Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Jaron Lanier on why you should delete your social media accounts.

I have read through Jared Lanier's "Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now." His critiques are important and compelling, and I want to pass on just a few clips of text that give you gist of his arguments:

We’re being tracked and measured constantly, and receiving engineered feedback all the time. We’re being hypnotized little by little by technicians we can’t see, for purposes we don’t know. We’re all lab animals now...Now everyone who is on social media is getting individualized, continuously adjusted stimuli, without a break, so long as they use their smartphones. What might once have been called advertising must now be understood as continuous behavior modification on a titanic scale...This book argues in ten ways that what has become suddenly normal— pervasive surveillance and constant, subtle manipulation— is unethical, cruel, dangerous, and inhumane. Dangerous? Oh, yes, because who knows who’s going to use that power, and for what?
The core process that allows social media to make money and that also does the damage to society is behavior modification. 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...Using symbols instead of real rewards has become an essential trick in the behavior modification toolbox. For instance, a smartphone game like Candy Crush uses shiny images of candy instead of real candy to become addictive...somewhat random or unpredictable feedback can be more engaging than perfect feedback.
The prime directive to be engaging reinforces itself, and no one even notices that negative emotions are being amplified more than positive ones. Engagement is not meant to serve any particular purpose other than its own enhancement, and yet the result is an unnatural global amplification of the “easy” emotions, which happen to be the negative ones.
Social media is biased, not to the Left or the Right, but downward. The relative ease of using negative emotions for the purposes of addiction and manipulation makes it relatively easier to achieve undignified results. An unfortunate combination of biology and math favors degradation of the human world. Information warfare units sway elections, hate groups recruit, and nihilists get amazing bang for the buck when they try to bring society down.
One of the main reasons to delete your social media accounts is that there isn’t a real choice to move to different social media accounts. Quitting entirely is the only option for change. If you don’t quit, you are not creating the space in which Silicon Valley can act to improve itself...the problem isn’t behavior modification in itself. The problem is relentless, robotic, ultimately meaningless behavior modification in the service of unseen manipulators and uncaring algorithms.
I speak as a computer scientist, not as a social scientist or psychologist. From that perspective, I can see that time is running out. The world is changing rapidly under our command, so doing nothing is not an option. We don’t have as much in the way of rigorous science as would be ideal for understanding our situation, but we have enough results to describe the problem we must solve, just not a lot of time in which to solve it. Seems like a good moment to coin an acronym so I don’t have to repeat, over and over, the same account of the pieces that make up the problem. How about “Behaviors of Users Modified, and Made into an Empire for Rent”? BUMMER.
The corp perspective
One problem with the BUMMER model is that it’s like oil for a petrostate. A BUMMER-dependent company can diversify its activities— its cost centers— all it wants, but it can never diversify its profit centers, because it always has to prioritize free services in order to grab more data to run the manipulation services. Consumers are addicted, but so are the BUMMER empires.
BUMMER makes tech companies brittle and weirdly stagnant. Of the big five tech companies, only two depend on the BUMMER model. Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft all indulge in a little BUMMER, but they all do just fine without depending on BUMMER. The non-BUMMER big tech companies have successfully diversified. There are plenty of reasons you might want to criticize and change those three companies, but the amount of BUMMER they foster is not an existential threat to civilization.
The two tech giants that are hooked on BUMMER, Google and Facebook, are way hooked. They make the preponderance of their profits from BUMMER despite massive investments in trying to start up other types of businesses. No matter the scale, a company based on a single trick is vulnerable. Sooner or later some disruption will come along, and then a BUMMER company, no matter how large, will quickly collapse.
So why is it again, that BUMMER is such a great long-term strategy for tech companies? It isn’t. It trades the short term against the long term, just like a petrostate...Instead of trying to shut down BUMMER companies, we should ask them to innovate their business models, for their own good.
The user perspective
It might sound undesirable to someday have to pay for things that are currently free, but remember, you’d also be able to make money from those things. And paying for stuff sometimes really does make the world better for everyone. Techies who advocated a free/ open future used to argue that paying for movies or TV was a terrible thing, and that the culture of the future would be made of volunteerism, with the digital distribution funded by advertising, of course. This was practically a religious belief in Silicon Valley when the big BUMMER companies were founded. It was sacrilege to challenge it.
But then companies like Netflix and HBO convinced people to pay a monthly fee, and the result is what is often called “peak TV.” Why couldn’t there also be an era of paid “peak social media” and “peak search”? ...Watch the end credits on a movie on Netflix or HBO. It’s good discipline for lengthening your attention span! Look at all those names scrolling by. All those people who aren’t stars made their rent by working to bring you that show.
BUMMER only supports stars. If you are one of those rare, rare people who are making a decent living off BUMMER as an influencer, 4 for instance, you have to understand that you are in a tiny club and you are vulnerable. Please make backup plans! I hate raining on dreams, but if you think you are about to make a living as an influencer or similar, the statistics are voraciously against you, no matter how deserving you are and no matter how many get-rich-quick stories you’ve been fed. The problem isn’t that there are only a few stars; that’s always true, by definition. The problem is that BUMMER economics allow for almost no remunerative roles for near-stars. In a genuine, deep economy, there are many roles. You might not become a pro football player, but you might get into management, sports media, or a world of other related professions. But there are vanishingly few economic roles adjacent to a star influencer. Have a backup plan.
When social media companies are paid directly by users instead of by hidden third parties, then they will serve those users. It’s so simple. Someone will be able to pay to see poisonous propaganda, but they won’t be able to pay to have that poison directed at someone else. The incentive for poisoning the world will be undone...I won’t have an account on Facebook, Google, or Twitter until I can pay for it— and I unambiguously own and set the price for using my data, and it’s easy and normal to earn money if my data is valuable. I might have to wait a while, but it’ll be worth it. 
It’s almost impossible to write about the deepest spiritual or philosophical topics, because people are on such hair triggers about them, but it would be a cop-out to avoid declaring a statement of beliefs regarding the basic questions that BUMMER is trying to dominate… I am conscious. I have faith that you are also conscious. We each experience. It’s a marvel… Acknowledging that experience exists might make us kinder, since we understand people to be more than machines. We might be a little more likely to think before hurting someone if we believe there’s a whole other center of experience cloaked in that person, a whole universe, a soul.
The BUMMER business is interwoven with a new religion that grants empathy to computer programs— calling them AI programs— as a way to avoid noticing that it is degrading the dignity, stature, and rights of real humans … The BUMMER experience is that you’re just one lowly cell in the great superorganism of the BUMMER platform. We talk to our BUMMER-connected gadgets kind of as if they’re people, and the “conversation” works better if we talk in a way that makes us kind of like machines. When you live as if there’s nothing special, no mystical spark inside you, you gradually start to believe it.
The issues that are tearing the United States apart are all about whether people are special, about where the soul might be found, if it is there at all. Is abortion acceptable? Will people become obsolete, so that everyone but a few elite techies will have to be supported by a charitable basic income scheme? Should we treat all humans as being equally worthy, or are some humans more deserving of self-determination because they are good at nerdy tasks? These questions might all look different at first, but on closer inspection they are all versions of the same question: What is a person? Whatever a person might be, if you want to be one, delete your accounts.
(above clips taken from Lanier, Jaron. Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now Henry Holt and Co.. Kindle Edition. )

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