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Has Social Media Radically Transformed Society?
In Review: Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, by Jaron Lanier
Ever since the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data scandal in early 2018, when it was revealed that millions of Facebook users’ data was exploited for political advertising without their consent, there has been a growing scepticism around the use of social media. Immediately the scandal sparked a backlash of users leaving the platform as the hashtag #DeleteFacebook trended on Twitter. One man, however, was writing about the dangers of social media, and advising that people exercise their power to leave the platforms, long before the scandal was revealed. Computer scientist and techno-sceptic Jaron Lanier’s criticism of social media platforms, that reduce our capacity for empathy and make us generally more tribal in our online behaviour, is ever more exigent. With over a billion individual users worldwide, however, including politicians and heads of state, as well as business owners and professional bloggers, Lanier recognizes that being able to quit these platforms is a luxury in itself.
With the ever-increasing influence of tech and media companies in our day-to-day lives, I want to know if social media has radically transformed society and steering us towards more liberty and freedom, or, as Lanier suggests, has the focus shifted to a new order slavery-to-the-screen?
Lanier pragmatically coins the acronym BUMMER, meaning ‘Behaviour of Users Modified and Turned into an Empire for Rent’. BUMMER machines such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc., willingly observe and manipulate interactions of individuals online and expropriate that data which can be sold to media and tech companies for advertising and political purposes. It gets worse. In practice, says Lanier, BUMMER programmes are ‘statistical machines that live in the computing clouds.’ A series of heavily guarded algorithms that monitor and modify human behaviour and draw wealth and a political edge to those who can afford its products. Merging the authentic with the illusory is the method required to induce the levels of political disenfranchisement we are so used to seeing on Facebook now. Videos of highly impassioned Trump supporters who cite data they were most likely forwarded on whatsapp within the last two days is the result of too much exposure to these BUMMER machines. It’s a process of political radicalisation which Lanier acknowledges directly: ‘BUMMER platforms have proudly reported on how they’ve experimented with making people sad, changing voter turnout, and reinforcing brand loyalty.’ Alienating, exploitative and disorienting, BUMMER platforms embody the archetypal characteristics of a feudal society whereby the value, generated by the majority, is expropriated by landlords and used to create enormous wealth, all whilst managing to convince you that the enemy lives next door.
And the parallels between our online consumption of media and the treatment of workers under feudalism goes further still. The myth of economic dignity, for example, and the liberating of an online workforce is abruptly challenged by author and filmmaker Astra Taylor. Taylor, in accordance with Lanier, illustrates the interaction of social media users online as a conflation of playground and factory. Taylor’s somewhat Orwelian comparison is as such: ‘amusement and labour cross over in confusing ways’ she writes, ‘we create and connect and the entrepreneurs keep the cash… instead of the production or distribution of culture being concentrated in the hands of the few, it is the economic value of culture that is hoarded. A small group, positioned to capture the value of the network, benefits disproportionately from a collective effort.’ The landowners, i.e the Zuckerberg’s, Jack Dorsey’s, supply the land, or the space, for us to work and set out rough guideline and the tweeters and instagram bloggers who occupy that space willingly give up their data and in the process become the products of social media themselves. The real Digital Revolution, therefore, is that people are increasingly satisfied to work for free online. We feel increasingly empowered to express ourselves online and in the process create a wealth of data amongst all those restaurant reviews, language translations and so on which is collected by big BUMMER platforms, expropriated from its original creators and sold to advertisers and media companies who openly experiment with mood manipulations and the vanity of voters. Furthermore, Nicholas G. Carr, author and technology critic, adds, ‘[social media] businesses have realised that they can give away the tools of production but maintain ownership over the resulting products. One of the fundamental economic characteristics of Web 2.0 is the distribution of production into the hands of the many and the concentration of the economic rewards into the hands of the few.’
Online we are satisfied to build our businesses, and social lives, on somebody else’s land and watch them become rich from doing so. Far from propelling us into the promise of the Digital Age with the increased anticipation and excitement of an automated workforce, BUMMER platforms have caused a stagnation resulting in further social and cultural decline. Sociologist Frank V. Webster comments, ‘this prioritisation of information has maintained its hold now for several decades and there is little sign of it losing its grip on the imagination. We are told that we are entering an information age, that a new mode of information predominates, that ours is now an e-society, that we must come to terms with a weightless economy driven by information, that we have moved into a global information economy.’ But for the majority a ‘weightless economy’ is yet to be felt and if there is such thing as a ‘global information economy,’ it serves the interest of a small minority of cloud lords. The creation of social media alone, therefore, has not radically transformed society by any means; only increased the subjugation of people by their practice. The working and middle classes, as ever, still lack economic dignity.
On a saving and more positive note, Lanier explains that ‘the most dangerous thing about BUMMER is the widespread illusion that BUMMER is the only possibility.’ Furthermore, Lanier explains that ‘we have enshrined the belief that the only way to finance a connection between two people is through a third person who is paying to manipulate them.’ Ultimately that belief only exists as long as we chose to allow it to control the way we interact online; as long as we chose to believe it’s real. Perhaps in light of this, for those of us who can afford to, the best temporary solution is to quit using social media platforms until we can radically transform society to accommodate a much healthier integration of their usage and means.
Lanier J. Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now London: The Bodley Head, 2018. p.37
Taylor, A. The people’s platform: taking back power and culture in the digital age. Random House Canada, 2014 p.49
Nicholas Carr, ‘Digital Sharecropping’, Rough Type– Last Accessed 11thMay 2020
Webster, F. Theories of the information society, Fourth edn, Routledge, London 2014 p.2
Taylor, A. The people’s platform: taking back power and culture in the digital age. Random House Canada, 2014 pp.122–3