The internet is neither good nor bad – it can be either, depending upon how and what we engage with. Whether we notice or not – internet platforms profoundly influence our behavior, shape our perception of the “real” world, and can easily handcuff our minds. Ignoring the internet entirely would mean missing out on all the good parts – and render modern life impossible. Not an option. It seems prudent, then, to continually study our relationship with it. Very few have pondered this topic as extensively as Jaron Lanier, recently a guest on Bari Weiss’s podcast, Honestly.
Although Jaron is sharply critical of certain features of the internet, such as algorithms that manipulate and direct us, and the illusion that services are free (when there is clearly a tangible hidden psychological cost), he is optimistic about what the internet fundamentally is, and sees a way we can improve both it and our relationship with it.
Here are my absolute favorite highlights from this conversation.
16:22 – On Chronic Anxiety
[Nowadays] everybody is sort of living on the edge of catastrophe in a way that wasn’t typical before. It used to be we had a little bit more wiggle room – perhaps that wiggle room was illusory – maybe we were always living on the brink of catastrophe – but people used to feel like “this is nice I can relax here”… I don’t think people are relaxing these days. This idea of having an interval where things are OK at least for a while and enjoying that is harder and harder to come by.
The thing about technology is that it’s made the world of information ever more dominant, And there’s so much loss in that. It really does feel as if we’ve sworn allegiance to a dwarf world, rather than to a giant world.
17:42 – Who or What to Blame?
The problem isn’t the internet or social media in the broad sense, but rather specifically the use of the algorithms. When google and facebook and others went to the advertising business model, the mission became how to manipulate more and more. What that results in is people being directed rather than exploring, and that makes the world small. That is fundamental.
You can’t say we just need to make algorithms better. You can’t say you want to have a better form of constant incremental manipulation of every person. It’s like the whole concept from the start is poison. That is the original sin. The idea of the internet itself has benefits – and the benefits are real. It would be silly to say that everybody who finds someone with some commonality, maybe as a rare illness, or everybody who enjoys a silly cat video, or whatever, it would be silly to condemn all that. That stuff can either be innocuous or wonderful. It’s the manipulative algorithms that are the problem.
28:02 – Social Media – Light Inevitably Turns Dark
The first year or two of a social media platform, is actually kind of charming. The thing is, it’s inexorably on a path to the manipulation machine. And the manipulation machine intrinsically makes everything dark and paranoid and creepy and exploitative and horrible and turns people on each other. Intrinsically and irrevocably.
30:50 – Social Media – A Weapon for Destabilization
What I worry about is societal destabilization. What Putin’s psychological operatives proved is that the United States can be destabilized very inexpensively, just by promoting craziness and paranoia and pitting people against each other. And the reason it’s so inexpensive and easy to do is that our social media platforms are designed precisely to do that.
33:50 – The Loss of Self – The Need for Breaks
[Speaking about how algorithms profile and direct you – it consequently influences your sense of self]. This peculiar modern problem of the ambiguity of reality – creeps into you and makes you lose yourself, and it’s one of the reasons I advocate going off the stuff – at least for periods – just so you can kind of find yourself again.
34:40 – Human Curation & Collaboration vs Algos
Data Dignity is where there is no autonomous robot deciding what you see. All it is, is giant human collaboration for which people are acknowledged and paid. In that world, there would be people who make a living curating shoe recs and fighting with each other about it. You would have direct engagement with people who say we like these shoes or those shoes, or whatever it is, and that would be a different world, in which you’d know you are being talked to by another person, that person would be paid. What we want is to and algorithmic, massive-scale sneaky disingenuous constant ambient manipulation. That the world is damaged by. That we should not have.
Google would be a very different thing. Google would charge you a penny per search or something, you’d have a subscription to it like netflix, Google would still thrive, but their interest would be in keeping your business. They wouldn’t have advertisers – they would instead compete with other search engines that would be opinionated, in the same way that the Britannica vs Americana encyclopedias are.
The current search algorithm is based on averaging out what others have done. It’s a Maoist idea that the collective knows best. I would trash that. I would instead have a network of human publications about human publications.
