By Dan Clendenin
Jaron Lanier’s newest book is called Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now (2018). His previous books have included You Are Not a Gadget (2010), which contrasted “the lifeless world of pure information” with the rich mystery of being human; Who Owns the Future?(2013), which examined the impact of big data on the economy; and then his memoir about virtual reality called Dawn of the New Everything (2017). All four books have been best-sellers. For over thirty years, as a consummate Techie Insider, Lanier has pioneered all sorts of computer technology. He admits that long ago he counted himself as one of Silicon Valley’s “merry band of idealists.” In the 1980s he was one of the inventors of virtual reality. He’s also an artist, scientist, musician and composer who has a world class collection of rare instruments. In 2010 Time Magazine named Jaron Lanier one of the 100 most influential people in the world.
This review appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books (October 8, 2018), and is used by permission. Harper Simon is a musician living in Los Angeles.
HARPER SIMON: A little while ago I was visiting you and you put some VR goggles on me for the first time, and it was kind of comical, because we were having all these problems making it work. And at one point you said something like, “You know, I love making music. I love writing books and giving talks, but when it comes to technology I just don’t know that we really made the world a better place.” And I was really struck by that! Is that actually how you feel or were you just getting irritated that we couldn’t get the VR goggles to work?
JARON LANIER: [Laughs.] Well, I mean, there’s a little bit of both … What was probably going through my mind is this sense of what I call “digital nervousness” — that every little aspect of life these days involves navigating some digital system that forces you to act both perfectly and arbitrarily to suit its needs. And I do think that that world is a world I enjoy less than the world that came before it. And I think we did kind of screw up, and it’s a complicated screw-up. It has a number of dimensions.
But I think in that particular case I was just concerned with the texture of life when we have to conform to all these digital systems, and that’s a separate question, to a degree, from my specific complaints about how the systems become manipulative and all that, but not entirely …
I think that the patterns that have led us to this world of ambient manipulation are making themselves felt in everything digital. And so it does really have a little to do with why everything is a bit more annoying than it would otherwise be. A lot of the systems are designed to serve some central kind of mob scheme rather than the user. So a lot of them only feel good when you do exactly what the system expects you to do and don’t really give you any latitude. People then end up behaving according to the expectations of the software design, because it’s just so hard to resist and you have this massive cultural and, kind of … intimate conformity, is what I would call it.
I feel like it’s hard to discuss the basic premises of a lot of your arguments in your latest book without talking about what a “BUMMER platform” is. Can you describe it and tell what prominent companies have designs that fall under this umbrella?
Well, it’s a funny thing about that term … I just needed some simple term because it was getting so repetitive to say “behavior modification empire” or something similar with a lot of syllables. I received some criticisms for the term. Some people think it’s a little too schoolboy-naughty or something. Sherry Turkle wrote me a really nice letter saying she loved the book but felt there was just too much “tush” in it. [Laughs.]
Huh. I wasn’t thinking of it in that way. I was thinking more of the Haight-Ashbury “bummer.” Like a bad trip.
Oh yeah, well, that works better. I mean that’s kind of how I was thinking about it. But anyway, it stands for “Behaviors of Users Modified and Made into Empires for Rent.” And it might not be the most graceful acronym in the world, but at any rate …
I thought that was pretty damn good.
It’s just a way to summarize the business plan behind some of the largest companies in history, with the idea that money is made whenever two people exchange any value, whether it’s just one datum being measured from somebody that’s used to run a machine-learning application or people sending messages to each other, uploading videos, or whatever. The companies are not paying for it. It’s not being paid for by angels from the sky. It’s not a nonprofit charity. It is being paid for by customers — but the customers are not the people who are actually doing the thing. They are these other people who decide, called advertisers — or I prefer to call them manipulators, because they have been sold on the idea that they’re not just advertising. They’re not just getting a message in front of you, but are part of a mathematical scheme that will predictably addict you and then modify your behavior.
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