Jaron Lanier is a scientist, musician, and writer best known for his work in virtual reality and his advocacy of humanism and sustainable economics in a digital context. He recently sat down with Heleo Associate Editor Jeremy Price to talk about how Facebook and Google are manipulating their users, discuss what a better, less creepy social media would look like, and share more groundbreaking insights from his latest book, Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now.
This conversation has been edited and condensed. To view the full version, click on the video below.
Jeremy: You’ve been in the tech space for so long. Was there a specific moment when you realized that we were in trouble when it comes to social media?
Jaron: Yeah it was around ’92, with the rise of the web. Here’s what happened—Tim Berners-Lee came up with this web protocol that lost context. Like if something linked to something else, that thing didn’t know it was being linked to, so you couldn’t know who the author was. You could never hope to have an economy where people would be paid for something; anybody could say anything, and there’d be no authentication; there was no representation of people built in, so there’d be fake people. All that stuff was clear from the start.
And then the other thing was this advertising business model, and the idea of automated feed generation to try to get people [hooked]. That combination of things seemed highly dystopian to me, and I started writing about it in ’92.
In those days it was pretty lonely, [but] now there’s a whole world of younger engineers and entrepreneurs in the tech community who are thinking ethically, who are really concerned about the impact they’re having on the world. The atmosphere is different.
Jeremy: So broadly, what are some of these arguments about why we should maybe get rid of our social media accounts?
Jaron: Look, a lot of the stuff that people experience when they’re using social media is genuine and positive. Like if you have a rare illness, you can find other people with [that illness] in common, instead of being all alone. And that’s great.
[But] there’s this other thing going on, this behind-the-scenes engine that’s getting all your data, constantly surveilling you, and then tweaking what you experience, just slightly from time to time, to try to get you to change a little bit—get your emotions peaked, change what you’re interested in, and eventually adjust your behavior so that you’ll buy something different.
The problem is the side effect of that background engine. The behavior manipulation machine makes you cranky, makes you irritable, makes you paranoid, makes you sad. Even Facebook’s own researchers have published that. At first they said, “Hey, we can deliberately make you sad without you realizing that we’re doing it to you. Yay us!” That was really creepy. And then more recently they said, “Even if we’re not trying, we’re having that effect.”
So there’s this slight darkening of the world, this slight crazy-making. I like to use the metaphor of compound interest—even if you’re only earning a little bit of compound interest, if you’re deliberate and focused, over time that can turn into a pretty big deal, right? Same thing [here]—at any particular moment, it’s not that big of a deal. But cumulatively, it starts to create a world where you don’t trust elections anymore. It creates a world that’s more divided. It creates families that are more divided. It creates a bizarre sense of unreality where people don’t know what’s true. It’s just too high a price to pay.
Jeremy: In the book you bring up this astonishing point that if everybody’s social media feeds are being tweaked all the time, then no one is looking at the same world anymore when they look through the lens of social media. What does that do to our ability to empathize with one another, and come to some sort of agreement on political issues?
Jaron: Yeah, the use of the word “empathy” in tech marketing was originally my idea. I started the virtual reality thing, and I used to say that virtual reality could create empathy because you can experience the world from somebody else’s perspective. But what we’re doing instead is giving everybody unique perspectives that nobody else can appreciate. What you’re seeing of the world is a feed that I can’t see, and is different from what I can imagine.
And I’m not just talking about dark ads. I’m also talking about the subtle [things]—the order in which you see things, the particular ads you see. The particular things that are emphasized with you are different than for me; you’re looking at a different world. So when you start to have a reaction, I don’t know where it’s coming from, and you just seem a little crazy to me. And [indeed,] we’re starting to seem crazy to each other.
That’s beyond annoying, beyond heartbreaking—it really becomes a survival issue, because mankind has real problems to face. And if we can’t face them with collective sanity, we will die. So I view this as an existential issue.
Jeremy: And I think rightly so. So the problem isn’t so much social media itself, but the business model behind it all.
Jaron: Yeah, yeah. And I’m not necessarily asking you to never be on social media again. I’m saying, get off it for a while so that you can get some perspective and know yourself outside of it, especially if you’re young.
But also, honestly, put pressure on the companies. This is not like the tobacco industry where it’s all harm and no benefit, all addiction with no nutrition. Instead, this is more like lead paint—we still want to paint houses, so let’s just make lead-free paint. We still want social media; let’s just make manipulation-free social media. Then we can have a survivable society.
“The behavior manipulation machine makes you cranky, makes you irritable, makes you paranoid, makes you sad. Even Facebook’s own researchers have published that.”
Jeremy: Absolutely. So [you suggest] a different kind of social media, one where maybe there’s a subscription model. You mention how we pay for things like Netflix and Hulu and HBO, and now, partially as a result, we’re living in “peak TV” — TV has never been better.
