The Social Trap

A few days ago I’ve come across a captivating title: “Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now” by Jaron Lanier. I immediately got myself a copy. I’ve never used to spend a lot of time on social media, and I’ve always been sceptical about these platforms. I don’t have Twitter, Instagram or Snapchat, and I use Facebook just to remind myself of birthdays, at least the few ones I care about. Maybe I am underestimating the potentialities of social media. Maybe I just don’t understand it.

Going back to the book, if the author were ever to read this article, he would be astonished to see that I’ve found his book quite comforting. Don’t get me wrong, the picture he describes is appalling. The implications that he highlights are terrifying. However, I’ve always believed that the problem was with the part of me that rejects consumer tech in all its forms. Hearing that social media is evil from one of the most celebrated pioneers of digital innovation made me feel much better.

Lanier argues that social media is making us sadder, angrier, less empathetic, more fearful, more isolated and more tribal. Someone may say “yeah, but social media has a positive side.” I don’t deny it. It’s the negative side that worries me, and that makes any positive sides simply not worth it. Lanier explains that the negative aspect of social media is the business plan behind it. He calls it BUMMER, an acronym for “Behaviours of Users Modified and Made into an Empire for Rent.” More easily, this means that they make you do what they want and they sell your data to the highest bidder. In exchange, you get a free service.

I’m not going to describe how they’re doing this. Read Lanier’s book, if you really want to know. Most people are not aware of how much they are influenced by social media, and how much data they’re offering to Facebook, Google & Co. The only way out, according to Lanier, is to delete your accounts, until their providers get rid of that business plan. I haven’t done it. Yet. The author allows some exceptions though. LinkedIn, he writes, isn’t that bad because it doesn’t create an alternative – fictitious – reality. Also, if you use LinkedIn, you must have noticed that everything is sober and people are a lot nicer. The reason is that people want to give a good image of themselves, to attract potential job offers, for example.

I can’t object to any of the 10 Arguments. This book has been criticised for its rushed pace and lack of examples, but not for the validity of its argument (see here). To be sure, it is not the kind of essay that you would expect. However, do we really need examples? Aren’t Brexit, Trump’s election, Cambridge Analytica, Boris Johnson’s bots already well-known examples? The rushed pace made me ponder about the urgency of the message. It represents the desperate attempt of one of the creators of social media to save his creation when it’s not too late.

The BUMMER business is interwoven with a new religion that grants empathy to computer programs – calling them AI programs – as a way to avoid noticing that it is degrading the dignity, stature, and rights of real humans. […] The BUMMER experience is that you are just one lowly cell in the great superorganism of the BUMMER platform.

Jaron Lanier, “Ten Reasons For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now”

Besides issues linked to politics, economics, philosophy, what really puzzles me is why is it so difficult to say no to this perverse mechanism? Why are we so addicted to it? People quit smoking but don’t delete their social media accounts. Unlike many of my peers, I’ve never experienced the emotion of making an Instagram story, I’ve never used a dating app. And yet I survive. We can do without much of the technology in our life. We don’t freak out if there’s no TV available, if we don’t own a car, or if the washing machine is broken. We may be annoyed, but we adapt. Why, instead, can we not live without social media? (Yes, when you forget your smartphone at home, it means you don’t have access to social media. You freak out and you know that it’s because of that).

Sorry to disappoint you, dear reader, but I don’t have an answer to that. Lanier would say that our behaviours were modified. I add that we must find a solution ourselves, because politics, let alone Facebook, Google & Co., surely don’t intend to find one at the moment. One of my favourite writers ever once wrote to a friend “I can’t say that I waste nothing, but I can say what I waste, why, and how.” For now, this is all I can do.

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