Many of the ideas in Jaron Lanier’s new book start off pretty familiar—at least, if you are active on social media. Yet in every chapter there is a principle so elegant, so neat, sometimes even so beautiful, that what is billed as straight polemic becomes something much more profound ... His most dispiriting observations are those about what social media does to politics—biased, 'not towards the left or right, but downwards.' If triggering emotions is the highest prize, and negative emotions are easier to trigger, how could social media not make you sad? ... I finished this stark but exuberant account not fearing for the future so much as amazed the world wasn’t already even worse.
Although given to windiness, Lanier is an astute critic, able to see things others miss. But his analysis is distorted by a flawed assumption. He views the problems of social media as 'blessedly specific,' resulting from Facebook’s and Google’s reliance on personalized advertising to make money. By closing our social media accounts, he contends, we’ll give Silicon Valley an opportunity 'to improve itself'—to retool its business in a socially responsible way. That’s a cheery notion, but it’s naive to think that, if we just hit the reset button, Silicon Valley will reform itself and right its wrongs.
Lanier’s tone is often tongue-in-cheek and he occasionally comes across as glib. He writes that we should act like cats (independent-minded) on the internet rather than like obedient, unquestioning dogs. But his underlying message is serious. In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the book is a timely reminder that even if we can’t bring ourselves to leave social media altogether, we should always think critically about how it works.