Tech oracle Jaron Lanier warned us all about the evils of social media. Too few of us listened. Now, in the most chaotic of moments, his fears—and his bighearted solutions—are more urgent than ever.
There Jaron Lanier and I were, side by side on my computer screen, in a virtual space that looked a little like a conference room and a little like a movie theater. We could’ve been jurors, maybe. I was able to approximate rubbing his head. “As you have discovered,” Lanier said, noticing, “you can reach and interact with people a little bit. So there is this shared-space quality.” He was in Berkeley, California, in the hills above the city, in a house that looks out over the bay. I was in Los Angeles. Five minutes ago we were in our own separate video-chat windows, the ones many of us now see as we’re going to sleep, our dumb faces staring back at us. Then he had hit some buttons. Now we were together.
Lanier calls this technology Together mode; he helped design it this spring for Microsoft, where he has a post as an in-house seer of sorts. Initially he’d conceived of Together mode as a way to help Stephen Colbert—in whose house band Lanier sometimes performs when he’s in New York—figure out how to host his show in front of a remote audience. (Lanier is sometimes credited as the father of virtual reality; he is also sometimes credited as the owner of the world’s largest flute, in addition to the many other exotic instruments he collects and expertly plays.) But mostly he was trying to solve, as he’s been doing since the early ’80s, a problem relating to technology and how humans might use it. In this case: How could we better, more naturally communicate with one another in the middle of a pandemic?
He explained a bit more about how Together mode worked, how it soothed what the medium had previously tended to aggravate. Being side by side, instead of separated—and being able to make eye contact, as we now could—worked on the psychology; it made you a little more playful, a little more relaxed. It might even help build, in the words of the NBA—which swiftly adopted Together mode as a way to project remote fans onto courtside monitors in otherwise empty Florida arenas—“a sense of community.”
“What I’m hoping,” Lanier said, gesturing around our virtual space, “is that people find a little bit of well-being in it. Like, we can’t pretend it’ll do that much, because everything sucks, but it’s a little something. It should help a bit.”
Why were Lanier and I talking? I don’t mean this question rhetorically; this was something he asked me, more than once. I tried to explain. I was interested, I said, in his life, which was marked in equal parts by tragedy and luck, populated by a gallery of figures—Richard Feynman, Philip Glass, Joseph Campbell, Forest Whitaker, Steven Spielberg—too numerous and random to fully list. I was interested in his work too—as a creator (of video games, VR, facial-recognition software, medical-training devices), as a thinker, and as an author of four acclaimed books in the past decade about the promise and perils of technology, books that suggested he might be the last moral man in Silicon Valley. At a moment when our tech overlords seemed bent on consolidating power and taking over whatever parts of our lives they hadn’t already taken over, Lanier—a tech insider who has been part of the industry for nearly as long as the industry has existed—had chosen instead to speak out against his peers and to suggest a different, more human logic for how they might treat the rest of us.
I said I was particularly interested in his most recent work, 2018’s Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, which is as clear and definitive an account of the damage companies like Twitter and Facebook and Google do to society and to our individual psyches as you’ll ever read. The book felt relevant again right now, I said, in a way that made my bones actually vibrate. Lanier had been early to the idea that these platforms were addictive and even harmful—that their algorithms made people feel bad, divided them against one another, and actually changed who they were, in an insidious and threatening manner. That because of this, social media was in some ways “worse than cigarettes,” as Lanier put it at one point, “in that cigarettes don’t degrade you. They kill you, but you’re still you.”
I noted that this idea, which had seemed extreme two and half years ago, appeared to just now be arriving in the mainstream, where Mark Zuckerberg was increasingly regarded as a villain, and advertisers had begun boycotting Facebook in disgust, citing its deleterious effects on democracy. Congress was holding hearings about the monopoly power of Facebook and Google, questioning the outsize influence they increasingly wielded over every aspect of society. And it seemed like more and more people I knew were quitting Twitter—the toxicity had long since begun to outweigh whatever distraction or joy the activity provided. This may have been obvious to Lanier in 2018, I said—he seemed to live somewhere off ahead of us, by the horizon. Now here the rest of us were too.