Jaron: Yeah, I like that example. Back when Facebook was being founded, a whole lot of people in the tech world thought that the traditional idea of hiring people to make a movie or a TV show [that people would] pay to watch—that was going to go away, that was old-fashioned. Instead, [they thought that] everything would be like Wikipedia, where you’d have an army of volunteers, and they’d create better stuff because they’d have the wisdom of the crowd on their side. So there was a fair fight between people trying to do that, and other ventures like Netflix. And Netflix won, fair and square. There’s no question—people are happy to pay for stuff that they actually want. And then what they get is better.
People sometimes curdle at the idea: “Oh my god, I couldn’t pay for Facebook!” Well, if it was better, if it had good, unmanipulative advice, if it wasn’t infested with fake people and Russian intelligence warfare units, if it was “peak social media,” you’d pay for it, because it would be a great deal.
And yeah, some people couldn’t afford to pay for it, and I strongly believe that those people would need some kind of subsidy or arrangement. It’s not a hard problem—remember in the era of books, we had this thing called the “public library.” We can figure that problem out.
And there’s another side to it too. If you look at the press releases coming out of all the tech companies right now, including Facebook, they all say, “We’re engaged in this massive AI race. We’re going to make these robots and artificial intelligences. They’re going to put you out of work—you’re going to be obsolete, you’re going to be worthless. We’re going to put you on a giant kind of welfare called a ‘basic income model.’ And then that’ll be it forever.”
I think that’s really stupid, because if that were true, then the companies wouldn’t need to steal all their data in order to make their AI’s. AI’s still need you, because they rely on your data. So if you were paid fairly for your data, you wouldn’t be treated as being valueless, but rather as valuable in a new way.
What has always happened in the past is that when a new technology comes along, it shuts down some industries but gives birth to others, and people find new kinds of jobs. Why can’t we do that this time? If there was a system where you’re paying for Facebook, you [would] also get paid. If you make something that [goes] viral and is a big deal, that should be a big payday for you. You should get royalties on it in the future when people continue to look at it or reuse it. It’s just a more sensible, dignified, honest way to do things.
“There’s no question—people are happy to pay for stuff that they actually want. And then what they get is better.”
Jeremy: Absolutely. [Given] your expertise in VR, if virtual reality becomes a more integral part of social media, what might that look like, and what kind of possibilities would that open up?
Jaron: Well the term “virtual reality” was originally meant to be the social, or the multi-user version of virtual worlds—that was its definition when I [created the term]. A single person wearing a headset isn’t even in virtual reality yet—the whole point was to make it social.
Right now, when people think about virtual reality, they think, “If I wanted to teach kids geometry in virtual reality, I’d put a big triangle in front of them in a virtual world.” No, no, no—you turn them into the triangle. Virtual reality is all about body wisdom, and when multiple kids can form a shared geometric structure and explore it—kind of like a dance—things get very beautiful, very intense, and learning becomes more profound. It’s incredible. And even now, after all these billions of dollars in investment, very few people have experienced the stuff that I think is really good about VR. So I think you have a lot of delights awaiting you if you’re interested in VR.
Jeremy: These ideas that you’re sharing come as such a breath of fresh air, because it seems like so many leaders in tech are content to have people become lab rats, [trapped in] a Skinner box. From your perspective as someone who does champion these values of freedom and dignity, why are [these values] under attack?
Jaron: Well, I think it’s a power trip. Because if you look at the rhetoric from Silicon Valley, on the one hand it’ll say, “All you ordinary people out there, you’re like computers. You’re just programs, we’ll upload [your consciousnesses] someday. We’ll give you immortality if you believe in us.” It’s like a medieval church selling indulgences.
But then at the same time, they’ll say, “But that magic hacker or magic entrepreneur, those are the people with magic free will. They have magical abilities to dent the universe.” They’re not saying that they don’t believe in free will or they don’t believe people are magical. They’re saying, “Hey you guys over there, you are the ones who aren’t magical. We are really magical.” So it’s completely hypocritical.
Jeremy: It definitely does seem that way. But you’re saying that if we return a sense of economic dignity to people, then that’s beneficial not just to them, but to these companies as well, right?
Jaron: Yeah, I’ve been working with economics colleagues and students, trying to run models of what this would be like for the tech industry if we shifted. I think the economics of a future Facebook should be some combination of Netflix—where there’s some kind of fee-based thing, either a monthly fee or some kind of micropayment as you go—and Etsy, where it’s person-to-person commerce, except [it’s] information instead of handicrafts. Imagine a company like Facebook taking a cut in exchange for making [those transactions] work—that [would be] great! Facebook could be this trusted intermediary helping people connect, helping people do commerce with each other. So far as I can tell, it would make [Facebook] a bigger company. It would get it into the top five of the world.
