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.
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 ... 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 ... 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.
One way of framing the problem would be to say that he [Lanier] thinks like an engineer, in that his argument is an explanation of how a particular system, social media, operates, and how it might be improved by tinkering with certain aspects of it. Which is to say that Ten Arguments is relentlessly focussed on the few bummer apples, without giving much serious consideration to the barrel ... There is a tendency toward overgeneralizing of this sort throughout the book ... What Lanier seems not to appreciate is that we keep firing up our timelines, scrolling downward through the linear abyss of utterances, in large part because of the ever-present possibility that we might read something that makes us howl with laughter. It is, granted, not a vision of a flourishing utopia, but it’s not nothing. Lanier is, to the very marrow of his bones, a Silicon Valley sage: his prose, despite its politely resistant stance, is a medley of ted talks and keynotes and takeaways. Reading his book, I kept wanting him to go deeper.