42:45 – Why a Monoculture is Bad – The Flattening Effect of Algorithms
There’s this thing that happens where if every single thing is channeled through a central hub in the same way, the whole world gets sorted on the same criteria. Whatever it is – whether it’s the interior decoration on an Air BnB or what kind of writers get through or anything at all, it follows a mathematical power law, where there’s a small number of winners and this long tail that’s incredibly desiccated. The alternative to that is a bushy network where there’s all kinds of little local situations – which is what used to happen with local news, and local music clubs. With local environments you have a different mathematical result which starts to resemble a bell curve, where you have a middle class. A the middle class is where you can get stability – its where you can get nations, and politics, and things that aren’t insane.
There’s this way that everything today is going through a common filter, and so it gets accentuated more and more, and you start to get more and more of a refinement of the top peak. This is where you lose the middle, and you lose diversity, and you lose dialogue. It’s intrinsic to the way we’ve done computer networks, which is this sort of global perspective from nowhere. It’s a falsehood that is guiding us. What we are doing is amplifying noise until it becomes the only thing.
49:00 – How to Keep Your Personhood
I believe in books. Books have an interesting quality, in that they take so long to write, and they are such a pain in the butt to write, that they require you to make a statement about who you are. In a sense a book is a stand-in for a person. It’s not feeling. It’s not immediately reactive to whatever is there. It’s saying “I have climbed the mountain top and this is what I see, and it took me a whole year to climb this mountain”. I think that is incredibly valuable – in other words – the inefficiency of the book process is it’s value. It forces you to really be a person and to really have a point of view.
The stupid leaders we have now are different from the stupid leaders we used to have. They are whiny and immature like little babies. It’s like mean girls. What’s funny is you see the same personality in so many of these people. The whole society is being turned into this weird, snippy, self conscious, insecure kind of unreal thing.
I try never to read anything that isn’t authored by a real person with a real date. The real person thing is getting to be a real problem. Most people online are fake at this point.
I’ve never been on social media. No twitter, no google account, no snap, no tiktok. And I can still write books, I can still get booked as a speaker. People will say I’m special because I’m older and started before.
This whole thing about having to be online all the time – is actually just false. Whatever it is you’re doing – it might be about the same if you just dropped all this stuff [social media]. It might just be a drag. I’ve never felt some lack from not being on these things.
58:00 – On Avoiding Judging People
I think that judging people has it’s own addictive potential. You can get drawn into a cycle where you get more and more that way. Then you turn into one of those people at the family gathering who is annoying. I don’t want to be that person.
1:01:00 – How Social Media Ensnarls Us
BF Skinner designed the very first connected screens experiment in the Midwest between universities. He had this idea that he could take behavior modification techniques that he perfected for pigeons and rodents and apply them to humans. If you look at facebook, the like button is the button that the pigeon was trying to press. What’s the electric shock and what’s the candy? It’s social pain and social affirmation. So – what Skinner learned is that a slightly randomized noisy reward and punishment feedback system was actually more motivating and had a more of a behavior-mod effect than a perfect one.
[Bari: But why do we like that?]
The reason we like it is there are some parts of our brain that are very ancient that helped us survive by having very quick responses if there was a predator threat, or a possibility for food that somebody else might grab before we did, or a mate, or all kinds of things. We have a whole system of very rapid, very deep, very old, that go back very far on the phylogenetic tree, sometimes people call them the fight of flight responses, or the lizard brain. These are physiological channels for rapid response that have priority over other channels in our brains. They deal particularly with threats. The behaviors learned to exploit them in humans without actual electric shocks or candy.
You have these social stimuli that are profound. They’re very deep, you can’t consciously override them. So if you’re in a social context in which people are paying attention to a certain thing, you will to. We rely on each other for this. Like if there’s a group of people walking, they’re all subconsciously relying on each other to be watching for hazards. If somebody is startled by something on the left, everybody is aware of it. And if it’s like an out of control truck hurtling toward you, that’s very functional. Or a saber tooth tiger. Whatever it might have been.
These circuits are just waiting to be exploited. So you have the skinner box recreated in facebook with the candy and with the electric shock, but as social phenomena. It’s an awful thing… an awful thing. You’re a pigeon or a rat in Skinner’s old lab when you use these things.