But all that was only part of the reason I had sought out Lanier, I told him. What I really hoped to do, I said, was to talk about the future and how to live in it. This year feels like a crossroads; I do not need to explain what I mean by this. We are on the precipice of ruin or revolution or both. We are sick of looking at social media, but social media is also maybe driving the most significant and necessary social movement of my entire life. I want to destroy my computer, through which I now work and “have drinks” and stare at blurry simulations of my parents sometimes; I want to kneel down and pray to it like a god. I want someone—I want Jaron Lanier—to tell me where we’re going, and whether it’s going to be okay when we get there.
Lanier just nodded. All right, then.
Picture our oracle: He is 60 and usually barefoot. He has a soft, calming voice and waist-length scraggly graying white-guy dreads worn out of what he deems necessity. “I fought with my hair for years,” he told me. “I would try to comb, comb, cut, cut. It’s like an invasive species. I’ve been accused of the hair being an affectation or cultural appropriation, all kinds of things. But it’s really just a surrender to biology. It’s just too hard.”
Lanier finds many things fundamental to living in a society hard, like adhering to concepts relating to time, or receiving or sending mail; one ride in his amusement park brain is “a hamster wheel of pain,” as he mentally repeats to himself whatever menial tasks he needs to do until he does them. He is a voluminous talker prone to distraction; interrupt him mid-thought and prepare to find yourself hundreds of years forward or backward in time, talking about factories or Thomas Pynchon or the origins of the word meme. He has deep, profound relationships with his cats and has often expressed a desire to think more like them.
As we talked, I kept getting distracted by the video chat and my ability to move around in virtual space, the possibility that the two of us could make actual eye contact. Empowered, I tried out on him an idea I had about what unified his vast and myriad pursuits over the years. What holds all of Lanier’s books—2010’s You Are Not a Gadget, 2013’s Who Owns the Future?, 2017’s Dawn of the New Everything, and 2018’s Ten Arguments—and his inventions and even his musical career together is a single question, I posited: How do we live more independent, creatively fulfilled lives?
He thought about this. “Oh, God, Potato, stop it!” he said finally.
He was, it turned out, talking to his cat, who was doing battle with a paper bag. “He might come up and be onscreen in a second,” Lanier said hopefully.
He returned to thinking about my attempt at a summary of his life’s work. He said he thought I wasn’t wrong but it was important that people not get the impression that he was trying to tell them how to live. “I love the foundational papers of the United States, where they’ll talk about, you know, the pursuit of happiness,” he said. “Like, you don’t define what happiness is, and you don’t define it as something that will be achieved. It’s the pursuit. You leave space for future people to find it themselves. And so, I think the number one priority is to not create perverse incentives that ruin quests for meaning or for happiness or for decency or betterment.”
Perverse incentives are what Lanier has spent his life railing against—the way that tech is co-opted and digital spaces colonized for the profit of people (or, perhaps eventually, robots) who do not care about your happiness.
“So,” he said, sighing. “My project is in a way more modest than you’re making it out to be. It’s more…it’s more to not fuck the future over, you know?”
In his memoir, Dawn of the New Everything, Lanier describes himself as a child who was “consumed with an overpowering subjectivity. Everything was distinct, moody, filled with flavor.” This extraordinary sensitivity to the analog world persisted well into adulthood. As time has gone on, Lanier told me, he’s become more normal—“or more boring.” But even still, he said, “There’s kind of a narrow set of ways that I can possibly fit into this world as it is. And I can just kinda barely make it.”
It is a particular irony that Lanier, a pioneer of virtual reality, has lived more actual lives, and endured more in the real world, than most of us ever will. His parents, Ellery and Lilly, were Jews who fled Europe during the pogroms and early days of concentration camps; they immigrated to New York City and then kept running, in the mid to late ’60s, to the Texas-New Mexico border. Lilly, the breadwinner of the family—she traded stocks over the phone—died in a car accident when Lanier was nine. Grieving, and without money, he and his father ended up in the New Mexico desert, living in a tent, gradually building a house—in the shape of a geodesic dome—that Ellery allowed Lanier to design. (Later, after Lanier had left, part of the dome collapsed, nearly killing Ellery.)
