I was a teenager when I encountered Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book. I’m not sure how it came into my possession (I have a vague recollection of its being bought at a garage sale) but I was fascinated by Hoffman’s handbook for subversion. He offereI was a teenager when I encountered Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book. I’m not sure how it came into my possession (I have a vague recollection of its being bought at a garage sale) but I was fascinated by Hoffman’s handbook for subversion. He offered a plethora of clever ways to misbehave, get away with it, and feel fine doing so, since all “good” behavior was presumed to support an oppressive system.
Hoffman’s first crack at this topic was his 1967 pamphlet "Fuck The System", which detailed ways to do just that — mostly by getting stuff for free that The Man wanted you to pay for. Free bus rides by boarding with a large-denomination bill just as the bus is leaving; free meat by dressing as clergy and telling a slaughterhouse you’re provisioning a church-sponsored meal; free phone calls by using a #14 brass washer with scotch tape instead of a quarter. It was genius.
It’s tempting to think that Hoffman must be rolling over in his grave today, when The System itself is the one handing out free stuff left and right, while yet oppressing people more than ever. Jaron Lanier detailed in his 2014 Who Owns The Future how the current paradigm of “free stuff” given away for the price of membership and usage data results on the flipside in the destruction of livelihoods — musicians who can no longer support themselves as recording artists; Uber drivers in a race to the bottom for meagre earnings; millions of YouTubers competing to be one of a tiny number of really well-compensated content providers on the platform, while everyone else gets squat.
The primary object of scrutiny here is the business model of the two aforenamed tech giant companies — that is, “a business model in which the incentive is to find customers ready to pay to modify someone else’s behavior.” Amazon, Apple, and others dabble in this business model, the argument goes, but don’t function on it primarily — even so, the algorithmic progression to ubiquity of this approach to what is called “advertising” (but is in fact direct manipulation) has sufficed to transform our society sharply for the worse.
Lanier dubs this business model BUMMER, ostensibly standing for Behavior of Users, Modified and Made into an Empire for Rent. Potential readers may rest assured that the acronym itself is probably the least intelligent feature of this book, though one may forgive Lanier the need to come up with something brief to label his central subject. The actual reasoning and analysis he brings to the subject is keen, lucid, and dire: In brief, this phenomenon makes people (in aggregate and over time) antisocial, sad, helpless, anxious, unempathetic, poor, disenfranchised, and alienated from their very souls. Taken together, these trends represent “an existential threat to civilization.”
Evidence — from GamerGate to MAGA to the Gig Economy — is on his side. If it were unclear to anyone that, as the saying goes, “If you’re not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold,” the details provided here remove all doubt. Lanier explains the dynamics that keep us addicted to being products even while we are bled dry of our ability to participate meaningfully by players who use our contributions but never remunerate us. At a svelte 144 pages, TAFDYSMARN may as well be an extended pamphlet to counterpart Hoffman’s — essentially, Lanier is saying, "The System is Fucking You."
The solution offered in both cases turns out to be markedly similar: Turn on, tune in, drop out — especially the latter. Voting with one’s feet, starving the BUMMER beast of one’s own data, is proposed here to be the only solution possible or necessary to this vicious societal bind. (One imagines throngs of disillusioned children denying corporate Tinkerbells their belief in fairies.) Abjure Facebook, Gmail, Instagram, WhatsApp and their ilk, and all shall be well. There are other varieties of internet experience that don’t feed this monstrosity, after all, and, to use the book’s own analogy, when people understood that leaded paint was poison, they simply stopped buying any paint at all until non-leaded varieties were available.
If you’re thinking this seems unrealistic, in a world where 2.2 billion of us use Facebook and billions more use Google, you’re not crazy. For one thing, it occurs to me, as it may well have occurred to you, that dropping out is an individual action, with an individual cost, when the consequences of not doing so are largely felt in the aggregate. Unless individuals recognize some downside to themselves worth trading for their cat videos, outrage, and just-around-the-corner chance of making it big online, they’re unlikely to do it for the kids — or the environment, the society, or the survival of humanity.
Historically, this kind of situation has been the strong suit of governmental regulation — I don’t feel like recycling, or obeying red lights, but if none of us do those things we all die, so I’ll care about the $230 fine I’ll get for not doing them enough to do them. But BUMMER has outpaced government, except in police states, and roundly seduced its users — excuse me, its products — into the bargain. “Your goal [concedes Lanier] should not necessarily be to force governments to regulate or even nationalize Facebook before you’ll rejoin, or to force Facebook to change its business model, even though those are achievements that must precede the long-term survival of our species.”
After all, despite Mander’s arguments, television was not eliminated. (Indeed, of any force with the potential to eliminate it in the intervening years, the leading contender has been “BUMMER.”) And here we happen on a fruitful line of inquiry that Lanier leaves untouched: What happened to television and its potential to sap our humanity? Well, by and large, people developed what we now call media literacy to deal with it. The average viewer today doesn’t think for a moment that the Big Mac they would get at a McDonald’s looks like the one advertised on TV, or that Fox News is fair and balanced, or that Pat Sajak looks like that naturally after all this time — much less that the train they see moving toward them on the screen will hit them if they don’t move out of the way, as early moving-picture viewers thought. In fact, many in the millenial and xennial generations reflexively question appearances, mores and assertions represented on the boob tube.
Could something similar happen for social media? It’s not clear. There is already backlash to “BUMMER,” but the businesses in question seem to hold all the cards. Frequently, challenges to the dominant paradigm are simply fed in and subsumed, producing more “BUMMER.” Adaptive algorithms are famous for outpacing human reactions to them.
At the same time, I can personally aver that lots of positive, prosocial, affirmative, enfranchised, enriching stuff happens on social media, even those outlets that feed the machines at Facebook and Google. I’m betting you can too. The argument, supported by evidence, is that those things don’t equal the net deleterious effect such outlets have on society. But they do demonstrate that the civilizing human spirit persists even in hostile environments. And we have yet to prove that that spirit is bound to fail in its contest with this metastasizing, anti-human business model. Recall that in the process of evolution, some of the most pronounced and impressive mutations occur among extremophiles.
Only one of these arguments fails to convince this reviewer totally, and that is Lanier’s last — that “Social Media Hates Your Soul.” To my understanding, Lanier has always had a bit of a blind spot regarding what constitutes a soul and what supposedly separates it from machinery. Against evidence, he adheres to a belief in a fundamental qualitative distinction between the two and tends to ridicule those who see otherwise. “Why not conceive of people as naturally evolved machines, but machines nonetheless?” he writes. “People could then be programmed to behave well, and the human project could flourish. Behaviorists, Communists, and now Silicon Valley social engineers have all tried to achieve that end.”
But of course nobody “programs” the machines in question to do all the terrible things that they end up doing to us in the service of a people-manipulation business plan. These are machine learning applications, so called because they make a crude guess, check their results, adjust for next time, and then repeat until they’ve reached mastery at their task (in this case, monopolizing people’s time). It’s the same way a human being learns to catch a ball, just much more rapidfire. You could optimize for something different — say, total human wellbeing — and reach a very different result; in fact, that is what the machinery of our species has been doing lo these past few hundred thousand years.
It’s happened that, at the current moment on this larger and longer optimization quest, our species has hit upon and become obsessed with an arrangement for connecting eourselves that enervates the species as a whole. That arrangement and our obsession with it do indeed stand a chance of apocalyptically derailing the larger project. Maybe that fate will be averted via Lanier’s prescriptions, or maybe some other way — my money is on extremophilic mutation. What’s clear, though, is that all of us must give the matter serious attention. And to that end, Lanier’s warnings are well-timed....more