Jaron Lanier, the eminent American computer scientist, composer and artist, is no stranger to skepticism around social media, but his current interpretations of its effects are becoming darker and his warnings more trenchant.
Lanier, a dreadlocked free-thinker credited with coining the term “virtual reality”, has long sounded dire sirens about the dangers of a world over-reliant on the internet and at the increasing mercy of tech lords, their social media platforms and those who work for them.
Nothing about the last few weeks – of chaos on Twitter and the ever-increasing spread of conspiracy theory and disinformation – has changed that. The current state of the tech industry is ripe with danger and poses an existential threat, he believes.
“People survive by passing information between themselves,” Lanier, 61, told the Guardian in an interview. “We’re putting that fundamental quality of humanness through a process with an inherent incentive for corruption and degradation. The fundamental drama of this period is whether we can figure out how to survive properly with those elements or not.”
The exaggerated focus on Twitter in recent months after its chaotic take over by billionaire Elon Musk follows longstanding concerns about Facebook and others, including state actors. He mentions “psychological operatives” working for Vladimir Putin and the Chinese communist state apparatus. All of them are filtering or promoting information for their own gains. In short, the web is not a free market of information as originally envisioned. It is a gamed system being rampantly abused.
“There are all kind of intermediaries. They might be the people who own a platform, recently Elon Musk, or third parties who are good at sneaking in influence. The interveners can be varied. Some are official, some are revealed, others hidden. Some are competent, some incompetent. Some are random, like an algorithm that someone made but didn’t understand.”
The stakes are high. “I still think extinction is on the table as an outcome. Not necessarily, but it’s a fundamental drama. If we can coordinate ourselves to solve the climate crisis it’s a fundamental sign we haven’t become completely dysfunctional,” he said
Throughout his career, Lanier’s focus has lain outside the ones and zeros of computer code. He helped create modern ideologies – Web 2.0 futurism, digital utopianism, among them. But Lanier is no longer a fan of how the digital utopia is coming along. He’s called it “digital Maoism” and accused tech giants like Facebook and Google of being “spy agencies”. And he’s been brutally clear about what he sees as the consequences of over-dependence on social media: in essence, you’ll get both popular cat videos and civil war.
In his 2010 book, You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto , he warned of the dangers of web ideologies and the “hive mind” that could lead to “social catastrophe”. But now his train of thought has launched off, if anything, in a more worrisome direction.
In his latest thinking Lanier draws attention to Harvard psychologist BF Skinner’s theories of “operant conditioning”, or behavior controlled by its consequences, otherwise known as behavior modification, a term coined in 1937.
In Skinner’s studies, lab rats were subjected alternately to electric shocks and treats to achieve a change in response. On social media, he says, we experience something similar. “I believe I see that people who are subject to operant conditioning online, meaning subjected to pleasant or unpleasant experiences.”
Approval, disapproval or being ignored, such techniques can be manipulated online as part of what is euphemistically called “engagement” and the creation of addictive patterns for individuals and then – by proxy – eventually whole societies.
“As we enter an era where nothing means anything because it’s all just about power, intermediation and influence, it’s very hard to put ideas out and very easy for them to come across not as intended,” he said.
In a recent New York Times opinion piece, Lanier wrote that he’d “observed a change, or really a narrowing, in the public behavior of people who use Twitter or other social media a lot”. He singled out people who have recently been in the news: Elon Musk, Donald Trump and Ye (Kanye West).
Once distinct personalities, he wrote, each had “veered into being bratty little boys” in their public behavior – a result perhaps of being “Twitter poisoned”, a more contemporary term for operant conditioning.
“I have noticed that all these people converge on a similar personality type that wasn’t present before. If that has something to do with social media addictions, or Twitter poisoning, what is that?” he wrote.
Coming from someone who has over the years described himself as “worried optimist”, his interpretations come with weight.
“People have been pretty awful throughout history, so it’s hard to make a causal link to our current dysfunction. The most profound problem here is, can we be sane enough to communicate and coordinate for our survival”.
“That’s more important than whether we become assholes or not, because assholes can potentially survive. Peoples with an inability to communicate in a straight-forward way cannot,” he adds.
“Even people who are willing to cooperate may not be able to because they’re not operating in an environment where they’re heard in the ways they imagine. Right now we have no confidence that what we say will be heard correctly,” he says.
That like goes for Lanier’s own thoughts too. Though, he fervently hopes he is proved wrong.
“If you make a dismal prediction and it comes true, it means you’ve failed to have utility. I don’t claim to have all the answers but I do believe that our survival depends on modifying the internet – to create a structure that is friendlier to human cognition and to the ways people really are.”