You Have to Invent Yourself: An Interview with Jaron Lanier

June 11, 2018 | 5 books mentioned 12 min read

Jaron Lanier wants you to take a break from social media. Not forever—but for a significant period of time. He suggests six months. He understands that this will be hard. And he gets that it could be professionally difficult and personally isolating. But he thinks it will be worth the sacrifice, because it will help make the internet better. It might also make you feel better—more free, happier, calmer.

If you’re intrigued by this challenge, I encourage you to pick up his book-length essay: Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Now. You won’t be scolded or labeled a screen addict; instead, you’ll be asked to take a closer look at the business models behind Facebook, Twitter, and Google, which Lanier labels BUMMER, an acronym for “Behaviors of Users Modified, and Made into Empires for Rent.” In a recent TED Talk, Lanier explained it this way: “We cannot have a society in which, if two people wish to communicate, the only way that can happen is if it’s financed by a third person who wishes to manipulate them.”

covercoverLanier is a Silicon Valley insider, best known for pioneering virtual reality but also for his books, especially You Are Not A Gadget (2010) and Who Owns the Future? (2013).  Both argue (in part) for a more thoughtful, economically fair version of the Internet. Ten Arguments is shorter than his previous books, and it’s more urgent, with frequent references to current events. In his acknowledgments, Lanier explains that he wrote it because his 2017 book, Dawn of the New Everything, a memoir about his work with virtual reality, was so overshadowed by the news that he ended up speaking to interviewers about how “social media was playing a role in making the world newly dark and crazy.”

coverI spoke to Lanier by phone a couple of weeks ago. The interview has been lightly edited; references to current events date to late May.

The Millions: I loved your book and I came to it in kind of a funny way. I read In Search of Lost Time last year, which is a novel that really makes you think about your habits, and when I finished reading it, I looked at my social media use and decided I didn’t want to be on social media anymore. I’ve been trying to convince other people to get off of social media, and when I saw your book of 10 arguments, I thought I could find some good ones.

coverJaron Lanier: Well, the one you just brought up about your personal time, it really does deserve to be a whole argument in itself, but I only really mention it tangentially in the other ones.

TM: I felt like that was the main argument at the end of the book. It seems to be oriented toward individual action: Quit social media for a month and see how you feel about it.

JL: We’ve shifted the whole framework of society into this one where corporate algorithms are what know you, but I’m much more interested in the process of people knowing themselves and inventing themselves. It’s almost as if people have forgotten that. It’s very strange to me; people who are very addicted to the system will say, oh, well, I’m letting it know me, but in order for there to be something to know, you have to invent yourself, and in order to invent yourself, you have to spend some time with yourself. There’s a real quality of absurdity to me in the way we’re thinking about it.

TM: I did wonder if you’re also looking for collective action. Do you think a large group of people should do this in order to change the landscape?

JL: I think it would be a tremendously positive thing for the world if there were a massive group of people to delete their accounts all at once; however, I believe that it’s a very unlikely thing to happen. The truth is that companies like Facebook, but Facebook in particular, genuinely have been able to leverage addiction. The very definition of addiction is that it’s hard to quit. And then, on top of that, they have a digital large-scale version of addiction, which is called network effect. There’s something very reasonable that people want—which is what the internet was for—which is, they want to be able to reach each other, and they would like to be able to do things like share family pictures and all that. And as long as there’s a single company that has such a monopoly on that stuff and also actually owns all the data, in order for everyone to get off of it, they’d all actually have to do it at once and then get onto something else, and that coordination problem is impossible. Therefore, even if they weren’t personally addicted, it’s inconceivable that everyone could get off.

I understand that the ideal of everyone just leaving the stuff is hard to the point of near impossibility, but I feel I have to ask for it because you have to be able to ask for the right thing to happen. Even if the ideal is unattainable in a given era, you have to at least be able to articulate it. If you can’t do that, then you’re precluding hope for the future. In the immediate term, the fact that so many people have sympathy with the argument I’m making, combined with the fact that those same people have a hard time acting on it, will reinforce the idea that the current situation is really not democratic, not fair, not sustainable in the longer term.

