a whole host of evils, every time we ask them to be the authority that regulates these we’re kind of making them more powerful and more central and more like an authoritarian government which I don’t think is the direction we want to go in. And so my own feeling is that the solution is not so much asking the tech platforms to become the morality police but instead to build up societal structures like journals and even radio stations, if I might say, that can become the places that have quality standards that people can come to trust. And then those things can voluntarily have standards that are higher without requiring this giant global censorship effort. Facebook and similar companies and Google have had the effect of subsuming or reducing or crushing into obedience of the independent press. You know everybody has to sort of beg to be included in these algorithmic flows that are being calculated for totally different purposes for manipulation. And what we need to do is strengthen those institutions the newspapers, the schools, the journals so that they’re powerful enough to stand up. And I think that’s where we’ll see more benefit than demanding that the platforms become more and more authoritarian.
PC: And are you optimistic that we can actually turn the ship around somehow?
JARON LANIER: Oh yes sure. I mean humanity has faced horrible problems in the past. We have to try to pull back from falling into irritable insanity in time to deal with climate change and other real issues that are threatening us. Can we do it? Yes I mean what’s the point in thinking we can’t? There’s no benefit to that. So of course I’m optimistic. Criticism is optimism. Criticism is what you do when you think there’s hope for improvement. So I’m absolutely optimistic and the more optimistic I am the more of a critic I’ll be.
PC: I’m not going to give you 280 characters but I’m going to give you about 30 seconds to make the pitch to someone to get off social media right now. What are you going to say to them?
JARON LANIER: I’m going to say the only way you can know yourself is to experiment, to push yourself. You could go hiking in Tibet. That’s one way. But even better way these days is to get off social media for six months. Get to know yourself, your friends, your world and then decide again. Then you’ll know yourself then you have the standing to make a decision.
PC: Jaron Lanier, it’s been great to talk to you. Thank you very much.
JARON LANIER: Oh hey thanks for being interested.
PC: Jaron Lanier is a scientist at Microsoft and the author of Ten Arguments for Deleting your Social Media Accounts Right Now. He was in Berkeley California.