Recently my “random walker” placed Jaron Lanier’s most recent book in my cart and Amazon dutifully sent it off in a box, three times the size needed I might add, to my home. Having some downtime over the holiday break, I read it. Quickly.
By the way, what’s the cutoff for a “book” to be a book, versus, say, a “pamphlet?” Do people write pamphlets anymore? Perhaps Mr. Lanier knows that we all live in a world where sustaining attention is difficult, where tweet storms are hard to follow, and where 90% of us watch TV, scroll on our phone, all while pretending to talk to our children or spouses. Having said that, if you’re a Curb Your Enthusiasm fan, feel free to accuse me of “comedic misappropriation.”
I don’t know anything about Mr. Lanier except that he appears very talented, writes well, and could be a character actor for every movie calling for a Baby Boomer hacker type. Call Central Casting for the prototypical soothsaying computer genius, in a movie about the grid crashing due to the overwhelming popularity of cat videos and he’s your guy!
The book is well-meaning. Like, literally so. Mr. Lanier really wants us to consider deleting our social media accounts. He makes arguments, and while not that original, that are very well organized, succinctly summarized, and he brings them home quickly. I liked that. I summarize the ten here:
Social media destroys free will
Leaving Social Media is the most meaningful way to protest
Social media makes us all assholes
Social media is fake
Social media is empty
Social media destroys empathy
Social media is making you miserable
Social media treats like you like a cow
Social media makes politics impossible
Social media is destroying your soul
Admittedly, I improvised on #8 a bit, but the rest are fairly summarized I think. The internet is rife with commentary on how social media is a haven for trolls, is full of fakery, and how we are all the product. We really are cows in the sense that we’re well-fed, fattened up nicely, and for all intents and purposes, think we’re “free.”
But of course, we’re not. Apple’s Screen Time feature proves this to us every week with an update. And unless you’ve turned it off, you know you’re spending hours per day staring at your phone.
That’s not to pass judgement on you; it’s just a fact. While we tell ourselves communicating with friends and family over long distances is a modern miracle, and it strengthens relationships and bonds, some portion of that time is spent following people we know or don’t, doing things that are real or not, all to pass the time. Screen Time doesn’t lie….dammit.
Now Mr. Lanier is trying to get us to look up from the phone, to do something about this mess. And he’s right. While putting argument #2 early in the book seemed out of place to me, he’s right to demand change. We’re slaves to the smartphone. Never before in the history of mankind has one device been so tightly integrated into our lives. We bring it to the most intimate places, while doing the most private things…and why? Because we’re addicted. Addicted to the very things we despise—hatred, bullying, politics of fear, and fakery. I believe this is the very definition of addiction: I want to stop drinking, doing meth, or smoking because I know it makes me fat, causes my teeth to rot, or kills me…yet I simply can’t.
Well, how many of us have said “no more Facebook” or “I’m putting my smartphone away for awhile?” How many of us said that today? And, like going to the gym on January 2nd versus February 2nd, we’re sucked back in by the latest nude celebrity hack or notification ding? Pretty sure that’s called addiction.
What Mr. Lanier gets right is we’ve reached some kind of tipping point with social media. The 2016 election marked a turning point in not only our politics but our culture. Everything that the Founders had hoped for—vigorous debate and heated compromise—has devolved into Twitter-hosted food fights. And everything Orwell and Huxley wrote about—surveillance and vacuous gratification—has come to pass. If we don’t do something—anything—we’re going to look up from our smartphones one day and realize the algorithms took over, the drones no longer serve us, and the Strong AI’s have determined that we will best served as actors in the sequel to WALL-E.
The problem with the book is it’s simply not realistic. Withdrawing from the digital world, even if it is confined to social media (however that gets defined) won’t work. In a world where 90% of the largest generation gets their news from Facebook and where the leader of the free world communicates to the world via Twitter, it makes no sense to ask people to not use these sites. Expecting otherwise is like asking us to not swipe right on Tinder…ever.
I applaud Mr. Lanier’s declarations. I even admire him for his self-avowed discipline with respect to these sites, but as I am frequently saying, “the toothpaste is out of the tube” and it ain’t going back. Instead, a few baby-steps might be in order. For example:
Like alcohol and cigarettes, put some regulation around who can access social media. No Facebook for 13-year-olds would be a great start.
We put speed bumps in neighborhoods to slow down cars, why not have virtual speed bumps? Legislate a 3-day social media blackout prior to the first Tuesday of every November election (patterned after state governments’ historical ban of alcohol on election days).
Mandate paid versions of social media (and search engines, for that matter). Let me pay for what I want, be advertised to the way I want, and stop being a cow for Facebook to slaughter. (This was the very best recommendation Mr. Lanier provided, in my opinion.)
The point here is not that these are the right answers. Rather, that a cold-turkey retreat to the proverbial “cabin in the woods” will most certainly not be the answer. Instead of placing the burden on us, let’s start placing some heat on the tech barons who control the billions of eyeballs across the modern world.
Nonetheless, I very much enjoyed Mr. Lanier’s book and plan to read his others soon. I believe he and others like him are building momentum toward some sort of movement to quell the tsunami of social media exhaustion that is clearly building.
Of course, we would need a functioning body politic to even have the conversation about these or any other half-measures. We’d need to be able to entertain crazy ideas, have substantive debates about the pros and cons, and find common ground.
I’ll keep my fingers crossed that that improves in 2019. Not…