I like to say the following to folks after one of my all-too-frequent displays of bad temper: “I’m sorry. I’m in AA. That outburst was totally in character. I am trying to recover.”
Generally folks pause for just a moment, reassessing me, and taking in the news that I am a recovering alcoholic.
Before they get too comfortable with that reassessment, I spring the punchline on them.
”I am not referring to Alcoholics Anonymous, mind you.” I pause to make sure I’ve got their full attention. “I am referring, of course, to Assoholics Anonymous.”
Folks chuckle, struggling to decide whether to forgive me or not.
I was reminded of this set piece this holiday season while reading one of my favorite Christmas gifts: Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now by Jaron Lanier. The giver of this gift has long had misgivings about my participation on social media, namely Facebook. I decided to read the book to see just what Lanier had to say.
I was expecting something light and breezy – a wry effort at humorous self-help. What I got was a slap in the face.
Lanier has been involved in virtual reality research and digital wizardry for 30 years. He’s written perceptively about how the digital world is transforming the everyday world we all inhabit in previous books, Who Owns the Future?, You Are Not A Gadget, and, in 2017, Dawn of New Everything.
His thesis? Social media is bad for civilization.
It’s all in the algorithms.
Too abstract? OK. Blame the “existential mafia” – Lanier’s term, not mine – known as Facebook.
An algorithm is simply an equation, a formula used to relate things in patterns of use for one thing or another. In an era of machine learning supported by enormous computing power, algorithms have the capacity to engage in seemingly infinite and discrete calculations. What social media focuses on are users and what users pay attention to. Each click of your mouse is monitored, so is the time you spend viewing something, what you “like,” and so forth. A profile is created for each user.
Your digital profile, or footprint, is then correlated with those of others. Patterns emerge. If those who “like” cat photos also “like” articles about red wine and also “like” stories about child immigrants, guess what? You get grouped into a class of people who will be fed news stories corresponding to your profile.
Harmless, you say? Maybe. But it does tend to create separate information silos. You and your spouse may spend the evening online reading news selected for you by an algorithm. But the news may be entirely different not just in terms of content, but also in terms of ideological slant. That undermines a sense of community.
Bad as that may be, things look even worse when you realize the free social media you are using is generating data about you that is bundled and sold to advertisers and third parties by the likes of Facebook. Who buys the data? Folks who want to manipulate you. Did Russia use social media to influence how people voted? Most likely. Where’d they get the data? You gave it up for free to Facebook and others, and it was Facebook and others who profited from what you gave them.
Lanier: “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.”
What were we thinking?
We weren’t thinking; we were reacting, like Pavlovian rats in a digital cage.
Social media is about trying to belong. The currency of belonging in this digital universe is attention. Hence the concern about social metrics – are people reading you, responding to you, paying attention to you? It’s easy to get attention being nasty, or, to put it in Lanier’s terms, by being an “asshole.”
We become tribes and notice one another by congregating around things we don’t like. When we do that, we yield data for the algorithms directing our digital lives. Those who purchase that data learn our hot buttons. They buy the right to learn these so that they can press them. Are we divided on matters or race and/or immigration? Why wouldn’t Russia, or anyone else who can afford the price, buy this data and use it to manipulate our elections?
If you are skeptical about the thesis look no further than CNN, MSNBC and FOX, three ideological outposts each striving to appeal to their viewers by a non-stop 24-hour a day frenzy to fill the day with facts and opinion too often predictably revolving around fixed points. (I’ve largely given up on all three, relying on Bloomberg News or the BBC when I need to listen to something.)
What convinced me that Lanier was right was his discussion of the asshole factor on social media. Truth is, he nailed me. I enjoy being provocative for the sake of provocation. I like to drop a bomb and then watch it explode in the comments section. Why? It’s more than blood sport. I suppose I like the attention.
Lanier again: “If, when you participate in online platforms, you notice a nasty thing inside yourself, ... a yearning to lash out, to swat someone down, then leave that platform. Simple.”
Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.
But still I persist.
The coup de grace came in an unexpected form. Friends informed me of Facebook’s new algorithmic sensors. The machine now deletes things Facebook doesn’t like. You can appeal, but the results of the appeal come quickly; it yields a sense that you are giving away data about yourself, sacrificing civility, and then being told how to behave during your digital rape.
I’m doing all this to make Mark Zuckerberg rich? Why?
Lanier counsels leaving social media for the sake civility, culture, truth and self-respect. He makes a good argument, and I am on the cusp of doing so.
Read Lanier’s book for yourself. I find him convincing and credible. He’s no Luddite. The digital world is here to stay. But as consumers we should reclaim the right to own our future. Why give it away to machines making strangers rich?
Facebook has me rethinking my commitment to AA. What about you?