It all started with a terrible mistake, an idealistic belief in the potential of a free and open internet. Now, social media powerfully manipulates consumer behavior using positive and negative feedback and stimuli in a process that technology visionary Jaron Lanier likens to behaviorism—comparing individuals in thrall to their gadgets and online status to trained dogs. Instead, he argues, consumers should be more like cats. “That sense of integrating modernity with independence is, I think, what every person seeks, and is harder and harder to get at. But cats have it,” Lanier told PBS NewsHour’s Paul Stolman in an interview that aired May 17.

While dog lovers might reasonably howl at the suggestion that dogs lack independence, the underlying assertion—that social media manipulates people without their knowledge or informed consent—is one that Lanier returns to frequently; it’s also the focus of his latest book, Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. But, he also says, it’s possible to fix social media and, critically, to imagine a better future for virtual reality. 

Lanier has spent much of his life thinking and writing about how humans interact with technology. His curiosity led him to tinker with technology from early childhood; he was instrumental in creating the first virtual reality environments and early simulators. His criticism of social media and the ways people interact with technology today comes from a place of deep knowledge as well as some sense of responsibility for errors that he and other technology giants made in the 1990s and early 2000s.

In his April 12, 2018 TED talk, Lanier described the idealism of early digital culture and a “lefty, socialist” conviction that the internet must be a vast public commons with all content freely available. Pairing that ideal with the digital culture’s adoration of technology entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs, Lanier said, led to a solution that digital learners and consumers know well: Provide content for free, and support it with ads.

As computer algorithms and data collection abilities improved, the customers of the social media platforms—who are advertisers, not users—began to apply predictive algorithms and to use the massive amounts of data they had to influence user behavior, turning social media platforms into what Lanier calls “behavior modification empires.” The problem, Lanier said in his TED talk, is that, “on social networks, social punishment and social reward function as the punishment and reward.” People—and companies—respond much more quickly to negative feedback and stimuli, and it’s much easier to destroy trust than to build it. “Therefore, even well-intentioned players who think all they're doing is advertising toothpaste end up advancing the cause of the negative people, the negative emotions, the cranks, the paranoids, the cynics, the nihilists,” Lanier said. “Those are the ones who get amplified by the system.”

Throughout his writings and interviews, Lanier hints at ways to correct this mistake and “fix” social media. Even more compellingly, he describes what has happened with social media as a cautionary tale—and expresses hope that our experience with social media will enable us to avoid what could be a worse mistake—allowing something similar to happen with virtual reality.

A wake-up call?

Lanier’s concern for how social media and other technologies have affected people and social relationships stems, in part, from a sense of personal disappointment. “A lot of the rhetoric of Silicon Valley that has the utopian ring about creating meaningful communities where everybody’s creative and people collaborate and all this stuff—I don’t wanna make too much of my own contribution, but I was kind of the first author of some of that rhetoric a long time ago. So it kind of stings for me to see it misused,” Lanier recently told Noah Kulwin of New York Magazine’s Select All website.

Citing issues including “election interference and the fomenting of ethnic warfare, and the empowering of neo-Nazis, and the bullying,” Lanier said, “As bad as all of that has been, we might remember ourselves as having been fortunate that it happened when the technology was really just little slabs we carried around in our pockets that we could look at and that could talk to us, or little speakers we could talk to. It wasn’t yet a whole simulated reality that we could inhabit.”

Virtual reality “will be so much more intense, and that has so much more potential for behavior modification, and fooling people, and controlling people. So things potentially could get a lot worse,” he said. But he added a note of optimism: “Hopefully they’ll get better as a result of our experiences during this era.”

One way to fix social media, Lanier said, is to move to a model where users pay for content, much as television moved into subscription and other payment-for-access models—and triggered what media are calling the era of “peak TV.”

“Sometimes when you pay for stuff, things get better,” Lanier said in his TED talk. “We can imagine a hypothetical world of ‘peak social media.’ What would that be like? It would mean when you get on, you can get really useful, authoritative medical advice instead of cranks. It could mean when you want to get factual information, there's not a bunch of weird, paranoid conspiracy theories. We can imagine this wonderful other possibility.”

<H2>Ethics in digital development

The problems with social media, the rampant capture and use or misuse of personal data, and the potential for harmful uses of virtual reality all point to a need for ethics in the development and use of technology. The notions of free, “weightless” information on the internet and a belief that “some sort of dispassionate algorithmic optimization” is better than “old-fashioned ideas about ethics” allows people to believe that what they do in the digital space does not affect other people, Lanier said in an interview with Parminder Mudhar for the 2017 Computers, Privacy, and Data Protection conference. “What we need to try to do is remember that even if it seems as though we’re having no impact on people—and that might be a government actor or an individual or anybody—we actually do affect each other in the world, and we have to find a way to acknowledge that.”

Lanier also said that the notion of consent is “absolutely impossible” in the digital space, and, “What we need to have is a more broad and general principle of accountability that is automatic, ever-present, and reliable.” In other words, ethics. “That’s what ethics are. Ethics are standards that one can count on, that one can rely on, that don’t require an absolute reconsideration of everything from the most basic principles at every moment of every day.”

Looking to the future

Lanier remains an optimist; even while describing the dysfunctional state of social media and digital interaction—and negative consequences that affect many areas of society—he says that it’s possible to fix social media and avoid making the same mistakes with VR. “I believe it's possible. I'm certain it's possible.”

Register now for The eLearning Guild’s Realities360 Conference to hear what Jaron Lanier has to say about what it means to be human at a moment of unprecedented technological possibility. The conference is June 26-28 in San Jose, California, and features dozens of sessions exploring the use of augmented reality, virtual reality, and simulations in eLearning, as well as keynotes by Jaron Lanier and Rika