Jaron Lanier is not on Facebook – or at least, he doesn’t appear to be currently on Facebook. This may explain some of the rather odd notions he has about the site, as expressed in his article in the February issue of Harper’s, an excerpt from his new book You Are Not a Gadget. (Alas, the article is not available online except to subscribers…if you are one, here’s the link.) I wanted to agree with him…and he makes some good points, such as his comments about Microsoft Word’s obnoxious default feature that assumes you want to form numbered lists, etc. – which indicate to Lanier that the design of much software is predicated on the notion that, essentially, computers or the network cloud are or will be smarter than we are.
Somewhere along the line, though, he goes askew. Take this statement, for example: “Wikipedia…works through what I call the ‘oracle illusion,’ in which knowledge of the human authorship of a text is suppressed in order to give the text super-human validity.” Since everyone knows that Wikipedia is authored by, and editable by, anyone (such knowledge is the root of tedious jokes about the site’s purported unreliability, in fact), that “suppression” seems awfully gestural. Sure, there’s no credits in the articles themselves…but anyone who cares to know can examine an article’s history, and careful examination can even reveal (in some cases) which contributor did what. And insofar as Wikipedia works (I believe it often does, but I’m not going to argue the reasons here), it’s because of human validity: that is, rather than the impersonal alleged authority of, say, The New York Times, whose editorial pages persist in a state of Olympian namelessness (much more “super-human” than Wikipedia), the authority of Wikipedia arises from the ceaseless flow of informed contributors. In this environment (with some circumstances being exceptions), good information drives out the bad, simply because bad information has far less power of persistence than good: an article on quantum physics is likelier to be monitored, and edited, by those knowledgeable about quantum physics than by those who don’t know or care about quantum physics, and therefore, bad information will be corrected by a plurality of potential (and informed) readers, whereas the only power given to assist bad info in persisting is sheer cussedness or idiocy (or ideology, I suppose).
But where Lanier really goes off the rails is in his description of Facebook. He seems to believe that (1) Facebook’s patrons are identified solely or primarily by items chosen from a multiple-choice database, such as “single” or “married” etc.; (2) “Romantic status” is the first item thought of by Facebook users (at least, it’s the first kind of status Lanier mentions…the first two, actually); (3) Facebook users are unaware of any distinction between their everyday, real-world use of the word friend and the Facebook term “friend,” such that they presumably do not understand the difference between friends (real world) and “friends” (Facebook); and (4) implicitly, that such prefab categories noted in (1) and (2) are the chief means whereby Facebook users seek to accumulate friends (or “friends,” if you’re reality-based). None of these seem correct…and all of them contribute to the impression of the typical Facebook user as some sort of misguided horny teenager. True, the dating status line in Facebook is limited to a handful of options (including a blank, which removes the field from display), but many other fields (such as political and religious beliefs) permit user entries…which is why a sampling of my friends reveals the definite “whiff of the subtle experience of the author” (which Lanier feels is absent from Facebook) in such ad-hoc political or religious affiliations as “religion stops a thinking brain,” “Frank Zappa” (as a “religious view”), or “Constitutional midrashist” (that’s under “political views”). Even if those categories were all prefab, the resulting limited number of options, and the way their display would default to that mere handful of possibilities, would likely mean people would ignore them as meaningful aspects of anyone’s personality.
Lanier, though, seems to think people get on Facebook and immediately do a search for anyone whose “relationship status” is “single” or “in an open relationship.” Lanier also seems to think that most Facebook users are teens or college students…which was of course true several years ago. But as any number of recent media portrayals of Facebook never tire of noting, the site has become exceedingly popular among ever-more-graying segments of the population (such as, uh, your gray-haired correspondent here).
The main issue I have with Lanier’s article is its insistence on pushing its thesis far past the bounds its logic, and its evidence, set for itself. For example, Lanier writes, “The most tiresome claim of the reigning digital philosophy is that crowds working for free do a better job at some things than antediluvian paid experts”…and then immediately ditches that prudent “at some things” to argue the straw-man universalization of that principle. A few sentences later, Lanier writes: “If the crowd is so wise, it should be directing each person optimally in choices related to home finance, the whitening of yellow teeth, and the search for a lover. All that paid persuasion ought to be mooted. Every penny Google earns suggests a failure of the crowd—and Google is earning a lot of pennies” (my emphasis). Suddenly, the reasonable proposition that crowd-sourcing is sometimes the most effective option is turned to a crackpot universal claim that “the crowd” always knows best, in all situations on all subjects. And observe that sniping little “for free”: in the context of Harper’s lefty environs, that’s going to be read as a sort of huzzah for the exploited laborers in the fields of the intellect…but turn to another recent Lanier publication, in the rather-less-worker-friendly Wall Street Journal, and suddenly he’s all about “foster[ing] creativity and intelligence” and denigrating “design…by committee” and implying that there’s something undignified, even denigrating, in giving away for free the fruits of one’s creative labor. (An amusing game is to read each article and check off the number of “left-wing” and “right-wing” talking points each article manages to hit: if nothing else, Lanier is a skilled propagandist, culturing his message to massage the beliefs of his chosen audience.)
And it’s too bad. Because as I said, in some ways I wanted to agree with him. In fact, insofar as complex computerized algorithms guide enormously complicated financial decisions far beyond the zenith of human comprehensibility, we are harmed…particularly when the results don’t pan out as expected. And it’s true that one pole of American idealism is the notion that there’s an easy way to any good answer by way of technology, science, or some formula or other to obviate the need to actually weigh the complicated, nasty, and all-too-human variables. (Another pole is nearly 180 degrees removed: a deep suspicion of any sort of structure other than sheer “horse sense”…by which we mean, I suppose, whether someone’s rheumatic big toe aches at five in the morning one day rather than another, or the anti-rationalism whereby folks willingly deny reason in favor of, say, belief in crystals, or astrology, or UFOs…) But Lanier’s exaggerated depictions of “the hive mind” (which we have to kill) in the Harper’s piece tend to make one suspicious of his other claims…and the transformation of what is nearly an anti-advertising screed (in Harper’s) into a fist-pumping praise of individual genius vs. the collectivized digital regime in the WSJ piece suggests both opportunism and a touch of the crank: there’s quite a bit of old-school technological determinism at work here as well. Even if Facebook wants to market to its users (which of course it does), even if the categories of its identify-defining demographic data would box in those users, the way those things are actually received and used does not necessarily correspond to the way they’re intended. For example: Lanier mentions Google Ads, the links supposedly tailored to reflect people’s interests and predilections as suggested by the content of their e-mails (scanned and digitally analyzed by a computer, not read by any actual person), and implies that they’re somehow regarded as a species of holy writ…when in fact, the only time many people I know refer to them is when they’re used as grist for parody, or ironic commentary on their curious interpretation of the multiple facets of people’s online lives. For example: one Facebook friend of mine once mentioned the band The Dentists…and since then, she’s been besieged with Facebook ads for dentistry and related fields. This same friend also ended up with a Twitter follower blabbling on about “astral projection”…she thinks this is because one of her tweets happened to use the word “lucid” (as in “lucid dreaming,” one of the pet notions beloved of folks inclined to believe in notions like “astral projection”). The “dentistry” thing has become a running joke among her friends…and while the great collective machine lurches on under its misperception that she’s a dentist, it’s certainly not the case that this hive mind has, say, compelled my friend to actually take up dentistry, read about or buy dental equipment…or pretend, for the sake of fitting a procrustean profile, to have done so.