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 getting darker and his warnings more incisive.
Lanier, a dreadlocked freethinker credited with coining the term “virtual reality,” has long sounded dire sirens about the dangers of a world overly reliant on the internet and at the growing mercy of the overlords of technology, their social media platforms and those who work for them.
Nothing about the past few weeks – the chaos on Twitter and the ever-increasing spread of conspiracy theory and misinformation – has changed that. The current state of the tech industry is fraught with danger and poses an existential threat, he believes.
“People survive by passing information to each other,” Lanier, 61, told The Guardian in an interview. “We put this fundamental quality of humanity 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 these elements or not.
The exaggerated attention on Twitter in recent months after its chaotic takeover by billionaire Elon Musk follows long-standing concerns about Facebook and others, including state actors. He mentions “psychological agents” working for Vladimir Putin and the Chinese communist state apparatus. All filter or promote information for their own gain. In short, the Web is not a free market for information as originally envisioned. It is a game system that is abused rampantly.
“There are all kinds of intermediaries. It can be people who own a platform, recently Elon Musk, or third parties who are good at sneaking in influence. Stakeholders can vary. Some are official, some are revealed, some are hidden. Some are competent, others incompetent. Some are random, like an algorithm someone created 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 to solve the climate crisis, that’s a fundamental sign that we’re not become completely dysfunctional,” he said.
Throughout his career, Lanier has focused outside of 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 the evolving digital utopia. He 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 overreliance 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 and “hive mind” ideologies that could lead to “social catastrophe”. But now his train of thought has swung, if anything, in a more ominous direction.
In his final thought, 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 alternately subjected to electric shocks and treats to achieve a change in response. On social networks, he says, we experience something similar. “I think I see people who are subject to operant conditioning online, that is, subject to pleasant or unpleasant experiences.”
Approval, disapproval or ignorance, these techniques can be manipulated online into what is euphemistically called “engaging” and creating addictive patterns for individuals and then – by proxy – eventually for entire societies.
“As we enter an era where nothing means anything because it’s all about power, intermediation and influence, it’s very difficult to come up with ideas and very easy for them not to show up as expected. “, did he declare.
In a recent New York Times opinion piece, Lanier wrote that he had “observed a shift, or indeed a shrinkage, in the public behavior of people who use Twitter or other social media heavily.” He singled out people who have recently made 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 demeanor — a result perhaps of being “poisoned by Twitter,” a more contemporary term for operant conditioning. .
“I noticed that all of these people are converging into a similar personality type that didn’t exist before. If it has anything to do with social media addictions or Twitter poisoning, what is it? ” he wrote.
Coming from someone who has described himself over the years as a “worried optimist,” his interpretations carry weight.
“People have been pretty awful throughout history, so it’s hard to establish a causal link to our current dysfunction. The deeper issue here is whether we can be sane enough to communicate and coordinate for our survival”.
“It’s more important than becoming assholes or not, because assholes can potentially survive. People who can’t communicate in a direct way can’t,” he adds.
“Even people who are willing to cooperate may not be able to do so because they are not operating in an environment where they are heard in the way they imagine. Right now, we are not sure that what we say will be heard properly,” he says.
This also applies to Lanier’s own thoughts. However, he fervently hopes he is wrong.
“If you make a dismal prediction and it comes true, it means you have had no use. I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I believe our survival depends on changing the internet – to create a more friendly structure for human cognition and the way people really are.
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