Escape from the BUMMER Machine
(read on Medium)
(A long overdue review of Jaron Laniers’ “10 Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now“)
In 1978 a former public relations and advertising exec, Jerry Mander wrote “Four Arguments For the Elimination of Television”. Mander in essence argued that “the problems with television are inherent in the medium and technology itself, and thus cannot be reformed.” In his preface (“The Belly of the Beast”), Mander spoke of:
“learn[ing] that it is possible to speak through media directly into people’s heads and then, like some otherworldly magician, leave images inside that can cause people to do what they might otherwise never have thought to do.”
That was television. At the time it was the killer app of mass manipulation in the tradition of Edward Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud who created the art and science of “public relations” in the first place. As I’ve observed in a much earlier writing, it was Bernays who was among the first figures in modernity to fully grasp the the power of using the technology of the day to create all-pervasive narratives to shape public opinion. He embraced the term “propaganda”:
“Today, a new reaction has set in. The minority has discovered a powerful help in subjecting majorities. It has been found possible so to mold the mind of the masses that they will throw their newly gained strength in the desired direction. In the present structure of society, this practice is inevitable. Whatever of social importance is done today, whether in politics, finance, manufacture, agriculture, charity, education, or other fields, must be done with the help of propaganda. Propaganda is the executive arm of the invisible government.”
Universal literacy was supposed to educate the common man to control his environment. Once he could read and write he would have a mind fit to rule. So ran the democratic doctrine. But instead of a mind, universal literacy has given him rubber stamps, rubber stamps inked with advertising, slogans, with editorials, with published scientific data, with the trivialities of the tabloids, and the platitudes of history, but quite innocent of original thought. Each man’s rubber stamps are the duplicates of millions of others, so that when those millions are exposed to the same stimuli, all received identical imprints. It may seem an exaggeration to say that the American public gets most of its ideas in this wholesale fashion. The mechanism by which ideas are disseminated on a large scale is propaganda, in the broad sense of an organized effort to spread a particular belief of doctrine.”
— Edward Bernays, Propaganda
I quote this at length because it marks the far end of a continuum, reaching back to 1928. When Bernays originally put these words to paper, he described how a widespread sociological phenomenon, that of universal literacy, led to unexpected consequences. It was used by those who were given to a shrewder assessment of the burgeoning landscape to leverage their new understanding in order to manipulate, rather than emancipate the masses. Sound familiar?
Years later television emerged to bring these techniques of manipulation to a broadcast audience, in essence taking Bernays propaganda to an industrial level.
When that happened, Mander outlined his 4 areas of concern:
- TV mediates our experience
- TV colonizes our experience
- The effects TV has on the human being
- The inherent biases of television.
Compared to social media today, TV was a blunt instrument. As Mander came to realize:
“Because so many of us were confusing television experience with direct experience of the world, we were not noticing that experience itself was being unified to the single behavior of watching television. Switching from channel to channel, believing that a sports program was a significantly different experience from a police program or news of an African war, all 80 million viewers were sitting separately in dark rooms engaged in exactly the same activity at the same time: watching television.”
He called it “The Unification of Experience”. Even though we had (in the words of Pink Floyd), “13 channels of shit on the TV to choose from”, all of those channels were mass broadcasting uniform messages to a mass audience.
Continuing in the vein of “Who Owns The Future” and “You Are Not A Gadget”, Lanier departs from where Mander left off, and builds from his base of unassailable technology credibility to issue a dire warning:
The centralized, ad-driven business model inherent to most tech behemoths today is harmful to us individually and as a society; and it’s a dead-end economically.
On today’s end of the continuum (which I maintain started with Bernays), an important shift has occurred. Now, with our infinite scrolls, engineered dopamine hits, and highly personalized data streams, it’s no longer about separating us into isolation booths and then hitting all of us with uniform messaging. Today we are all terminally unique, we get custom feeds, and they aren’t designed to make us all think the same thing as much as they are all designed to make each of us do something specific that somebody else wants us to do. In Lanier’s view, now we’re all being individually manipulated by third parties.