There’s basically five tech giants now, and only two of them rely on this background machine—I call it the “BUMMER machine:” Behavior of Users Manipulated and Made into an Empire for Rent. If that machine is the only way you make profit, it kind of ties your hands, and you can never diversify. The only two companies that rely on it are Google and Facebook, and it’s almost comic with Google—they spin off endless new cost centers: “Hey, we’re going to cure death! We’re going to make these balloons that’ll go everywhere!” They do all this crazy stuff, but they can never diversify their profit centers.
The other three companies are Apple, Microsoft, and Amazon, and they have successfully diversified because they’re not addicted to [the BUMMER machine]. So it’s actually good for companies and good for shareholders [to end the reliance on user manipulation]. This is not an attack on the companies—it’s an attempt to make them better.
Jeremy: You mentioned Etsy a second ago, which I thought was interesting. If this new change takes place, does the world suddenly become a much better place for artists, musicians, journalists, and other people who have been left by the wayside of the digital revolution?
Jaron: Yeah, my sense is that when people have a chance to directly support freelancers who are making information-based value, they rise to the challenge. Patreon is a good example of that, but it’s still kind of a niche thing. If it was made standard, I think there would be higher quality and more broad investigative reporting. Right now there’s very little local investigative reporting, and I think that’s a really bad thing. So yeah, I think people would rise to the challenge, and it would make the world a better place.
Jeremy: Nice. And I wonder about this partially because I know your own background is so diverse. You’ve had visiting professor appointments in like ten different academic departments, and you’re a musician as well. So having such an interdisciplinary background—and I’m especially curious about music—how has that influenced your thinking and your work in tech, and vice versa?
“This is not an attack on the companies—it’s an attempt to make them better.”
Jaron: If anybody wants to have a really diverse career where you do a bunch of stuff, there’s a secret I’ll share with you. It’s called “cross-procrastination.” It’s like cross-training, except you get to be lazy all the time. Every time you’re doing something, you frame it psychologically as a way of avoiding this other thing you have to do. I have a fundamentally lazy personality, and that’s the secret to my success.
And then as far as how it’s informed my tech stuff … Well, I have been a working musician. I’ve been everything from a sidewalk busker to a signed artist, so I’ve experienced different economic niches as a musician. And when people tell me, “Oh this [thing] will be good for a musician,” I can actually speak from experience [and say], “No, that’s a bunch of crap. It’ll be good for a small number of musicians, and then a few posers who have trust funds.”
We’ve basically entered into a casino world. Let’s say you’re a musician—you have to self-fund and take all the risks to get your YouTube video out, and then some pool of those people will do well. But the problem is that they’re taking all the risk, and the center—which in this case would be Google—is getting all the benefit without sharing that risk. In a true market economy, everybody links their risks to their rewards. If you have a system like a casino, where the center has to take no risks ever, and the risks are all out there for the little people, that’s a casino economy. Or more properly, it’s a centrally planned communist economy. And I think it’s fundamentally dysfunctional.
Jeremy: [Although] YouTube does pay some of the creators that are most successful, right?
“Stop the advertising thing, and then you undo the whole incentive structure that’s an invitation to criminality.”
Jaron: They’ve been taking steps, and I really appreciate that. But the problem is they can’t give up that communist central planning model. They still have this idea that, “We’re going to be the wise planner in the center; we’re going to decide how many people get paid, and how much.” To enjoy the incredible benefits of a market economy, you’ve got to take that difficult step of saying, “Hey, maybe I’m not infinitely wise. Maybe I should let the market decide.”
And stop advertising on it! Get rid of the ads in proportion to the rise of this paid economy. As long as the feed is related to the advertisement, you are creating this manipulative world that’s like this red carpet to the Russians and other bad actors. And the more you try to stamp them out [by] running algorithms or hiring tens of thousands of low-paid people, all you’re doing is breeding smarter criminals. You’re breeding a criminal underground. You’ve already done that with your search—just shut it down. Stop the advertising thing, and then you undo the whole incentive structure that’s an invitation to criminality. Just move to a paying model—you know it’s the right thing to do, Zuck.
Jeremy: So if I do decide to get mostly off social media … can I keep one [account]?
Jaron: I don’t actually tell people that I know that they, personally, should delete their accounts. Each person’s life is different, and the last thing I want to do is tell somebody that I know better than them.
I do want to tell people that if you’ve never experienced being off [social media], there’s no way you can know yourself well enough to answer the question for yourself. [But] only you can know what is right for you. All I’m saying is, “Here are some arguments. I really want you to think about it.” Be thoughtful. Make your own decisions, and I won’t second-guess you.