I think that in, let’s say, the last half century or so, we’ve seen a few cases of massive societal change that were brought about by people who were trying to promote good ideas. For instance, littering used to be completely overwhelming, and now it’s rare; smoking used to be overwhelming, and now it’s rare; driving while drunk is not as rare as it needs to be but is certainly less common than it used to be. Those are three examples of very commonsense ideas getting implemented through effort and good intentions. So on one level, it’s like that. All of those degraded the lives of people in an immediate way; this one kind of hides the damages it’s doing until there’s an election that seems to be counter to what the majority of the people wanted. Or until a rise of horrible ethnic violence in parts of the world, or until waves of bullying, waves of teen suicide—all these kinds of things.

It’s a moral imperative to at least state what everybody should do even though it’s so hard. And then we’ll have to kind of gradually muddle our way toward something better.

TM: Given the situation now, how does an organization cope? For example, the website I write for now is an online magazine, and we use social media to post links to articles. And we need social media because it’s the way people find out about what we’re writing. Considering a site like ours, or even a larger site, like the New York Times, would you argue for them to just quit for six months or a predetermined amount of time, just to see what would happen?

JL: This is a tricky area. If people ask me for advice—and people do, even though I don’t advertise myself as an advice-giver on any personal level!—what I always say is: If you really think that using social media is vital to your career or to whatever you do, then you need to make the decision to make your career or your own efforts successful. It doesn’t do any good for anyone if you ruin your own life process. I feel very strongly about that. But there’s two things that have to be said in addition to that. One is that it’s possible that in some cases, this feeling of the necessity of social media is a bit of an illusion, and until we test it, it’s a little hard to say. I’m told that what I do should be impossible without social media accounts. I’m not the bestselling author in the world, but I have been the bestselling author in different countries at different times, and I have had bestselling books, and I somehow seem to get by without social media. I’m told, well, but you’re an exception in this way or that way. I might be, but why couldn’t there be others?

I think of a social media company, in particular Facebook and to a degree Google, as an existential mafia. They’re saying, you have to work with us or you effectively won’t exist. You’ll become invisible to everybody. Your very corporeality is in our hands, so give us a cut of your being. It’s a very strange moment. Ultimately, the power of a protection racket does rest with their ability to keep a community in fear. If only people could lose the fear, then their power would evaporate, but this gets us back to the problem of cooperation. Can I share one fantasy I’ve had?

TM: Sure.

JL: The number of websites that would say approximately what you just said—that we’re trying to reach people with this sincere, high-quality work we do, and we feel we need social media just to let the people know—the number of such sites in the world is not gigantic. Let’s say it’s less than 10,000. I’m not sure what it really is, but it’s something like that. There’s not a huge number of places where there’s multiple people working together to consistently put out good material online. If it’s really in the thousands, or even in the low tens of thousands, why can’t all those sites just get together? And come up with their own thing, with really great policies? Genuine privacy policies, no advertising—or at least, no advertising that’s personalized. I don’t object to advertising, I just object to behavior modification, which means there’s a feedback loop to your personal data. No Cambridge Analytica. No Putin. No information warfare. No bizarre, calculated creepy stuff. It would just be a thing to function for what you need, which would be a way to let people know what you have. Give people a way to manage the amount of complexity that exists online so they can find the things they care about. That could be done by a coalition of a relatively small number of people. I’ve heard of people trying that in the past, and usually what happens is Facebook treats that kind of like how Trump treats some person he has an affair with: This massive machine comes into play to try to shut it down. But I don’t know—I think something like that could happen.

TM: I wish it would. Right now, we’re starting to rely on a subscription model in part because it feels too dangerous to rely so much on the giant social media companies. So I like that idea, but it seems like the New York Times or some big site like that would have to get behind it.

JL: I think they might. I haven’t personally ever tried to have a conversation. This is the first time I’ve brought this up with someone in an interview. But I’m just really struck that for every organization that interviews me, whether it’s a really big one like the Times or a smaller one like yours, everyone has the same story: that we feel beholden to this weird company that stands between us and our readers and seems to be able to dictate to us how we can be in the world. And it’s a great shame that this is happening.

TM: How do you see this book fitting in with your other books?

JL: I feel like it’s a little different. The other books I’ve written were perhaps in a way more original. This one has a very different quality—it’s short! The other ones are big. This one is trying to organize some ideas and observations and information that really have been out there quite a bit. It does bring new ideas to the picture. In a lot of cases, it’s  trying to create a focused way to think about so much information that’s already been out there, some of it from me, but a lot of it from other people.

One argument in it that is new is the reason that social networks emphasize negativity so much. And there are a few other little things, like the reason cats are more popular than dogs online. In a sense, it’s a more popular book because it’s working within what’s already out there. The other books, when they came out, I think were very different from anything else that was on the same topic.