Titling his book as a nod to Mander, he came up with 10 arguments:
Argument 1: You are losing your free-will
Argument 2: Quitting social media is the most finely targeted way to resist the insanity of the times
Argument 3: Social Media is making you into an asshole
Argument 4: Social Media is undermining truth
Argument 5: Social media is making what you say meaningless
Argument 6: Social media is destroying your capacity for empathy
Argument 7: Social media is making you unhappy
Argument 8: Social media doesn’t want you to have economic dignity
Argument 9: Social media is making politics impossible
Argument 10: Social media hates your soul
What started with what Bernays called “propaganda” and Mander called “mediation”, Lanier calls “BUMMER”. BUMMER is the social media machine and its accompanying economic model and he uses the mnemonic ABCDEF to fully describe the BUMMER machine:
A is for Attention Acquisition leading to Asshole supremacy
B is for Butting into everyone’s lives
C is for Cramming content down people’s throats
D is for Directing people’s behaviour in the sneakiest way possible
E is for Earning money from letting the worst assholes secretly screw with everyone else
F is for Fake mobs and Faker society
What Lanier helps us understand is that this much vaunted micro-targeted world we now live in comes with some unforseen (or intentional!) consequences. We all end up alone, trapped inside these bespoke echo chambers.
A practical example of this was driven home to me the other day, when I was talking with an entrepreneur/CEO friend who was visiting from out of town:
As we were catching up the conversation turned to shared misery over the state of online discourse. While we were ruminating over the low signal-to-noise ratio the net had devolved into: flashmobs, post-truth, #fakenews and a phenomenon I personally call “hyper-moralization” it suddenly emerged that we were both saying the exact same things and levelling identical criticisms and observations, but we were doing it about diametric opposites of the political spectrum! He was talking about lunatic fringe Conservatives and I was talking about militant progressives.
Ever since the 2016 election (a fight I didn’t have a dog in being both a Canadian and a Libertarian) I frequently lamented that in social media, it was becoming impossible to remain a centrist or a moderate and whenever I was attacked for not embracing a position I felt too extreme in one direction, I tended to be repelled in the opposite direction.
I suspect this is happening to all of us.
(This may be a good time to mention the PEW research data I blogged about on Guerrilla-Capitalism recently, that the political/ideological centre has effectively collapsed, with all participants being pushed to one extreme or the other and what the ramifications of that are).
But what makes these attacks all this possible? What pushes people into a ideological siege mentality? Usually, Facebook and Twitter. Mobs.
Lanier observes that social media has an ability to flip an internal switch which is present in all of us, from individuals he allegorically termed “solitary wolves” into “packs”.
As individuals, we can have differences of opinions, like my friend and I, laughing at the irony that we were saying the exact same thing about the exact opposite camps. We’re still friends. But move that conversation over to Facebook, or Twitter, where roving bands of trolls glom onto the dialog and throw civil discourse out the window and then it morphs into something else entirely.
“When people act as solitary wolves, then each person is in a unique position in society and thinks in a unique way. Another example: Democratic elections are a genuine commingling of ideas, and have historically helped societies find paths forward despite controversy, but only so long as people are switched to Solitary. Democracy fails when the switch is set to Pack. Tribal voting, personality cults, and authoritarianism are the politics of the Pack setting.”
What I found interesting was Lanier’s choice of the word “pack”. There are many different types of groupings, and people have been examining the dynamics of group behaviour as far back as Charle’s Mackay’s Extraordinary Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (1841), or Gustav Lebon’s “The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind” (1895). As illuminating as those books were to their times regarding financial bubbles, panics and hysteria’s, they don’t capture the full spectrum of crowd behaviour in the modern age.
To do that you need Elias Canetti’s “Crowds and Power”, which in my experience is the definitive work on this subject. Canetti wrote entire chapters on the four different types of “packs” that he identified and what we see online, in Lanier’s BUMMER machine are specifically hunting packs, being aggregated and mobilized into “baiting crowds”:
“The baiting crowd forms with reference to a quickly attainable goal. That goal is widely known and clearly marked, and it is also near. This crowd is out for killing and it knows whom it wants to kill. It heads for this goal with unique determination and cannot be cheated of it. The proclaiming of the goal, the spreading about of who it is that is to perish, is enough to make the crowd form. The concentration on killing is of a special kind of unsurpassed intensity. Everyone wants to participate; everyone strikes a blow and, in order to do this, punches as near as he can to the victim. If he cannot hit himself, he wants to see others hit him. Every arm is thrust out as if they all belong to the same creature…. “
When I read this passage again after all these years, it gave me goosebumps. Canetti of course was referring to literal, fatal mob justice but this dynamic is so similar to what we see every day now on social media it kind of freaked me out.
