Over the last few months, Select All has interviewed more than a dozen prominent technology figures about what has gone wrong with the contemporary internet for a project called “The Internet Apologizes.” We’re now publishing lengthier transcripts of each individual interview. This interview features Jaron Lanier, a pioneer in the field of virtual reality and the founder of the first company to sell VR goggles. Lanier currently works at Microsoft Research as an interdisciplinary scientist. He is the author of the forthcoming book Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now.
You can find other interviews from this series here.
Jaron Lanier: Can I just say one thing now, just to be very clear? Professionally, I’m at Microsoft, but when I speak to you, I’m not representing Microsoft at all. There’s not even the slightest hint that this represents any official Microsoft thing. I have an agreement within which I’m able to be an independent public intellectual, even if it means criticizing them. I just want to be very clear that this isn’t a Microsoft position.
Noah Kulwin: Understood.
Yeah, sorry. I really just wanted to get that down. So now please go ahead, I’m so sorry to interrupt you.
In November, you told Maureen Dowd that it’s scary and awful how out of touch Silicon Valley people have become. It’s a pretty forward remark. I’m kind of curious what you mean by that.
To me, one of the patterns we see that makes the world go wrong is when somebody acts as if they aren’t powerful when they actually are powerful. So if you’re still reacting against whatever you used to struggle for, but actually you’re in control, then you end up creating great damage in the world. Like, oh, I don’t know, I could give you many examples. But let’s say like Russia’s still acting as if it’s being destroyed when it isn’t, and it’s creating great damage in the world. And Silicon Valley’s kind of like that.
We used to be kind of rebels, like, if you go back to the origins of Silicon Valley culture, there were these big traditional companies like IBM that seemed to be impenetrable fortresses. And we had to create our own world. To us, we were the underdogs and we had to struggle. And we’ve won. I mean, we have just totally won. We run everything. We are the conduit of everything else happening in the world. We’ve disrupted absolutely everything. Politics, finance, education, media, relationships — family relationships, romantic relationships — we’ve put ourselves in the middle of everything, we’ve absolutely won. But we don’t act like it.
We have no sense of balance or modesty or graciousness having won. We’re still acting as if we’re in trouble and we have to defend ourselves, which is preposterous. And so in doing that we really kind of turn into assholes, you know?
How do you think that siege mentality has fed into the ongoing crisis with the tech backlash?
One of the problems is that we’ve isolated ourselves through extreme wealth and success. Before, we might’ve been isolated because we were nerdy insurgents. But now we’ve found a new method to isolate ourselves, where we’re just so successful and so different from so many other people that our circumstances are different. And we have less in common with all the people whose lives we’ve disrupted. I’m just really struck by that. I’m struck with just how much better off we are financially, and I don’t like the feeling of it.
Personally, I would give up a lot of the wealth and elite status that we have in order to just live in a friendly, more connected world where it would be easier to move about and not feel like everything else is insecure and falling apart. People in the tech world, they’re all doing great, they all feel secure. I mean they might worry about a nuclear attack or something, but their personal lives are really secure.
And then when you move out of the tech world, everybody’s struggling. It’s a very strange thing. The numbers show an economy that’s doing well, but the reality is that the way it’s doing well doesn’t give many people a feeling of security or confidence in their futures. It’s like everybody’s working for Uber in one way or another. Everything’s become the gig economy. And we routed it that way, that’s our doing. There’s this strange feeling when you just look outside of the tight circle of Silicon Valley, almost like entering another country, where people are less secure. It’s not a good feeling. I don’t think it’s worth it, I think we’re wrong to want that feeling.
It’s not so much that they’re doing badly, but they have only labor and no capital. Or the way I used to put it is, they have to sing for their supper, for every single meal. It’s making everyone else take on all the risk. It’s like we’re the people running the casino and everybody else takes the risks and we don’t. That’s how it feels to me. It’s not so much that everyone else is doing badly as that they’ve lost economic capital and standing, and momentum and plannability. It’s a subtle difference.
There’s still this rhetoric of being the underdog in the tech industry. The attitude within the Valley is “Are you kidding? You think we’re resting on our laurels? No! We have to fight for every yard.”