1:07:00 – The Problem with “Fake-Free”
We have a responsibility to try to be less horrible than we might otherwise be. We have to dig our fingernails at least dig our fingernails into the funnel of shit that’s trying to draw us down, you know? Twitter for example should not be persuasion oriented or engagement oriented, it should have a diversity of business models and it should emphasize people paying for stuff they want. I think you have to have a real stake in whatever you consume for it to be real. If everything is fake-free, there is a kind of casualness that contributes to the problem. In other words, is it more likely that somebody is going to be a disruptive jerk at some book reading where everybody was admitted free, or at some paid lecture where people bought tickets? Obviously it’s the free one, because that person has less of a stake. This idea that everything is totally free, and there is no barrier to entry does encourage a kind of casual low-stakes way of thinking about things that does become part of the problem.
1:09 – The Purpose of Institutions
Mixing individuals together tends to lead to an all against all competition, which tends to lead to the worst emerging. But having societal institutions tends to create people with share stakes, and a possibility for quality to emerge. It’s the only mechanism that ever has – it’s the only technique we know. The master talking about this was Jan Arends, Tocqueville [https://www.history.com/topics/france/alexis-de-tocqueville] was another good one. The internet just completely plowed over institutions and flattened everything (referring back to the monoculture discussion).
We need to have shared stakes. We need to have stakes in each other in the sense of ongoing effort for purpose. We need to have reasons that we rise and fall together. Right now online – there’s no perfect online platform – the one with the least poison and least crap is probably this thing called GitHub, a nerdy thing where people do projects online. People have shared projects, that means they are supporting each other. There’s this kind of intrinsic positivity about it. If it’s only each person for themselves – like if someone is down like the kid getting bullied in the schoolyard, relatively speaking maybe you’re up a little bit, or at least you’re not down. It creates a different dynamic. An all-against-all competition is intrinsically cruel. Societal institutions, even if they are competing with one another, can do so with more collegial spirit. Societal institutions have included newspapers and soccer teams and colleges and bands – and whenever that happens things are a bit more positive.
[Bari: so institutional structures are “the thing” that keeps us from being in a sort of zero-sum game of all against all. In a world in which it feels like everyone is an influencer and there’s no leaders, and where people’s commitments or trust in institutional authority is so diminished, and everyone is focused on apps and social networks]
1:11:00 – How Do We Recover Crumbling Institutions?
In the wake of WW2 there were a lot of people trying to find some new path to institutions that didn’t involve the potential for mass manipulation and power catastrophes.
When I grew up my dad had been in the science fiction world, he was a science fact writer. He was an early promoter of UFO nonsense. I grew up in Southern New Mexico in the nexus of UFO nonsense. The thing about the UFO world is people have a lot of fun with it… and it provides an answer to a human need. People need to have something to obsess over – people need to be able to exercise their brains thinking about something beyond the edges of what’s official – they need have common quests – they need to be able to explore things that might not be true, because otherwise, truth calcifies. I’m not making fun of these people – I actually think this is something we all need.
Some of these things that are popular that are generally harmless so far as I can tell, bigfoot is a great example. I’d love there to be some big North American great ape that’s wandering around. I don’t think there is, but, maybe… it’s not absolutely impossible. Same thing UFOs… I mean, great. I don’t think we’re surrounded by alien spaceships, but you know, it’s not absolutely impossible and do you really believe we’ve seen every possible weird thing in the atmosphere? Of course we haven’t there’s other stuff.
The point is – I think that being obsessed with something at the edge of thought is really important, and doing that with other people is really healthy, maybe even vital. The thing is, some of these things are damaging. An example is people who are trying to talk to dead relatives and get you to pay money. That’s exploitative. Then there’s the QAnon and stop-the-steal type people who are using the same forces for political power.
There are a lot of genuine mysteries on the edge of thought people can focus on. One can do that by exploring where music can go, by exploring where movies can go, and there’s all kinds of edges to explore that are also available. People need to have an edge of knowledge that they can explore together – there is something very beautiful about that.
1:16:00 – Parting Advice (to Bari)
Don’t pay attention to twitter so much – oh my god – like let go of that stupid thing.
7:08 – On Capitalism
Capitalism is this thing like nuclear power – it’s gotten a bad name but in truth can probably be used to good effect, we just haven’t figure it out better.