Like Jacob Marley in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the moldering ghost of psychologist B.F. Skinner haunts the pages of Jaron Lanier’s new self-explanatory manifesto Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now.
Today, most people might only vaguely recognize Skinner’s name from Psych 101 classes. But in the 1960s and ’70s, Skinner and his work were front and center in the national conversation. Promoting a theory that came to be known as “behavior modification,” Skinner considered humans easily programmable animals, vulnerable to all kinds of manipulation and coercion—mostly beyond conscious reasoning—through a regimen of rewards and punishments.
During the Nixon era, Skinner’s ideas were wielded by the left in sometimes apocalyptic critiques of television and the advertising industry, and by the right against Soviet-style Communism: Were people being hypnotized on a mass scale by malevolent outside forces into behaving against their self-interest?
Skinner would not recognize the language that we regularly use today to describe contemporary mass communications—trolling, gaslighting, fake news, hate-tweeting, hashtags. But the methods and the outcomes of the social-media age, at least according to Lanier, are straight out of Skinner, recast in the terms of modern cognitive brain science. In his well-known provocative and blunt style, Lanier gets right to the point in Ten Arguments’ chapter headings: “Social Media is Making You Into an Asshole,” “Social Media is Making You Unhappy,” “Social Media Hates Your Soul.”
As Lanier points out in his book, Skinner’s theories resulted in a lot of cheesy mind-control themes in movies and pop culture. But it’s only now—a couple of generations later, after the rise of internet culture—that mass manipulation and granular surveillance has become a practical business model.
These practices on the part of social media companies and other internet giants are, he writes, “unethical, dangerous, cruel and inhumane.”
On Monday, Lanier comes to UC Santa Cruz as part of the Peggy Downes Baskin Ethics Lecture Series with a message that cannot be better articulated than by the title of his book. He’s making the case that the social media world robs people of free will, distorts relationships, creates destructive addictions, destroys political compromise and progress, and alters the functioning of the human mind, particularly young and developing minds. The most efficacious way out of this emerging hellscape is to delete your social media accounts. All of them. Permanently. Right now.
Lanier is not exactly a voice in the wilderness in his critique of the world that Facebook and Twitter have given us. Since the inflection point of the 2016 election, the voices of protest against online surveillance and manipulation have grown louder and more varied. Former Google product manager Tristan Harris is on a mission to convince the world that smartphones have hacked our brains.
Aza Raskin, who invented “infinite scroll”—the technology that allows users to scroll feeds continuously—now admits to feeling remorse over his creation and asserts that apps are designed to be addictive. High-profile Twitter users are bailing; actor Stephen Fry said he quit Twitter because “too many people have peed in the pool.” Tech titans have, to various degrees, expressed regret over what the internet has become. Even Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg said “I’m sorry” while testifying before Congress.
But among them all, 58-year-old Lanier stands out as a kind of tech elder statesman. A pioneer in the development of virtual reality, Lanier has in the last decade emerged as a voice of skepticism in tech’s heedless march to a new world order with his books You Are Not a Gadget and Who Owns the Future? As Lanier sees it, he doesn’t have a political ax to grind; he’s just as likely to critique the good intentions of Wikipedia as he is to crack on the ultra-capitalism of Facebook.
However blunt and outspoken Lanier happens to be, he works to avoid the hot-take, button-pushing rhetoric that has made online life so miserable. He works at Microsoft. He has relationships with people at Google going back decades. He makes sure you know that he is criticizing systems, not people.
“There’s a lot of really fine people [in Silicon Valley] who have been caught up in a stupid system,” Lanier says in an interview. “The problem is that we’ve painted ourselves into a very complicated, ridiculous corner, where it’s really tricky to figure out how to improve it. Much of the history of the internet was really about idealistic people who wanted to create a society based more on sharing and volunteerism. But it actually backfired totally, and created this hyper-centralized system that you can’t even call capitalism anymore. It’s kind of a return to feudal times.”
Lanier’s critique is specific: He’s not lamenting the nature of the internet or the fact that everyone is spending too much time on their devices, or even the structure of social media or people’s desire to connect. His criticism is aimed squarely at a business model that profits from sophisticated manipulation of people’s behavior.
“I don’t think people are being naive,” says Lanier, “and I don’t think people are being cynical. I think people are being addicted.”
The Way Out
Ten Arguments goes well beyond economics. Lanier claims that social media destroys exactly that humanist connective tissue that great art works strive to create: empathy. Social media bubbles reinforce tribalism, allowing people to become both victimizers and victims. Even Donald Trump, who is to progressives the walking embodiment of everything awful about the modern age, is a victim in that he’s a Twitter addict, and that has shaped his behavior. “Elon Musk is another one,” says Lanier. “It’s exactly the same pattern [as Trump]. He became addicted to Twitter. Then he debased himself and started destroying everything.”
So could it get worse before it gets better? Lanier says yes. “I think there’s tremendous danger in the United States that there will be some kind of theocratic takeover of companies like Facebook and Google. I could see something like Trump complaining, feeling like everyone in the world is against him because that’s his worldview. Then the government would impose an ethics panel on top of Google and Facebook. We would appoint some respected theologians and it’ll progress just as it has happened in China, [with] some sort of ideological control police on the internet. That might sound paranoid and bizarre, but it sounds like a reasonable and possible future for this country.”
Is there a way out? Lanier says that when it comes to systems, none of them are perfect. Entropy always wins. “Humanity has never devised a method of organizing people that hasn’t devolved in some terrible way.”
This is an abridge article that originally appeared on San Jose Inside’s sister publication, the Santa Cruz Good Times.