There’s this question of whether what you’re fighting for is something that’s really new and a benefit for humanity, or if you’re only engaged in a sort of contest with other people that’s fundamentally not meaningful to anyone else. The theory of markets and capitalism is that when we compete, what we’re competing for is to get better at something that’s actually a benefit to people, so that everybody wins. So if you’re building a better mousetrap, or a better machine-learning algorithm, then that competition should generate improvement for everybody.
But if it’s a purely abstract competition set up between insiders to the exclusion of outsiders, it might feel like a competition, it might feel very challenging and stressful and hard to the people doing it, but it doesn’t actually do anything for anybody else. It’s no longer genuinely productive for anybody, it’s a fake. And I’m a little concerned that a lot of what we’ve been doing in Silicon Valley has started to take on that quality. I think that’s been a problem in Wall Street for a while, but the way it’s been a problem in Wall Street has been aided by Silicon Valley. Everything becomes a little more abstract and a little more computer-based. You have this very complex style of competition that might not actually have much substance to it.
You look at the big platforms, and it’s not like there’s this bountiful ecosystem of start-ups. The rate of small-business creation is at its lowest in decades, and instead you have a certain number of start-ups competing to be acquired by a handful of companies. There are not that many varying powers, there’s just a few.
That’s something I’ve been complaining about and I’ve written about for a while, that Silicon Valley used to be this place where people could do a start-up and the start-up might become a big company on its own, or it might be acquired, or it might merge into things. But lately it kind of feels like both at the start and at the end of the life of a start-up, things are a little bit more constrained. It used to be that you didn’t have to know the right people, but now you do. You have to get in with the right angel investors or incubator or whatever at the start. And they’re just a small number, it’s like a social order, you have to get into them. And then the output on the other side is usually being acquired by one of a very small number of top companies.
There are a few exceptions, you can see Dropbox’s IPO. But they’re rarer and rarer. And I suspect Dropbox in the future might very well be acquired by one of the giants. It’s not clear that it’ll survive as its own thing in the long term. I mean, we don’t know. I have no inside information about that, I’m just saying that the much more typical scenario now, as you described, is that the companies go to one of the biggies.
I’m kind of curious what you think needs to happen to prevent future platforms, like VR, from going the way of social media and reaching this really profitable crisis state.
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. Like, I used to talk about how virtual reality could be a tool for empathy, and then I see Mark Zuckerberg talking about how VR could be a tool for empathy while being profoundly nonempathic, using VR to tour Puerto Rico after the storm, after Maria. One has this feeling of having contributed to something that’s gone very wrong.
So I guess the overall way I think of it is, first, we might remember ourselves as having been lucky that some of these problems started to come to a head during the social-media era, before tools like virtual reality become more prominent, because the technology is still not as intense as it probably will be in the future. So as bad as it’s been, as bad as the election interference and the fomenting of ethnic warfare, and the empowering of neo-Nazis, and the bullying — 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.
Because that 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, and hopefully they’ll get better as a result of our experiences during this era.
As far as what to do differently, I’ve had a particular take on this for a long time that not everybody agrees with. I think the fundamental mistake we made is that we set up the wrong financial incentives, and that’s caused us to turn into jerks and screw around with people too much. Way back in the ’80s, we wanted everything to be free because we were hippie socialists. But we also loved entrepreneurs because we loved Steve Jobs. So you wanna be both a socialist and a libertarian at the same time, and it’s absurd. But that’s the kind of absurdity that Silicon Valley culture has to grapple with.
And there’s only one way to merge the two things, which is what we call the advertising model, where everything’s free but you pay for it by selling ads. But then because the technology gets better and better, the computers get bigger and cheaper, there’s more and more data — what started out as advertising morphed into continuous behavior modification on a mass basis, with everyone under surveillance by their devices and receiving calculated stimulus to modify them. So you end up with this mass behavior-modification empire, which is straight out of Philip K. Dick, or from earlier generations, from 1984.
It’s this thing that we were warned about. It’s this thing that we knew could happen. Norbert Wiener, who coined the term cybernetics, warned about it as a possibility. And despite all the warnings, and despite all of the cautions, we just walked right into it, and we created mass behavior-modification regimes out of our digital networks. We did it out of this desire to be both cool socialists and cool libertarians at the same time.