Lanier enrolled in New Mexico State University at 16—he was self-evidently bright, maybe even a prodigy, though also already in the throes of an experience so unique that most people had no idea what to make of him—and from there his life only became more fantastical. To pay tuition, he herded goats and sold their milk and cheese; his first car was a bullet-riddled Dodge Dart he acquired from a man in exchange for caring for the man’s infant child while he was in prison. Lanier drove the goats around in the perforated Dodge Dart, on some hay he kept in the back. He hitchhiked through Mexico; he met women who appeared like apparitions and then disappeared, never to be seen again. These days he feels nostalgia, he said, for a past in which we could define ourselves before technology went ahead and attempted crude approximations for us. “There’s a way in which the foggy world before the internet actually brought out shapes and details,” he told me, “better than the bright lights.”
Eventually he ended up in California, where he designed video games. Before long, Lanier helped found VPL Research, one of the first virtual reality companies. He may have barely fit into the world. But he was making space for himself.
For years, Lanier said, he assumed the blame for his mother’s deadly accident on the road in New Mexico; he’d been in a fight with some local kids the morning she died, and he always wondered if the panic she’d felt at witnessing it had carried over. Later, an engineer friend of Lanier’s noted that the model of car she was driving had a possible flaw that could have caused the crash. I asked Lanier whether he’d always been the analytic, systems-oriented thinker he is today—a man who would look to the wrecked car for answers—or whether he perhaps became that way, in order to make sense of a tragedy that was fundamentally senseless.
Lanier was silent for a while, thinking about the question. “I haven’t thought of that idea before,” he said at last. “I don’t know. I mean, I find that kind of idea to be a bit of an imponderable. It’s a good story, for sure.” He laughed. “It’s possible. That’s the sort of idea one should have about others. I don’t think it works for oneself to think that way.”
He said that lately, perhaps because of the pandemic, he’d been revisiting that part of his life, the surreal lonely years of his youth. “The amazing thing to me is how extraordinarily well everything’s worked out for me,” Lanier said. “I’ve been feeling an increasing sense of gratitude about that. Because when I was younger, I wouldn’t have expected it to go so well, actually.”
One hot afternoon in late June, I found myself in Lanier’s purple driveway in Berkeley, in a chair placed next to a mysterious pink spike protruding up and out from the house, which for pandemic reasons I never entered, though he later showed me pictures—books and strange instruments with curly tails and tuning pegs. His pale goatee flowed out from beneath the blue mask he was wearing; his black T-shirt of the day had long wizard’s sleeves. He moved to this house, he said, after 9/11—the events of that day caused the roof of his Tribeca loft to collapse. (Like his father before him, he was almost killed by the falling ceiling.) He and a few friends packed up some trucks with all his rare instruments and came across the country to this house, the first house he looked at in Berkeley. He’s been gradually modifying it ever since, in loose reference to the home that he designed, built, and grew up in as a teenager. “It’s just a wonderful thing to play with colors and shapes,” he said.
Lanier is used to being consulted as an oracle, though not under our present circumstances. In fact, he said, he’d hardly seen anyone in person for months, prior to this. “It just feels ridiculous,” he said, gesturing at the two of us, sweating in the sun, gazing at each other over our masks. But he warmed up quickly. Lanier’s been lecturing on one topic or another for decades, and his arguments have gradually become less abstract and more pointed as time has gone on and certain platforms, like Facebook, Instagram, Google, Twitter, and YouTube, have annexed more and more of our lives. His thoughts on this subject have been influential enough that they may sound familiar to you by now: That anytime you are provided with a service, like Facebook, for free, you are in fact the product being sold. That social media companies are basically giant behavior-modification systems that use algorithms to relentlessly increase “engagement,” largely by evoking bad feelings in the people who use them. That these companies in turn sell the ability to modify your behavior to “advertisers,” who sometimes come in the old form of people who want to persuade you to buy soap but who now just as often come in the form of malevolent actors who want to use their influence over you to, say, depress voter turnout or radicalize white supremacists. That in exchange for likes and retweets and public photos of your kids, you are basically signing up to be a data serf for companies that can make money only by addicting and then manipulating you. That because of all this, and for the good of society, you should do everything in your power to quit.
