It’s always a challenge to be aware of the air that you breathe, or the water in which you swim.
This is even more true when that air and water is comfortable—congruent with your natural biases and affirming of our natural egotism. Institutional racism, for example, is not only ubiquitous, but also quite gratifying to a white majority. In our American and Western European form of capitalist affluence, the commodification of our humanity isn’t so alienating when we have so many fabulous commodities at our fingertips. And the web—even as it serves our data to the cloud for processing—is pretty awesome, especially when we get served up endless entertainment to binge on, apps for our every need, and ubiquitous connectivity.
The danger in this naturalization of the status quo, of course, is that we fail to imagine that alternatives that might be even better. It’s hard for us to imagine how a true sense of community could upend racial hierarchies; or that having our desires met by humans is so much deeper than having them met by commodities; or that we could exchange our data for something more than TV shows and free apps.
For Jaron Lanier, the consequences go further than a simple malaise and acceptance of the status quo. In fact, he argues that the engineering, commercial, and design choices that birthed Web 2.0 have devastating, unseen consequences. Prior to the takeover of a Web 2.0 architecture in the late ’00’s, Lanier viewed the web as offering endless opportunities for individual self-expression. In fact, he might even argue that the web’s very disorder demanded a degree of individualism and self-expression to truly engage with it.
The delightfully non-standard ecosystem that Lanier celebrates in the early web had one huge problem: it was hard to monetize. With Web 2.0, giants like Google finally figured out that standardization was how you sold ads (or, more precisely, standardized consumer data was what you sold to advertisers, who in turn could use that data to target their ads). Social media then offers homogenized platforms for everyone to gather around and enjoy the sense of togetherness and connection, all the while offering up the consumer data sets of advertisers’ dreams. Soon, we’re all personalized on our social media, in our Amazon wishlist and Netflix queue, but this comes at a stark cost: we’re anonymized by the generic platforms we all share. We’re offered the feeling of self-expression, within highly standardized templates, and our individualization comes only at the level of targeted ads for whatever commodities we happen to search for, mention in an email, or ‘like’ a picture of.
It’s not that financing the internet with advertising is essentially evil (I’ve sold technologies to consumers on the internet my entire career), but herding our behaviors onto a few massive, homogenized platforms erased a whole universe of other possibilities – and as Lanier suggests as early as 2010, it’s ended up having devastating consequences. Lanier writes:
“Emphasizing the crowd means deemphasizing the individual humans in the design of society, and when you ask people not to be people, they revert to bad moblike behaviors.” (19)
For Lanier, the early web emphasized your individuality; it demanded your creativity. You designed your own website; you interacted as an individual on forums and bulletin boards; and creative outputs were wildly diverse, not just in content but also in form. Web 2.0 has seen an explosion of self-expression, but it’s also seen unprecedented mobilization of mob-like behavior. It’s not like toxic content hasn’t always found its niche on the web, but what’s changed is its generalized presence everywhere (riding in on the generalized presence of advertising in Web 2.0). Indeed, the previously unimaginable spread of an Alt-Right, of political rage and polarization, and of the degradation of the public sphere has seemed like a massive, unintended consequence of creating a platform for selling ads. This Frankenstein’s monster of a seemingly familiar form of capitalism (optimizing network TV for ad revenue offered no hint of what would happen on the web, for example) has emerged too quickly for human counter-forces to catch up. It took a decade to invent these social platforms; it’s uncertain what the next decade will bring, but it’s also unclear if that will be too late.
For Lanier, humanity’s loss has meant technology’s gain. This perversion points to a deeper imbalance between the interests of people and the interests of technology.
Web 2.0, Lanier writes, “promotes radical freedom on the surface of the web, but the freedom, ironically, is more for machines than people.”
Machine freedom means letting data flow freely to the cloud, from not just our computers, but our devices, our wearables, our appliances and cars. Once in the cloud, our data can be parceled out and monetized not just for advertisers, but for all sorts of predictive processes. Tech Utopians imagine a day when social engineering can eliminate all manner of problems, from the trivial (e.g., finding a parking space) to the critical (e.g., addressing famines and epidemics before they start). But even trivial predictive problem solving can range from the irritating (remember Microsoft Word’s helpful little paperclip?) to the horrifying – try entering “Women are” or “Jews are” in a google search window and witness the autocomplete recommendations. And at a macro level, if robots are to free humanity from its chores, it will be because robots can understand those chores from our data. Whether this will be liberating or enslaving seems an open question.
To Lanier, though, if we look in our technological mirror and see ourselves in an ant farm or a social experiment, we don’t respond well. So called “red pill” moments (as originated from the “Matrix”) describe the re-awakening of the individual from the slumber of their massification, but these seem to happen only in the narratives of political radicalization, and mostly among angry, young men. For the rest of us, it’s unclear how we wake up from our current political nightmare and recapture the true forms of exploration, community, and creativity that technology might offer. What I do know, is that as long as technology is evoking and activating primitive mob behaviors like fight and flight, scapegoating, tribal chauvinisms, dynamics of dominance and sadism, and misogyny, then the tools offered by psychoanalysis and systems psychodynamics offer the most powerful tradition to cast light in the darkness.
Lanier, Jaron. You Are Not A Gadget: A Manifesto. London: Penguin, 2011.