This dovetails with something you’ve said in the past that’s with me, which is your phrase Digital Maoism. Do you think that the Digital Maoism that you described years ago — are those the people who run Silicon Valley today?
I was talking about a few different things at the time I wrote “Digital Maoism.” One of them was the way that we were centralizing culture, even though the rhetoric was that we were distributing it. Before Wikipedia, I think it would have been viewed as being this horrible thing to say that there could only be one encyclopedia, and that there would be one dominant entry for a given topic. Instead, there were different encyclopedias. There would be variations not so much in what facts were presented, but in the way they were presented. That voice was a real thing.
And then we moved to this idea that we have a single dominant encyclopedia that was supposed to be the truth for the global AI or something like that. But there’s something deeply pernicious about that. So we’re saying anybody can write for Wikipedia, so it’s, like, purely democratic and it’s this wonderful open thing, and yet the bizarreness is that that open democratic process is on the surface of something that struck me as being Maoist, which is that there’s this one point of view that’s then gonna be the official one.
And then I also noticed that that process of people being put into a global system in which they’re supposed to work together toward some sort of dominating megabrain that’s the one truth didn’t seem to bring out the best in people, that people turned aggressive and mean-spirited when they interacted in that context. I had worked on some content for Britannica years and years ago, and I never experienced the kind of just petty meanness that’s just commonplace in everything about the internet. Among many other places, on Wikipedia.
On the one hand, you have this very open collective process actually in the service of this very domineering global brain, destroyer of local interpretation, destroyer of individual voice process. And then you also have this thing that seems to bring out this meanness in people, where people get into this kind of mob mentality and they become unkind to each other. And those two things have happened all over the internet; they’re both very present in Facebook, everywhere. And it’s a bit of a subtle debate, and it takes a while to work through it with somebody who doesn’t see what I’m talking about. That was what I was talking about.
But then there’s this other thing about the centralization of economic power. What happened with Maoists and with communists in general, and neo-Marxists and all kinds of similar movements, is that on the surface, you say everybody shares, everybody’s equal, we’re not gonna have this capitalist concentration. But then there’s some other entity that might not look like traditional capitalism, but is effectively some kind of robber baron that actually owns everything, some kind of Communist Party actually controls everything, and you have just a very small number of individuals who become hyperempowered and everybody else loses power.
And exactly the same thing has happened with the supposed openness of the internet, where you say, “Isn’t it wonderful, with Facebook and Twitter anybody can express themselves. Everybody’s an equal, everybody’s empowered.” But in fact, we’re in a period of time of extreme concentration of wealth and power, and it’s precisely around those who run the biggest computers. So the truth and the effect is just the opposite of what the rhetoric is and the immediate experience.
A lot of people were furious with me over Digital Maoism and felt that I had betrayed our cause or something, and I lost some friends over it. And some of it was actually hard. But I fail to see how it was anything but accurate. I don’t wanna brag, but I think I was just right. I think that that’s what was going on and that’s what’s happening in China. But what’s worse is that it’s happening elsewhere.
The thing is, I’m not sure that what’s going on in the U.S. is that distinct from what’s going on in China. I think there are some differences, but they’re in degree; they’re not stark. The Chinese are saying if you have a low social rating you can’t get on the subway, but on the other hand, we’re doing algorithmic profiling that’s sending people to jail, and we know that the algorithms are racist. Are we really that much better?
I’m not really sure. I think it would be hard to determine it. But I think we’re doing many of the same things; it’s just that we package them in a slightly different way when we tell stories to ourselves.
This is something I write about, you know I have another book coming out shortly?
Yeah, that was gonna be where I took this next.
One of the things that I’ve been concerned about is this illusion where you think that you’re in this super-democratic open thing, but actually it’s exactly the opposite; it’s actually creating a super concentration of wealth and power, and disempowering you. This has been particularly cruel politically. Every time there’s some movement, like the Black Lives Matter movement, or maybe now the March for Our Lives movement, or #MeToo, or very classically the Arab Spring, you have this initial period where people feel like they’re on this magic-carpet ride and that social media is letting them broadcast their opinions for very low cost, and that they’re able to reach people and organize faster than ever before. And they’re thinking, Wow, Facebook and Twitter are these wonderful tools of democracy.