Because Facebook, and Twitter, well they don’t just reflect this behaviour on their platforms, they optimize for it. And what makes it so attractive, Canetti elaborates:
One important reason for the rapid growth of the baiting crowd is that there is no risk involved. There is no risk because the crowd have immense superiority on their side The victim can do nothing to them. He is either bound or in-flight, and cannot hit back; in his defencelessness he is victim only. Also he has been made over to them for destruction; he is destined for it and thus no-one need fear the sanction… It is so easy and everything happens so quickly that people have to hurry to get there in time. The speed, elation and conviction of a baiting crowd is something uncanny. It is the excitement of blind men who are blindest when they suddenly think they can see.
In the online parallel of this, nobody is literally killed (most of the time), but careers are ended, companies are boycotted, people are outed, or just plain smeared, and doxxed. The assault may not be fatal, but the victims are routinely destroyed; always under a veneer of mob justice. The pack members are safely insulated from their role in the attack by the distance of the network, joining in from the safety of mom’s basement or whilst sipping a all-soy, fair-trade latté in The Safe Space Café.
Yet, I have to admit that as I was writing this I still wound up spending some time on Facebook, as I am in the habit of doing over my morning coffee. I found myself having second thoughts about the entire point of my review, and by extension, Lanier’s book. After all, I took part in a half-decently thoughtful discussion thread about Tesla’s suing my home province of Ontario over the ending of EV subsidies, and then I discovered the Hellacopters, a Swedish guitar-rock band of the 90’s – 00’s that I completely missed during my bohemian / musician days. Rock on, social media can’t be all bad, right?
In fact while I was reading “10 Arguments” I was also concurrently reading Joshua Cooper Ramos’ “The Seventh Sense”. Both books hit me at a deep level. But before I had finished them both I found myself wondering if Lanier himself was overreacting to the negative aspects of social media, while Ramos’ book seemed to be more dispassionately describing how cognizance of network architectures in general would be a required life skill going forward. So who was right?
After I had finished both books, and was able to ponder their substance, I came to the conclusion that they both were. Even without social networks in their present form, the Internet is here to stay. Networks are in the process of becoming the defining characteristic of our social order now.
My own take on all this is that the fundamental struggle now is not between left or right politically or rich/poor class warfare or even between any other factions or identities you care to use; sure all those tensions remain but the defining characteristic of the fault lines and power struggles going forward will be the organizational tension between centralization and top-down control vs decentralization and “edge-in” control.
To that end, social media may have had such a pernicious effect on our society because the incumbent platforms have spiked their own top-down silos right through the meaty parts of an erstwhile decentralized internet.
If it bleeds, it leads
On social media, the BUMMER content has an ability to crowd out the meaningful, thoughtful or poignant content. In much the same way journalist Eric Pooles coined the famous phrase “if it bleeds, it leads” in his 1989 New York Post piece, the modern day equivalent on social media is not that it shocks or terrifies you, it just needs to push your buttons: if it offends, it trends, or as Lanier laments:
“If owning everyone’s attention by making the world terrifying happens to be what earns the most money, then that is what will happen, even if it means bad actors are amplified”
This goes back to something else I talked about in another recent Guerrilla-Capitalism post, Charlie Munger’s famous observation: “Show me the incentives, and I’ll show you the outcome”, and this is an important undercurrent throughout 10 Arguments.
“Social media is biased, not to the Left or the Right, but downward. The relative ease of using negative emotions for the purposes of addiction and manipulation makes it relatively easier to achieve undignified results”.
If we were all to follow Lanier’s advice and delete all our social media accounts right now, we would instantly be free from the centralized, top-down, surveillance driven algos that are deciding what we see in our feeds, and are incentivized to make us “click” as much as possible.
