Why I’m not on Facebook’s ‘behaviour modification empire’

Jaron Lanier

 

 

An excerpt of an interview on the digital future with Jaron Lanier, digital pioneer and inventor of virtual reality on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning.

In my view virtual reality can be thought of as some sort of ultimate destination for media. And what that means is it maximises the potential both for beauty and also for peril. I think it is possible to use virtual reality in very horrible ways, I think it could be the ultimate mind control device for instance. What we are seeing with society manipulated by social media today could be much worse if we don’t figure out how to protect ourselves whenever the era of virtual reality arrives …

[Q: asks if he uses social media himself]

Oh absolutely not .. social media is ..  I call them behaviour modification empires. I think they are manipulative. I think it is very foolish to participate in them …

[Q Asks why]

As you are doing these innocent things of keeping up with your football team or whatever it might be, what’s happening is that your every move is being analysed by algorithims and then very slight changes are being made to what you see and then tests are performed on how you respond. So that, for instance, showing the colour blue might get you to like something and then these capabilities for behaviour modification are then sold to third parties that you don’t know about in a very obscure and black fashion.

[Q Asks what different to traditional advertising]

We have crossed over a threshold that it is important to understand. Advertising or persuasion is one thing, that is a form of communication, but if you have a tight feedback loop you are entering into a behaviourist scientific experiment  in which the relationship between what you do and what stimulus you receive is very tightly coupled and can be adjusted to control you gradually. And that is different from advertising, that is why I call it behaviour modification.

[Q  Asks if social media then is like an experiement with rats in cage?]

Yes, that is precisely what is being done now.

… We must appeal to the better nature of everyone in silicon valley and everywhere else to simply cause this change. It might be a difficult transition but it simply must take place, it is a matter of the wellbeing of our species.

[Q Askswill better natures do it? Why would they?]

I don’t think it is about regulation primarily, it is about financial incentives. Right now the financial incentives for companies like Facebook .. the only financial incentive they have whatsoever is to manipulate the behaviour of their users for pay. However, there are other business plans. And, I think the key thing is not so much to regulate in detail … but if we can change the underlying financial incentives I think we can go a huge way to correcting these problems.

Trouble is Facebook is only one such behavioural modification empire … Google is ever harder to avoid.

You can read a fuller interview at the New York Times. Another exerpt on this topic from that interview:

“The whole internet thing was supposed to create the world’s best information resource in all of history,” he says. “Everything would be made visible. And instead we’re living in this time of total opacity where you don’t know why you see the news you see. You don’t know if it’s the same news that someone else sees. You don’t know who made it be that way. You don’t know who’s paid to change what you see. Everything is totally obscure in a profound way that it never was before.

“And the belief system of Silicon Valley is so thick that my friends at Facebook simply still really believe that the answer to any problem is to do more of what they already did, that they’re optimizing the world.

“The Facebook business model is mass behavior modification for pay. And for those who are not giving Facebook money, the only — and I want to emphasize, the only, underlined and in bold and italics — reward they can get or positive feedback is just getting attention. And if you have a system where the only possible prize is getting more attention, then you call that system Christmas for Asses, right? It’s a creep-amplification device.

“Once Facebook becomes ubiquitous, it’s a sort of giant protection racket, where, if you don’t pay them money, then someone else will pay to modify the behavior to your disadvantage, so everyone has to pay money just to stay at equilibrium where they would have been otherwise,” he says. “I mean, there’s only one way out for Facebook, which is to change its business model. Unless Facebook changes, we’ll just have to trust Facebook for any future election result. Because they do apparently have the ability to change them. Or at least change the close ones.”

And towards the end of that interview he talks about the impact Facebook and other behavioural modification systems are having on personality and politics – both liberal and Trump.

“If you’re a mark of social media, if you’re being manipulated by it, one of the ways to tell is if there’s a certain kind of personality quality that overtakes you,” he says. “It’s been called the snowflake quality. People criticize liberal college kids who have it, but it’s exactly the same thing you see in Trump. It’s this kind of highly reactive, thin-skinned, outraged single-mindedness. I think one way to think of Trump, even though he is a con man and he is an actor and he’s a master manipulator and all that, in a sense he’s also a victim. I’ve met him a few times over 30 years. And what I think I see is someone who has moved from kind of a New York character who was in on his own joke to somebody who is completely freaked out and outraged and feeling like he is on the verge of a catastrophe every second. And so my theory about that is that he was ruined by social media.”

Comments, as ever, welcome.

 

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