TM: Did you have a different process for writing this book?

JL: Actually, I did. The other ones were super hard to write. This one was a little different. When I was doing the press interviews for the last one, which was about virtual reality, and my life, people kept asking me questions about what had happened with technology and politics—the Trump election and Brexit. This was before the Cambridge Analytica scandal was known, but there was still a lot of tension about it. It was in responding to journalists that I realized there was a need to pull everything together in one overarching argument. It rose much more conversationally than the previous ones. And so I thank all the journalists who asked me questions in the back of the book, because it really was the prompt from them that got me to pull this thing together.

TM: It seems like you revised it up to the last minute because there are references to #MeToo and other pretty recent events—how did you decide when to stop? Were you driving your editors crazy?

JL: It was kind of a comedy, actually. I turned the thing in around New Year’s, and then something would happen that would be relevant, and I’d call up my poor editor and say wait, wait, wait, I have to add a few more things. And then I’d get this email back saying well, OK, but remember we have to get it to the copy editor. And I’d say, just a few things! And then the next week something else would happen. And I’d say stop, stop, stop, I just have to add a little bit more! And we finally had to have a conversation saying, look, this could go on forever—you have to stop.

The thing is, there’s this tension: I really believe in the book as a media form, because what a book does is almost like an encapsulation of personhood. It has a definite authorship, and you put enough in it so that you present a whole worldview and not just a response, not just a countertweet or something, and you’re committed to it enough that you believe it will be able to stick around for a few years and still mean something. But at the same time, the very thing that makes it so important makes it hard to connect to fast-changing events and a very dynamic situation. You have to find the compromise between them that will work. And so at a certain point, we just had to cut it off. And even after that, Cambridge Analytica! It was at the printer, as I say in the book, and I said, we have to acknowledge it, and so I had to make it fit on the blank space on a page so that nothing would have to be repaginated.

TM: Is there something that’s happening now that you wish you could have gotten in the book?

JL: You know, it’s every day. There’s a new study today on the correlation between smartphone use and suicide. It’s just devastating. I was just reading a report on it in the Guardian; I haven’t read the original research yet. It’s not something new, but it’s more detailed research than there had been. There’s this extraordinary filing today, in San Mateo, between two extremely unattractive companies that are fighting each other. It’s this little company that wanted to sell people’s bikini pictures on an on-demand basis. They sued Facebook for shutting it down. They claim to have uncovered this extraordinary evidence that Facebook may be even more dickish than we knew they’d been. It’s sort of like a lawsuit between Rudy Giuliani and Harvey Weinstein. You can’t really root for either of them. But there they are. It’s just been happening every day—actually, the thing that was extraordinary today was James Clapper saying that the Russian information warfare would be more sophisticated, harder to notice, and perhaps more effective for the midterms than they’d been for the last election, which is not a pleasant thing to read or contemplate. It’s plausible.

TM: Before you go, I want to ask you about your reading habits and what kinds of things you like to read.

JL: Lately, I’ve been kind of feeling retro. I’ve been trying to reread old stuff that meant a lot to me when I was younger to try to understand what it was that got to me—a single sentence of Nabokov. I want to try to understand why that could be so heartbreaking and amazing. And also, I have this 11-year-old who likes to read adult books. She loves the prose of Bukowski, so we have to go through and kind of edit it out, to give her readable versions of Bukowski. I have friends who write wonderfully, and it’s strange to read somebody you know, because you don’t have that distance that is good for literature, but I just gotta say, Zadie Smith continues to amaze me with everything she does, and my buddy Dave Eggers.

I try to go through at least a dozen sites every day, just to keep up, and there’s some amazing writers online, but it just goes by so fast. I don’t really get to know individual writers, and that kind of bothers me. I wish there were some way to make it easier to get to know a single person’s writing when they’re writing in a lot of different places.

TM: It is hard; there’s not a good way. Sometimes you can go to people’s websites, but people don’t update them as much as they used to.

JL: Right. This whole world would be better if it weren’t for the domination of social media companies that are bent on behavior modification. The internet was supposed to be good about this stuff, and it still could be. I think it still will be someday.

is a staff writer for The Millions and the author of Home Field. Her short stories have appeared in The Southern Review, The Carolina Quarterly, and The Chattahoochee Review, among others. Read more at hannahgersen.com or sign up for her newsletter here.

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