On these platforms we’re all just monkeys, they can dangle bananas or they can shock and appall us.
As it stands now the data is telling them that the best way to drive engagement is to appeal to our lowest common denominators, to push us into polarized extremes and to get us hooked on the little dopamine hits their platforms are engineered to deliver.
Reading Lanier’s book gave me that uncomfortable sense of recognition… particularly around “Argument Three”. I get into b/s political and ideological arguments …with friends, with clients. It’s beyond a waste of time, it’s actually impeding my life goals, degrading my relationships even worse, alienating customers.
Alas, I probably won’t delete my social media accounts just yet. Will you?
As I mentioned in “Should You Delete Your Facebook Page?”, if we work in technology or own businesses that rely on it, it may not be tenable to completely delete our social media accounts. But what we can do is maintain a certain level of self-awareness around our social media usage and try to govern ourselves accordingly.
So lately I have been trying to no longer take part in ideological discussions on social media. No more snarky rebuttals on anybody else’s posts, no more complaining about things I don’t have any control over anyway. If it’s something I can control then I should just keep my mouth shut and deal with it.
My mantra lately has been “Hope that your competitors are wasting their time arguing politics and culture wars on Facebook. You have work to do”.
To that end, do:
- Use the social media platforms as antennae, not megaphones. We can harness social media to see which way the wind blows, not to spit into it.
- Delete Facebook from the mobile device: I still use Twitter to keep a pulse of things but we also have that automated somewhat so I should be able to delete Twitter from my phone too.
- Run social media in your desktop browser for specific tasks, and then close the tab when that task is done. Turn off all notifications. Catch up next time you log in.
- Use social media to spread your wares. Write something? Release a song? Issue a press release? Then use your social media channels to get the word out, not to argue idiotic ideological dogma.
- Use it to communicate with your friends and family, I notice that certain people I only end up talking with over one platform or another. In this context it’s less social media as much as an agnostic messaging channel. (Just be aware it’s being snooped six ways ’til Sunday)
(And as Troy Maclure would say), “the do not do’s”
- Don’t use social media to attack anybody, any reason. Just don’t. Even if they have it coming. Just remember that the Streisand effect takes youroutrage and turns it to their advantage, so just do yourself a favour and don’t do them any favours by simply minding your own business.
- Don’t pile onto attacks. Somebody wants to boycott some company because their CFO’s half-sister voted for the Satanist, let them. Meanwhile you decide for yourself what you will do and why. If you aren’t playing by your own game plan then you’re a pawn in somebody else’s.
- Don’t doxx anybody. Those go wrong more often than anything. We’re actually considering adding a new “no doxxing” rule to the easyDNS Plain English Terms of Service.
- Don’t shame, don’t smear. Imagine being on the receiving end yourself and if you wouldn’t like it, don’t do it. One of my first, near mystical experiences that started my love affair with the internet occurred in the early 90’s when I came across an all-text style ezine called “Scream Baby”. It was awesome. I think the guy’s name was Dave Smith. He once wrote, “never, ever forget, that whatever you’re about to type into that keyboard, is going to a human being on the other end”.
What is hopeful about Lanier’s book and what makes it especially relevant is that it not only discusses the problems created by social media, it does also put forward solutions. It helps us imagine a world where there are other business models than monetizing free services via advertising.
“We have enshrined the belief that the only way to finance a connection between two people is through a third party who is paying to manipulate them”
But there are other ways, many other ways.
“In some alternative universe — a universe we must build if we are to survive —there will be both convenience of an app like Uber and a sustainable social and economic fabric in which a lot of people build security with dignity.
I think this is already happening. Systems like the Brave browser, which I recently switched to and will be blogging about next, are capturing this ethos. Decentralized social media platforms like Mastedon hold promise and I think are gaining inertia.
The 800lb gorillas like Facebook and Twitter may have already hit their apogee (in fact the book I read after “10 Arguments”, George Gilders “Life After Google” explores this in depth, another great read I’ll tell you about soon). In the meantime, get this book, read it and govern yourself accordingly.