But then the algorithms have to maximize value from all the data that’s coming in. So they test use that data. And it just turns out as a matter of course, that the same data that is a positive, constructive process for the people who generated it — Black Lives Matter, or the Arab Spring — can be used to irritate other groups. And unfortunately there’s this asymmetry in human emotions where the negative emotions of fear and hatred and paranoia and resentment come up faster, more cheaply, and they’re harder to dispel than the positive emotions. So what happens is, every time there’s some positive motion in these networks, the negative reaction is actually more powerful. So when you have a Black Lives Matter, the result of that is the empowerment of the worst racists and neo-Nazis in a way that hasn’t been seen in generations. When you have an Arab Spring, the result ultimately is the network empowerment of ISIS and other extremists — bloodthirsty, horrible things, the likes of which haven’t been seen in the Arab world or in Islam for years, if ever.
Black Lives Matter has incredible visibility, but the reality is that even though it has had an enormous effect on the discursive level, and at making the country fixated on this conversation, that’s distinct from political force necessary to effect that change. What do you think about the sort of gap between what Silicon Valley platforms have promised in that respect and then the material reality?
That observation — that social-media politics is all talk and no action or something, or that it’s empty — is compatible with, but a little bit different from, what I was saying. I’m saying that it empowers its opposite more than the original good intention. And those two things can both be true at once, but I just wanna point out that they’re two different explanations for why nothing decent seems to come out in the end.
I want to be wrong. I especially wanna be wrong about the March for Our Lives kids. I really wanna be wrong about them. I want them to not fall into this because they’re our hope, they’re the future of our country, so I very deeply, profoundly wanna be wrong. I don’t want their social-media data to empower the opposite movement that ends up being more powerful because negative emotions are more powerful. I just wanna be wrong. I so wanna be telling you bullshit right now.
So far it’s been right, but that doesn’t mean it will continue to be. So please let me be wrong.
Platforms seem trapped in this fundamental tension, and I’m just not sure how they break out of that.
My feeling is that if the theory is correct that we got into this by trying to be socialist and libertarian at the same time, and getting the worst of both worlds, then we have to choose. You either have to say, “Okay, Facebook is not going to be a business anymore. We said we wanted to create this thing to connect people, but we’re actually making the world worse, so we’re not gonna allow people to advertise on it; we’re not gonna allow anybody to have any influence on your feed but you. This is all about you. We’re gonna turn it into a nonprofit; we’re gonna give it to each country; it’ll be nationalized. We’ll do some final stock things so all the people who contributed to it will be rich beyond their dreams. But then after that it’s done; it’s not a business. We’ll buy back everybody’s stock and it’s done. It’s over. That’s it.”
[Blogger note: this choice between socialism and libertarianism is a highly interesting and crucial question, but I don’t think there’s one answer. Facebook strikes me as a dysfunctional idea from the beginning. Social interaction doesn’t scale, data networks scale. A global gossip network like Facebook makes almost no sense. I suspect FB will be competed down to many different functional social media models rather than one concentrated behemoth. Something like search. or Wikipedia seems rather different in nature. Google Search looks more and more like a public good, which means it is likely to become a regulated public utility. It’s not exactly clear how search works as a public utility, but I think the political imperative is there.]
That’s one option. So it just turns into a socialist enterprise; we let it be nationalized and it’s gone. The other option is to monetize it. And that’s the one that I’m personally more interested in. And what that would look like is, we’d ask those who can afford to — which would be a lot of people in the world, certainly most people in the West — to start paying for it. And then we’d also pay people who provide data into it that’s exceptionally valuable to the network, and it would become a source of economic growth. And we would outlaw advertising on it. There would no longer be third parties paying to influence you.
Because as long as you have advertising, you have this perverse incentive to make it manipulative. You can’t have a behavior-modification machine with advertisers and have anything ethical; it’s not possible. You could get away with it barely with television because television wasn’t as effective at modifying people. But this, there’s no ethical way to have advertising.