When he first advanced these ideas, they seemed controversial, far-fetched, even bizarre. But the past two years in America have brought more and more critics and even just regular citizens who haven’t even heard of Jaron Lanier around to his way of thinking. For instance, I said to him in his driveway, since the pandemic had begun, many people I knew seemed to be hitting a wall with Twitter in particular, myself included—that most days it felt like attaching my mouth to an exhaust pipe and then inhaling. That by 5 p.m. on any given day…I did not feel good.
He diagnosed me right away. “Well, so this is a delicate topic, and it’s often been difficult to talk about, but there’s some kinds of people who particularly get Twitter addictions and they’re often journalists—”
I laughed sadly. “And people who are addicted to Twitter are like all addicts—on the one hand miserable, and on the other hand very defensive about it and unwilling to blame Twitter.” (Shortly after this conversation, I quit Twitter for about three weeks. It was soothing. Actually, it was life-changing. As of this writing, for reasons I don’t understand—but also do, all too well, because of Lanier—I’m back on the platform. Please kill me.)
I asked him: Had he noticed a change in his own relationship to technology since the pandemic started? He said that he had. “I think people are spending more time in a self-directed way by connecting with others on video chat or things like that than they are passively receiving a feed,” he said. “And so I actually think things have gotten a little better.” The fact that people were using computers not to pass time in algorithm-driven loops but to talk to one another, and then perhaps go outside, was a source of optimism for him. So, he said, were the protests then sweeping the country in response to the death of George Floyd.
One of the most depressing theories Lanier proposes in Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now concerns the efficacy of social-media-based activism. In the book, he suggests that the very same media used to organize and connect people with a shared viewpoint—this powerful resource for activists looking to foment change—can end up emboldening their opponents. The way it works, according to Lanier, is that the algorithm takes a positive social movement, such as Black Lives Matter, and shows it to a bunch of people who are inclined to be enraged by it, introduces them to one another, and then continues to rile them up for profit, until they’re even more fearsome and effective than the movement to which they were reacting. So, Arab Spring feeds the raw material for Isis; GamerGate opens the door for the men’s rights movement. Earlier incarnations of the Black Lives Matter protests, Lanier wrote in Ten Arguments, helped galvanize the alt-right and white supremacist movements—Ferguson 2014 inevitably led, in this formulation, to Charlottesville 2017. (Or more recently, on the other side of the ideological spectrum, Trump’s use of Twitter seems to have fueled a resurgent left-center that feeds off of his daily inflammatory posts.)
But, Lanier said, in light of the May and June protests in America, he was cautiously rethinking this part of his argument. If people were less passive, simply sitting and receiving whatever the feed vomited up on their social media platform of choice, and more active, using social media to organize and then show up in the streets, then, he said, “that’s a different world.” Lanier said he’d also observed something he’d never observed before, which is that the Black Lives Matter activism that had fed and nurtured itself on Facebook and Twitter was reconsidering those platforms in a way that felt constructive and different—that activists were actually holding the companies and their advertisers accountable for the hate speech and disinformation that flourished on their services. “It’s possible there could be a virtuous cycle this time,” Lanier said, in which “Black Lives Matter doesn’t get boomeranged and doesn’t have its energy turned back on itself. And if that happens, I would rejoice on many levels.”
