The New Yorker, Mark O’Connell reviews two recent books that express extreme pessimism about the role of social media and the internet in society: Jaron Lanier’s Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now and James Bridle’s New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future. Lanier is a computer programmer and long-time critic of corporate-driven social media, while Bridle is an artist and writer whose work highlights the pervasiveness of network surveillance in our lives. As O’Connell notes, together these books suggest that “we have created a world that defies our capacity to understand it.” Here’s an excerpt from his review:
The first argument in Jaron Lanier’s recent book, “Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now,” is that the nexus of consumer technologies and submerged algorithms, which forms so large a part of contemporary reality, is deliberately engineered to get us hooked. “We’re being hypnotized little by little by technicians we can’t see, for purposes we don’t know,” he writes. “We’re all lab animals now.”
The problem, for Lanier, is not technology, per se. The problem is the business model based on the manipulation of individual behavior. Social-media platforms know what you’re seeing, and they know how you acted in the immediate aftermath of seeing it, and they can decide what you will see next in order to further determine how you act—a feedback loop that gets progressively tighter until it becomes a binding force on an individual’s free will. One of the more insidious aspects of this model is the extent to which we, as social-media users, replicate its logic at the level of our own activity: we perform market analysis of our own utterances, calculating the reaction a particular post will generate and adjusting our output accordingly. Negative emotions like outrage and contempt and anxiety tend to drive significantly more engagement than positive ones. This toxic miasma of bad vibes—of masochistic pleasures—is not, in Lanier’s view, an epiphenomenon of social media, but rather the fuel on which it has been engineered to run.
Lanier has coined a term for this process: he calls it bummer, which stands for “Behaviours of Users Modified, and Made into an Empire for Rent.” (Sample bummer-based sentence: “Your identity is packified by bummer.” Sample marginalia, scrawled by this reviewer with sufficient desperate emphasis to literally tear the page: “Please stop saying bummer!”) In Lanier’s view, bummer is responsible, in whole or in part, for a disproportionate number of our contemporary ailments, from the election of Donald Trump to the late-career resurgence of measles due to online anti-vaccine paranoia.
Image via the New Yorker.