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Click ‘Delete’ to Save Your Soul

TEN ARGUMENTS FOR DELETING YOUR SOCIAL MEDIA ACCOUNTS RIGHT NOW
By Jaron Lanier
146 pp. Henry Holt & Company. $18.

My self-justifications were feeble. They could be described as hypocritical even. I had written a book denouncing Facebook, yet maintained an account on Mark Zuckerberg’s manipulation machine. Despite my comprehensive awareness of the perils, I would occasionally indulge in the voyeurism of the News Feed, succumb to zombie scrolling and would take the hit of dopamine that Sean Parker, Facebook’s founding president, has admitted is baked into the product. In internal monologues, I explained my behavior as a professional necessity. How could I describe the perniciousness of the platform if I never used it?

Critics of the big technology companies have refrained from hectoring users to quit social media. It’s far more comfortable to slam a corporate leviathan than it is to shame your aunt or high school pals — or, for that matter, to jettison your own long list of “friends.” As our informational ecosystem has been rubbished, we have placed very little onus on the more than two billion users of Facebook and Twitter. So I’m grateful to Jaron Lanier for redistributing blame on the lumpen-user, for pressing the public to flee social media. He writes, “If you’re not part of the solution, there will be no solution.”

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Over the past year, a backlash against the big tech companies has arrived suddenly and unexpectedly. But Lanier has been there for a long time. During the 1980s, he helped invent virtual reality. Because of his immersion in technology and his integrity as a thinker, he saw the perils of corporate concentration in technology before most; he knew that the data amassed by these companies could be used to exploit the psychic weaknesses of users. In the early years of this decade, he published two excellent books — “You Are Not a Gadget” and “Who Owns the Future?” that were strident, lucid and personable. Books about technology often quickly come to feel like a flip-phone, antiquated and destined for the intellectual junk drawer. But Lanier’s books have aged marvelously.

His latest manifesto, “Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now,” is, alas, less polished. It makes important arguments, but Lanier has pressed many of them several times before. While Lanier has shown a capacity for wit, this book is hokey. He’s enthralled by his coinage of the acronym “BUMMER,” which stands for “Behaviors of Users Modified, and Made Into an Empire for Rent.” Instead of slamming Facebook and Google by name, he endlessly refers to them as “BUMMER” companies. There’s a laziness to his polemic: a lack of examples, arguments that unfold much too quickly to gather their full powers of persuasion, writing that chokes on excessive metaphor. Over the course of three pages, he uses lead paint, climate change and crude oil to describe the workings of the BUMMER machine.

Many of his criticisms of social media will feel familiar to distant observers of American politics. Twitter and Facebook have made us cruder, less empathetic, more tribal. Only at the very end does Lanier venture into new territory. His argument, however, is a profound one. He worries that our reliance on big tech companies is ruining our capacity for spirituality, by turning us into robotic extensions of their machines. The companies, he argues, have no appreciation for the “mystical spark inside you.” They don’t understand the magic of human consciousness and, therefore, will recklessly destroy it.

Whatever the flaws of this short manifesto, Lanier shows the tactical value of appealing to the conscience of the individual. In the face of his earnest argument, I felt a piercing shame about my own presence on Facebook. I heeded his plea and deleted my account.

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