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Book review: ‘Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now’ by Jaron Lanier

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Ten arguments? As if we need more than one.

2018 is already proving to be something of an annus horribilis for social media - and we’re not even halfway through the year. The tide of public opinion may well have permanently turned against the likes of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube, and it seems unlikely that the public’s affection for them will ever fully recover, even as the share prices of these unicorn companies of no useful output typically bounce back from successive scandals.

Written before the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica disgrace that is still shaming the New Big Blue and its cabal of 20-something SoCal billionaires who carelessly unleashed their monster on the world, ‘Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now’ (Bodley Head, £9.99, ISBN 9781847925398) nonetheless arrives at an opportune moment to amplify and articulate our increasing concerns about social media: how it really works, the effects it has on our brains and the long-term ramifications of mass behaviour modification.

The book posits a series of disturbing ways in which our use of social media is changing us in a negative fashion and how these addictive apps have been deliberately designed - and are relentlessly fine-tuned - to exploit our every weakness. Nothing happens by accident. We are, essentially, dumb puppets dancing at the ends of their strings, prodded and poked into action and reaction by the simplest of psychological tricks married to cunning, perpetually evolving digital algorithms.

None of the 10 arguments presented here are new or revolutionary, but Lanier elaborates on each with a precision born of close experience with Silicon Valley, having been immersed in that culture since the 1980s with his own VPL Research company's early explorations of VR technology. More recently, Lanier has become a successful author and commentator on the connected world we live in, writing cultural observational titles such as ‘Who Owns The Future?’, ‘You Are Not A Gadget’ and 2017’s ‘Dawn Of The New Everything’, a book of the year for both the Wall Street Journal and The Economist.  

In ‘Ten Arguments...’ Lanier documents how our addiction to social media is causing us to lose our free will; how it overwhelms us with the insanity of our times; how it's turning us all into "assholes"; how social media is undermining truth and making everything we say meaningless; how it is destroying our capacity for empathy and making us unhappy; how it undermines our economic dignity and is making politics impossible and finally how social media plain and simple "hates your soul".

Taken as a whole, the 10 arguments do encapsulate how swiftly social media apps have degenerated from being perceived as useful, fun and (mostly) harmless tools for interaction between disparate and geographically distant groups of people - expected to unite the world with peace, love and understanding - but which have instead turned into exploitative, manipulative, downright dangerous and pathologically designed menaces that threaten to tear the fabric of harmonious society to shreds.

Overstatement? Consider the role Facebook and Twitter have played in recent political elections, warping and twisting news, events and facts, feeding followers a torrent of twisted information that fuels their worst personality traits and negatively distorts their perception of the world. We see what these apps want us to see. Any sense of presenting a balanced view is long gone. It's undeniable that there is nothing about social media's manipulation of our psyche that is done for positive effect. It's all negative reinforcement. Why? Mostly, for money. Advertising and marketing dollars. Everything bad that social media algorithms perpetrate is done to us on purpose.

'Ten Arguments...' is an easy read, breezily written in Lanier’s engaging conversational style, rolling along as he riffs on each argument, pulling in pertinent examples to illustrate and illuminate each essay and citing online articles to support his own views or offer tangential branches to follow off the main argument tree. How social media channels - and to an extent other app-related, data-driven modern business models, such as Uber - really work is broken down and explained, along with documenting the harmful effects now known to arise from their sustained use.

On the whole, Lanier is recounting a tale that should be familiar to anyone who has been even the slightest bit cynical about the value of social media to society. Social media seemed like a good idea that went sour very quickly, succumbing to the inevitable twin prongs of its adoption by big business as the perfect laser-precision targetted advertising and marketing channel and by shadowy politically motivated groups with more nefarious intent. Both rely entirely on subtle manipulation of the users and negative reinforcement, so this has predominantly become the raison d'etre of social media algorthims. Keep us hooked; so we're constantly feeding the machine new insights into our behaviour; so the machine can continually adjust itself to achieve better results from exploitation of us and our personal data; so it can reward us more effectively; so we continue to stay hooked and feed more data into the machine for future exploitation. Etcetera. It's a cruelly spectacular, successful vicious circle. Even if you think you know all this already and you're smarter than the machine, Lanier has news for you: you're not.

The one seriously grating aspect of the book, and one to which Lanier or his editor unfortunately became wedded, is the continuous reptition of the phrase 'the BUMMER machine', the 'BUMMER' being a catch-all term for the behind-the-scenes machinations of social media apps. Someone, somewhere clearly identified this as a neat catchphrase that could act as the main hook for the book, something on which to cutely hang future author interviews and presentations at social media conferences. Perhaps Lanier and his publisher are hoping 'the BUMMER machine' will gain some industry traction and a new phrase will have been coined.

For the reader, seeing the word "BUMMER" (all caps, all the time) on page after page - often several times on the same page - quickly becomes very wearing. It's not even particularly clever as an acronym, standing as it does for 'Behaviours of Users Modified and Made into an Empire for Rent'. An 'Empire for Rent', really? Someone, somewhere was trying too hard.

Also, as useful as they may be, there is an over-preponderance of footnote web links with long, complicated URLs. This does not work well in print. Being a highly connected, future-facing kind of dude, Lanier may be assuming that most books are read digitally and indeed he makes several references in the text to the reader consuming his work on an electronic device (via Kindle app for iOS, perhaps). Web links would naturally be active on such a device, but they fall flat in print.

This book's time is undoubtedly now, partly because the public perception of social media is at an all-time low and partly because - as a result of the societal shift and widespread mistrust of these apps, as well as technological changes already underway in the relevant industries, in response to 2018's trends - these 10 arguments might be much less relevant this time next year.

However, as a snapshot of everything that's wrong with social media today, 'Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now' hits all ten nails bang on the head. Just don't wait too long to read it.

Oh, and if you want to know Lanier's one solution to the problem of dealing with social media, it's very simple: quit everything.

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