So you’d ban advertising, and you’d start paying people, a subset of people; a minority of people would start earning their living because they just do stuff that other people love to look at over Facebook or the other social networks, or YouTube for that matter. And then most people would pay into it in the same way that we pay into something like Netflix or HBO Now.
And one of the things I wanna point out is that back at the time when Facebook was founded, the belief was that in the future there wouldn’t be paid people making movies and television because armies of unpaid volunteers organized through our network schemes would make superior content, just like what happened with Wikipedia. But what actually happened is, when people started paying for Netflix, we got what we call Peak TV — things got much better as a result of it being monetized.
So I think if we had a situation where people were paying for something like Facebook, and being paid for it, and advertising was absolutely outlawed, the only customer would be the user, there would be no other customer. If we got into that situation, I think we have at least a chance of achieving Peak Social Media, just like we achieved Peak TV. We might actually see things improve a great deal.
So that’s the solution that I think is better. But we can’t do this combination of libertarian and communist ideology. It just doesn’t work. You have to choose one.
You’ve written this book, Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts. I don’t want to make you summarize the whole book, but I want to ask what you thought was the most urgent argument, and to explain why.
Okay. By the way, it’s … For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now.
Right now! So the whole thing is already urgent, so which of these urgent pleas do you believe to be the most pressing?
There’s one that’s a little complicated, which is the last one. Because I have the one about politics, and I have the one about economics. That it’s ruining politics, it’s empowering the most obnoxious people to be the most powerful inherently, and that’s destroying the world. I have the one about economics, how it’s centralizing wealth even while it seems to be democratizing it. I have the one about how it makes you feel sad; I have all these different ones.
But at the end, I have one that’s a spiritual one. The argument is that social media hates your soul. And it suggests that there’s a whole spiritual, religious belief system along with social media like Facebook that I think people don’t like. And it’s also fucking phony and false. It suggests that life is some kind of optimization, like you’re supposed to be struggling to get more followers and friends. Zuckerberg even talked about how the new goal of Facebook would be to give everybody a meaningful life, as if something about Facebook is where the meaning of life is.
It suggests that you’re just a cog in a giant global brain or something like that. The rhetoric from the companies is often about AI, that what they’re really doing — like YouTube’s parent company, Google, says what they really are is building the giant global brain that’ll inherit the earth and they’ll upload you to that brain and then you won’t have to die. It’s very, very religious in the rhetoric. And so it’s turning into this new religion, and it’s a religion that doesn’t care about you. It’s a religion that’s completely lacking in empathy or any kind of personal acknowledgment. And it’s a bad religion. It’s a nerdy, empty, sterile, ugly, useless religion that’s based on false ideas. And I think that of all of the things, that’s the worst thing about it.
I mean, it’s sort of like a cult of personality. It’s like in North Korea or some regime where the religion is your purpose to serve this one guy. And your purpose is to serve this one system, which happens to be controlled by one guy, in the case of Facebook.
It’s not as blunt and out there, but that is the underlying message of it and it’s ugly and bad. I loathe it, and I think a lot of people have that feeling, but they might not have articulated it or gotten it to the surface because it’s just such a weird and new situation.
On the other hand, there’s a rising backlash that may end the platforms before they have the opportunity to take root and produce yet another vicious problem.
I’m in my late 50s now. I have an 11-year-old daughter, and the thing that bothers me so much is that we’re giving them a world that isn’t as good as the world we received. We’re giving them a world in which their hopes for being able to create a decent, happy, reasonably low-stress life, where they can have their own kids, it’s just not as good as what we were given. We have not done well by them.
And then to say that observing our own mistakes means that you’re old and don’t get it is profoundly counterproductive. It’s really just a way of evading our own responsibility. The truth is that we totally have screwed over younger generations. And that’s a bigger story than just the social-media and tech thing, but the social-media and tech thing is a big part of it. We’ve created a scammy society where we concentrate wealth in ways that are petty and not helpful, and we’ve given them a world of far fewer options than we had. There’s nothing I want more than for the younger people to create successful lives and create a world that they love. I mean, that’s what it’s all about. But to say that the path to that is for them to agree with the thing we made for them is just so self-serving and so obnoxiously narcissistic that it makes me wanna throw up.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.