Lanier is the father of a 13-year-old girl, and “one thing that’s really cool,” he said, was how the protest movement had been able “to get teenagers focused on real things, instead of garbage. Like, I’ve seen this real emphasis toward Wait, how did this happen in history? What happened with Reconstruction? Where did all these statues come from? They are focused on reality instead of the latest stupid thing that’s on Instagram or TikTok, and it’s pretty cool.”
Technology was doing, as it did every once in a while, what Lanier wanted it to do: giving people a chance to be better, to know more, to lead more informed and compassionate lives.
“I feel a gratitude to Black Lives Matter,” Lanier said, “for just reintroducing us to reality.”
Another source of optimism, he said, was the advertiser boycotts of Facebook just then being announced by Patagonia, Coca-Cola, Unilever, and other companies protesting the disinformation and hate speech spread on the platform. “Marketers,” he said, “are obsessed with the youth market, and the youth market is really just fucking tired of white supremacy. And I think that there’s just a lot of people looking at what’s next to their ads when they show up and what’s going on, and they’re thinking, ‘You know what? We’re putting money into this thing, and it might lose us the youth market. And if we lose the youth market, we go down.’ ”
He said he noticed a change in how Facebook was both thought of and written about. Take the congressional hearings that were held in July with Mark Zuckerberg and other big tech leaders. “What struck me,” Lanier later told me, “was how alone the four CEOs were—no friends or allies anywhere in politics or society. They’ve creeped everyone out with their opaque form of influence. Even Big Tobacco had friends.”
I asked if he ever hears from anyone at any of the companies he regularly critiques. “I’ve only ever heard a disagreement with my hypothesis from three people at Facebook, and all of them are extremely high up,” Lanier said, grinning mischievously. “And I’ll let you guess who they are.”
Silicon Valley is a strange place; Lanier occupies an even stranger place within it. There are those, like Mark Zuckerberg, who likely wish he would go away entirely. There are others who think he should have done a better job of cashing out, given his Zelig-like drift through the Valley and his connection to its most influential ideas and characters. “Some of the people I know,” Lanier told me, “will say, you know, ‘You’re truly foolish for not having made more money—what is wrong with you?’ ”
The pandemic had only complicated his relationship with his peers, he said. Many people in Silicon Valley were fleeing, to panic bunkers and second homes and survival compounds in New Zealand. Some of them were even inviting Lanier along. “A few people have called me from time to time and said, ‘Hey, you have to get in on our New Zealand thing,’ ” Lanier confided. “I’m like, ‘No.…’ I just feel like, if we can fuck it up here, why can’t we fuck up New Zealand? What’s better about New Zealand than here? It’s even riskier for earthquakes, so the only thing about it that’s inviting is we haven’t fucked it up yet. This idea that you can fuck up the world, but then there’ll be some part of it that you haven’t fucked up, is wrong. If you fuck up the world, you fuck up the whole world, you know?”
Lanier had no intention of going anywhere. He was going to ride it out in his carnival house, pay taxes, and try to fix what he could, he said. We were floating in our video chat again. Side by side. Shoulder to shoulder. Okay, I said. So what about the future? I asked. The thing I’d come to talk about. Was the future going to be okay?
Lanier, in effect, said: Maybe.
He said that during the pandemic he’d had a lot of time, and a lot of cause, to contemplate what was going to happen next. One thing he’d noticed is that the horrific wave of unemployment caused by the virus seemed to correspond pretty closely with predictions folks in his industry had made before, about the cost of the coming wave of A.I.—“automation, things like self-driving trucks and warehouse robots and whatever. Delivery drones. If you look at the range of predictions, there were outliers that were extreme in one direction or the other, but most of the legitimate people ended up predicting an increase in unemployment in 10 to 15 years, and it’s kind of similar to the increase of unemployment that we’ve seen from the pandemic.”
So, he thought, okay, it’s here now, what can we do about it? He’d been contemplating several solutions—universal basic income, for instance. Lanier had been in contact with the former presidential candidate Andrew Yang and had gone on his podcast, pushing him to take his ideas about UBI and make them bigger, more generous, more humane. And then there was what Lanier calls “data dignity”; he once wrote a book about it, called Who Owns the Future? The idea is simple: What you create, or what you contribute to the digital ether, you own.
