Editor’s note: The author, composer and computer scientist Jaron Lanier has published a new book, “Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now,” that comes out later this month. PBS NewsHour economics correspondent Paul Solman recently spoke with Lanier about the book and Lanier’s concerns about social media. Their conversation is presented here, edited for length and clarity. Watch the full segment on Lanier on Thursday’s NewsHour program.
PAUL SOLMAN: So I just actually activated a Facebook account within the last month. Are you suggesting I get rid of it already?
JARON LANIER: If our species is going to survive, it’s going to be because we learn how to have sane conversations with one another. And the way social media is today does not allow that. And it’s, I believe, destroying our future. Not everyone can afford to delete their accounts on social media because they might have a dependency of one sort or another. If you can delete, however, I think you have a duty to delete. Not only are you gradually nudging us all in the right direction, but in learning how to live your life without these accounts, you’re also pioneering what it’s like to live without them. And other people can learn from you. So it’s really important that more and more people do it.
PAUL SOLMAN: When you say dependency, what do you mean?
JARON LANIER: Well, some people feel that their careers have become so intertwined with a company like Facebook that they would destroy themselves if they left, and they might be correct. I don’t know in any particular case.
PAUL SOLMAN: You mean businesswise.
JARON LANIER: Businesswise, perhaps something about their social lives, I don’t know. Facebook has inserted itself in a way that, in my opinion, is a little too power-mongering, let’s say. In some developing countries where people really only know Facebook and they don’t know the internet without Facebook, they don’t really have a choice. I’m not saying that everybody has the same amount of choice. However, if you do have the choice, make the choice to be more independent, to be a pioneer in defining your own life online instead of having it calculated for you by some company that doesn’t have your own interests as its primary concern. Think for yourself. Teach others how to think for themselves. So yeah, delete your accounts if you can.
PAUL SOLMAN: When I was here five years ago and we were talking, you were concerned [most] about the fact that the manipulation on places like Facebook [led to] using our private data and selling it to someone else. And we were therefore being economically exploited. You still believe that?
JARON LANIER: Yeah, I mean to me, the core problem here is one of economics. The core problem here is that the customer is this unseen third party who you don’t know about, and you are the product. And if you’re the product, you’re going to be used as a product, with all that that means. You’re going to be manipulated, you’re going to be abused.
The difference between now and five years ago when we spoke is that the computers have gotten faster, the algorithms have gotten better. Users— power users have become more skilled and sneaky, and there are just more users; it’s become much bigger. And so therefore, the abuse, the way that ordinary people who use these systems are degraded, has just become worse. And now we’ve seen these scandals like Cambridge Analytica. But the core is still the economic problem. The economic problem is very simply that we’ve designed a society where if you and I talk over social media, the only way that can happen is if it’s for the benefit of a third party who’s paying for it. And their only possible benefit is getting us to change our behavior. So it becomes a society based fundamentally on sneaky manipulation. Everybody has hired a hypnotist who they don’t know, who’s being paid by people they don’t know, for purposes they don’t know.
PAUL SOLMAN: You write that smartphones and smart speakers are basically turning us into lab rats or trained dogs. And I quote, “What might once have been called advertising must now be understood as continuous behavior modification on a titanic scale, but without informed consent.” So how are we being modified?
JARON LANIER: What’s happening is the system that started out as cute little ads in Google or YouTube has become more and more sophisticated to the point where what you see is being calculated carefully based on measurements about you. About your interests, the timing. The companies claim they can tell when women are having their periods, they claim. They tell all kinds of things about your psychological state, your state of health.
PAUL SOLMAN: Are all of these social media companies, these giants, equally guilty here?
JARON LANIER: Well, so I have to be careful here. I work with one of them, Microsoft, and so color me biased if you like, but I speak strictly for myself and not for them. But I don’t want this to be taken as Microsoft talking about the other companies. I have to walk a fine line here. In general I want to point out something very simple. Of the big tech companies, of the giants, there are only two that depend on the spying/manipulation model for virtually all of their income, and that’s Facebook and Google. Of the smaller companies, there are only a few like Twitter that also rely on that model. Now notice something really interesting. If you look at the other tech giants that don’t rely on that model, and that would be companies like Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, they’re all diversified in their profit centers. They do all kinds of things.
Google and Facebook can only make money one way because everything has to be free as bait to drive the engagement for the manipulation. So they prevent themselves from diversifying. So my argument is that this isn’t even good for the companies that are doing it. It’s a trap they’ve fallen into. It’s short-term thinking that makes them vulnerable, and it’s actually not a great idea. It doesn’t serve their investors, it doesn’t serve their employees and it doesn’t serve their customers ultimately.
PAUL SOLMAN: Google isn’t diversified? There are a million different things that Google does.
JARON LANIER: Google’s cost centers are very diversified. They have crazy diversified cost centers. They’re trying to solve death and whatever, they’re probably trying to make hovercraft or something. But their profit centers are not. They cannot diversify their profit centers. Whereas the other companies can.Now that’s not to say that you might not have complaints about the other companies. You might have very legitimate complaints about Microsoft or Apple or Amazon, but not this complaint.
PAUL SOLMAN: So you write, “Social media is making you into an a-hole. Social media is undermining truth, making what you say meaningless, destroying your capacity for empathy, making you unhappy.” And that’s because negativity pays better than positivity?
JARON LANIER: Well, there have been numerous studies of users of social media platforms that show that there’s a rise in unhappiness. And in fact even Facebook’s own researchers have admitted that that happens. I try, in the book I review some of that research. I ultimately come to the conclusion that it’s very hard to say for a specific person what’s going on. And this is all statistical, so there might be some people for whom it isn’t true. However, in general, yes. Using these systems does make you less happy. I think that that’s been established by enough research we should just treat it as established.
PAUL SOLMAN: So I shouldn’t use Facebook? I should get off?
JARON LANIER: You should totally get off it if you can. It’s impossible to improve health using Facebook because every time you get good medical advice out there, it’ll eventually be overwhelmed by bad medical advice which will be more engaging. It’s impossible to create compassionate politics because it’ll always be overwhelmed by its opposite, which will be more powerfully amplified. Anything you do on Facebook is fundamentally hopeless. So I won’t go on it myself.