- Delete Your Accounts
Henry Holt and Company
160 pages; Cloth, $18.00
"I doubt I would be here if it weren't for social media, to be honest with you."
—Donald J. Trump (October 22, 2017)
Without question, social media has the world in thrall. The following numbers (drawn from statista.com) are of course only approximate, but as of this writing, roughly 2.4 billion people, including 2/3 of US adults, log on to Facebook each month; 1.1 billion people use Instagram; Twitter has 330 million active users; social media sites command 77% of mobile traffic in the US; people watch more than 1 billion hours of YouTube videos each day, etc. Even without Reddit, not to mention Tencent's WeChat and Weibo, such calculations are always startling. Clearly people are spending an inordinate amount of time posting, liking, commenting, sharing, viewing, scrolling, and trolling—and not without consequence. Cognition, productivity, emotional and physical health, and interpersonal relationships have all been said, anecdotally and empirically, to have been negatively affected by social media use. This then is the way we live now, in 2019: with bad habits and bad feelings. But it gets worse, for these platforms to which we give our time, our data, and ourselves turn out to be only indirectly about us as individual subjects, in spite of their manifest insistence on self-expression, self-curation, and self-presentation. Profiles, as it turns out, facilitate population management. Our data traces or life patterns—what we do, where we go, whom we contact—make us available for new techniques of sorting, targeting, and sentiment mobilization. After the Rohingya massacre, the live streaming of mass murders, Brexit, and the 2016 election, surely we all know, as Trump himself does, that social media is the means by which disinformation is spread and toxicity amplified. It is the means by which autocratic governments detect incipient affects, identify dissidents, and contain protest. Social media, in other words, is ground zero for information warfare. How many more studies, how many more accounts of malfeasance, addiction, and abuse, how many more exposés will be needed before a consensus forms around the idea that something must be done? And, if we were to agree that the status quo can no longer be tolerated, what is the appropriate scale for action: the individual or the population?
Jaron Lanier has an answer: we, his readers, should delete our social media accounts. The immediacy suggested by his title—we are enjoined to do so "right now"—is not so pressing, however, that it keeps him from modifying that injunction by the end of the book. But first he makes his case with ten brief arguments that, in turn, admonish, entreat, and cajole us: we are addicts; we are assholes; we are converts; but we are not necessarily irredeemable. We have become dumb like dogs, he suggests at the outset, too servile and too vulnerable to "stealthy control." "C'mon people!" he argues; social media is humanity's "grand mistake" and the only way to counter it is by becoming cat, autonomous and resistant to training. The analogy is a bit strained, all the more so when it shifts to wolves, pack animals, and herd behavior, but the point is made: we may be experimental "lab animals," but we are not (yet) lobotomized monkeys." In fact, he is careful to note that "forever" is not in the title, so once we follow the prescribed six-month detox—an exercise in "self-exploration," taking risks, and getting out of a rut—we will have attained the kind of self-knowledge that will allow us to re-introduce our accounts, mindfully. It should be noted that this is to be a detox, not a fast. Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, and Twitter have to go, and you will need an email provider that doesn't read and store your messages, as well as browser extensions to block comments, but, as long as you are not logged in, you can still...