After receiving the UEFA President’s Award, former footballer from France, and Manchester United legend, Eric Cantona, delivered, what arguably has to be the most bizarre and cryptic speech ever delivered at an award’s ceremony. An existential rumination, that had at its centerpiece the notions of aging, crime and science, Cantona’s brief talk had his audience stupefied. However, Jarion Lanier might have had no trouble whatsoever in decrypting (no pun intended) the essence embedded within this curious speech. Lanier, the reclusive Karl Popper of the ’Techverse’, has been clamouring for a complete detachment by users from all forms of social media. The man surely practices what he preaches as well. He has completely severed himself from every form of social media usage and hence his renowned reclusiveness!
Now in a blistering book – which is part philosophical and part polemic – plainly titled, “Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now”, Mr. Lanier, holds forth in an eloquent, erudite and extraordinary manner, on an urgent need to disassociate oneself from all social media accounts. Mr. Lanier’s book resonates deeply with the profundity and power of each of the arguments which he lays down in support of his clarion call, and constitutes a timely, urgent and essential work that highlights the pernicious outcomes of a perpetual immersion in and entanglement with social media. Mr. Lanier should know, being the pioneer in the sophisticated technology of Virtual Reality, himself.
Mr. Lanier’s Bully Pulpit revolves around the acronym, BUMMER – “Behaviours of Users Modified, and Made into an Empire for Rent.” Bummer is an insidious machinery, which, by employing a Byzantine set of algorithms and other complex Information Technology chicanery deprives users of all free will holding their thoughts, actions and deed to ransom. And atop the pile of Bummer companies stands the duo that is Facebook and Google. Mr. Lanier educates us on the six components that constitute the integral part of the Bummer machine by employing an ingenious mnemonic:
- A: Attention Acquisition leading to Asshole supremacy;
- B: Butting into everyone’s lives;
- C: Cramming content down people’s throats;
- D: Directing people’s behaviours in the sneakiest way possible;
- E: Earning money from letting the worst assholes secretly screw with everyone else; and
- F: for Fake mobs and Faker society.
Alluding to the takedowns of Facebook, courtesy Sean Parker, the first President of Facebook, and Chamath Palihapitiya, former vice-President of user growth at Facebook, Mr. Lanier brings to our attention the manipulative tactics of the Bummer companies. Giving the user a little “dopamine hit” every once in a while, unknown and unseen actors create a social-validation feedback loop into which the gullible user is unwittingly sucked – in perpetuity. Mr. Lanier also elaborates on a hypothesis framed by him about the existence of a switch deep in every human personality that can be set in one of two modes. Using the analogy of wolves, Mr. Lanier espouses that this switch can be set to either the Solitary/Pack mode. “When we are solitary wolves, we’re more free. We’re cautious, but also capable of more joy. We think for ourselves, improvise, create. We scavenge, hunt, hide. We howl once in a while out of pure exuberance.” However, as Mr. Lanier cautions us the Bummer machine does not want us to set our switches to the Solitary Mode. It is in the machine’s vested interest to ensure that our switches are always tuned to the Pack Mode. “When the Solitary/Pack switch is set to Pack, we become obsessed with and controlled by a pecking order. We pounce on those below us, lest we be demoted, and we do our best to flatter and snipe at those above us at the same time. Our peers flicker between “ally” and “enemy” so quickly that we cease to perceive them as individuals…The only constant basis of friendship is shared antagonism toward other packs.”
A case in point being the exertion of a mob rule in the domain of theoretical physics as highlighted by the theoretical physicist Lee Smolin. Mr. Lanier argues that we are blissfully unaware of the dangerous fact that we are trapped in a vast echo chamber that constantly keeps getting smaller and smaller, just like the deadly trash compactor of the Death Star. This echo chamber also leads to the inculcation of a malignant addiction. “The algorithm is trying to capture the perfect parameters for manipulating a brain, while the brain, in order to seek out deeper meaning, is changing in response to the algorithm’s experiments … Because the stimuli from the algorithm doesn’t mean anything, because they genuinely are random, the brain isn’t responding to anything real, but to a fiction. That process – of becoming hooked on an elusive mirage – is addiction.”
Certain sections of Lanier’s book make for form heavy and tedious reading. Metaphysical and philosophical connotations challenge the very limits of the reader’s intellect. In his tenth and final argument, titled, “Social Media Hates Your Soul”, Mr. Lanier attempts to enlighten us on what he terms, “The Principles of Bummer Spirituality.” Lamenting the fact that a ritual engagement with Bummer initially appears to be a funeral for free will, Mr. Lanier states, “So BUMMER intrinsically enacts a structural, rather than an ontological, change in the nature of free will. It will continue to exist, if under a barrage of insults. The important change is that now, you have less free will, and a few people whom you don’t know have more of it. Some of your free will has been transferred to them. Free will has become like money in a gilded age.”
Mr. Lanier, however does not exhort us to abhor all our social media accounts in perpetuity at the drop of a hat. He urges us to engage in an exercise, wherein we can fix a social media detachment period of six months. At the end of this moratorium, we can either return to social media or ditch it forever. As Mr. Lanier had reiterated the same principle in a piece written in The New York Post on 23 June, 2018, “After an exercise in giving up — try six months — you may decide to return to social media. Only you can know what’s best for you. But what you should do — must do — is be extra careful next time an election comes around or you’re about to make a purchase or agree to something. Is the more cranky, paranoid part of you what’s driving you? If so, please, for God’s sake, take a few more days off social media before you make your decision.”
“Ten Arguments.” may be regarded as a dystopian narrative that seeks to demonstrate how unhinged we have become as a society with our obsession towards social media. This obsession has become as preternatural as the smartphone has become a natural and limbic extension of us. Another way to look at this marvelous work is from a perspective of the Big Tech behemoths such as Google, Facebook and Amazon. There exists a golden opportunity for these capitalists to make the digital world a much better, safer and harmonious place to be in and interact. Such a change however can only be brought about if a mirror was to be placed against the conscience of these companies. This, is exactly what Mr. Lanier does, and resoundingly so!