Right now, Lanier said, most of the systems on the internet are set up to exploit us, to harvest our creative ideas and our data without compensation. That the prevailing attitude in Silicon Valley is basically: “There’s no reason for you to know what your data means, how it might be used, you can’t contribute, we don’t know who you are, we don’t want to know you, you’re worthless, you’re not going to get paid, it’s only valuable once we aggregate it but you know nothing, you will know nothing, you’re in the dark, you’re useless, you’re hopeless, you’re nothing. And then a robot made of your data will replace you. The robot is something. The robot is a successor master species. The robot is God. And you’re garbage.”
Every day Google and Facebook and other tech companies become more powerful and sophisticated by analyzing you and your choices—what you click on, how long you pause to watch an ad or a YouTube video—and the stories you write and the songs you record, and they charge advertisers money to access this information, and grow their own companies with it, but they don’t pay you for your contribution. They don’t even really acknowledge that you are contributing, as if artificial intelligence came from nowhere, instead of from data derived from you and me. “In the information age,” Lanier said, “we’re all workers and consumers and entrepreneurs at the same time.” What if, Lanier suggested, we got paid for our labor in this system? By recognizing the roles we play in building the future, Lanier said, we might give ourselves a chance to be meaningful participants in it. “When a person is empowered to make a difference, they become more of a full person,” he said. “They awaken spiritually.”
That would be the best case. All of us building the robot future together, and being compensated for our time and our work while doing it.
And…the worst case? I asked.
“Facebook might have won already, which would mean the end of democracy in this century,” Lanier said. “It’s possible that we can’t quite get out of this system of paranoia and tribalism for profit—it’s just too powerful and it’ll tear everything apart, leaving us with a world of oligarchs and autocrats who aren’t able to deal with real problems like pandemics and climate change and whatnot and that we fall apart, you know, we lose it. That is a real possibility for this century. I’m not saying I think it’s what’ll happen, but I wouldn’t count it out. There’s evidence every single day that it’s what’s happening.”
Take the amount of misinformation about masks and COVID-19 that was flying around Facebook and Twitter daily and in turn making its way onto Fox News. Most of the people who appear on air on Fox, Lanier pointed out, are themselves on social media, getting their information or lack thereof. And so disinformation goes from Twitter to Fox to the social media feeds of the president, and the cycle begins anew. Look at how powerful these platforms could be, to the point where “the sway of media is more powerful than the experience of reality—that people can be watching hundreds of thousands die from this virus and yet believe it’s a hoax at the same time, and integrate those two things. That’s the food for evil,” Lanier said.
All around us, the pandemic was exposing the fault lines that would need to be repaired if we were to make it, and so Lanier was buckling in once again to help, to try to unfuck the world. Though he related, he said, to my desire to just throw my computer out the window. “I’ve had many experiences physically destroying computers in my life,” he said, basking momentarily in the memory. “I’ve had experiences of tearing them apart bit by bit, stomping on them.… I’ve bitten them.… I’ve thrown them from great heights onto very hard surfaces.”
But then, here the two of us were. Him in Berkeley, me in Los Angeles, but still somehow together. A modern miracle most modern people have learned to sneer at. Not Lanier, who still sees the wonder, and the potential, of these stupid fucking screens, no matter what.
In fact—he gestured around our video chat. “Do you want me to try to send a picture of us in this?” he asked.
I said that would be great, actually. A keepsake of a moment. A way to make the virtual real.
“Uh, yeah,” Lanier said. “I think I can do it, but just gimme a second here.”
He was mashing buttons over on his end and muttering. “Ahhhhhhh. Hold on. Expert computer user here.”
He managed to take a screenshot, and then beheld it disappointedly.
The photo was not coming out the way he wanted it to. The tech was not doing what the tech was supposed to do.
“All right, I’m going to try one more time here,” Lanier said finally. “Are you ready?”