A powerful book that should be required reading for anyone who is on social media, so, basically, everyone.
Jaron Lanier, a futurist with roots in Silicon Valley, lays out ten strong reason for getting off of social media and getting Facebook, Twitter and Google — companies he calls by the acronym BUMMER, Behaviors of Users Modified, and Made into an Empire for Rent — out of our lives.
Lanier is a compelling and persuasive writer, and he picks up themes he explored in You Are Not a Gadget, in which he predicted many of the issues we’re grappling with today courtesy of social media. And he offers a way out: delete your social media accounts until these tech companies can offer a better product, one that doesn’t engage in behavior modification on a giant scale, one that doesn’t feed off of rancor and negativity, one that doesn’t allow disinformation masquerading as truth to shape politics, and one that doesn’t make us all angry and empty and paralyzed by hopelessness. And interestingly, one of the most important first steps he mentions is that these services should charge users, lifting some of the financial pressure that drives them to monetize (and manipulate) our behaviors.
He starts with a great set up, asking if the reader would rather be a dog that blindly, obediently and predictably responds to commands, or a cat with free will and, to be honest, a bit of an attitude. It’s simplistic, yes, and I am definitely a dog person. But in this instance and after reading this book, I very much want to be a cat, able to act and think and do whatever I want, not constantly reacting to dog whistles from powerful and hidden masters. I don’t want to be manipulated. I don’t want to sit up and beg every time the algorithms powering these tech behemoths, in service of well-funded third parties who do not have my interests at heart, fire something across my screen that results in me salivating or playing dead or cowering or lashing out blindly.
Was it enough to make me delete my accounts? Not yet, but close. I did delete all the games I play, recognizing the clear behavior modification that keeps me engaged and keeps ads flashing across my screen.
So what if they do, some may ask. Aren’t you strong enough, self-disciplined enough to not buy things? Of course, but it’s the clear ability of algorithms to compile data and influence moods and twist information that worries Lanier, and now me.
What if everyone who plays zombie shooter games for an hour a week and voted democratic and earns a certain amount, what if that pool of people were exposed to a bunch of negative stories about conservatives just to make a small but statistically significant number of us overlook a decent candidate who isn’t “angry enough,” prompting us to vote for a flawed candidate because we’re soothed by their anger and lies about society, even though I was made to feel that way by a third party group who paid to use data gathered by the game?
It’s a frightening and convincing scenario, and Lanier is a strong writer with deep expertise, and he packs a lot into this slim book:
“Behavior modification entails methodical techniques that change behavioral patterns in animals and people. It can be used to treat addictions, but it can also be used to create them.”
“The relative ease of using negative emotions for the purposes of addiction and manipulation makes it relatively easier to achieve undignified results.”
“What if deeply reaching a small number of people matters more than reaching everybody with nothing?”
“How can you be authentic when everything you read, say, or do is being fed into a judgment machine?”
“Believing something only because you learned it through a system is a way of giving your cognitive power over to that system.”
And this is one of my favorite lines: “Your character is the most precious thing about you. Don’t let it degrade.”
It may be too late. Character, to me, is a product of our behaviors and the choices we make guided by the principles we live by. These days, it seems many of us have lost the ability (or willingness) to rationally apply these principles to others who may hold different opinions. Cheating and lying and bullying are increasingly justified as long as OUR side does it, but if the other side does, it well, THAT’S wrong. And that dissonance may be thanks to social media.
“BUMMER is neither liberal nor conservative; it is just pro-paranoia, pro-irritability, and pro-general @ssholeness.”
So for now, we’ve given the best part of ourselves to the social media beast and the worst part is that their black, beating heart, the algorithms that modify our behaviors, the algorithms that capture our attention and make these sites useful to shadowy, profiteering third parties, the worst part is that, “The algorithms can’t care and don’t care.”
If more people read this book, perhaps we can extricate ourselves from this swamp of negativity and emptiness created by, and necessary for the continued dominance of, the data hungry BUMMER companies.