On November 24, S. Matthew Liao wrote an op-ed piece for The New York Times titled “Do You Have a Moral Duty to Leave Facebook?” Liao, who teaches philosophy and bioethics at NYU, examines a number of reasons for deleting Facebook—for your own good as well as for the good of others. He points out the most obvious reasons: Facebook can be addictive and all-consuming and is linked to depression; it has played a major role in spreading misinformation, hate speech, and lies; and it has allowed others to harvest personal information for millions of people without their permission or knowledge.
Despite these problems, Liao ends his editorial saying he will stay on Facebook until it “crosses a moral red line.” In his opinion, Facebook has not yet crossed that line because it did not “intentionally” sell the data of its users nor did it assist “intentionally in the dissemination of hate speech.” Should Facebook cross that red line of intentionality, however, Liao says we must “opt out.”
Jaron Lanier, well known for his work on artificial intelligence and virtual reality, has come to the opposite conclusion. In his latest book, Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, Lanier argues that social media have programmed us, like Pavlovian dogs, to behave in certain ways and to be mesmerized and dehumanized in the process. Whatever benefits social media may have are outweighed, in Lanier’s considered opinion, by “catastrophic losses to our personal dignity, happiness, and freedom.”
Lanier opens his book by wondering why cats are everywhere online and that dogs are NOT. Lanier wants us to be more like cats:
Cats have done the seemingly impossible. They’ve integrated themselves into the modern high-tech world without giving themselves up. They are still in charge. There is no worry that some stealthy meme crafted by algorithms and paid for by a creepy, hidden oligarch has taken over your cat. No one has taken over your cat; not you, not anyone. (p 2)
Alas, Lanier argues, we are not like cats in our online lives but much more like dogs: domesticated, obedient, loyal, dependable, and susceptible to training. In a long discussion of behaviorism and its ill effects, Lanier argues that social media has strong behavioristic tendencies and that it is training us to lose our free will—and to like doing so!
The complex problem Lanier describes with the acronym BUMMER, which stands for “Behaviors of Users Modified, and Made into an Empire for Rent,” has six moving parts:
B is for Butting into everyone’s lives
C is for Cramming content down people’s throats
D is for Directing people’s behaviors in the sneakiest way possible
E is for Earning money from letting the worst assholes secretly screw with everybody else
F is for Fake mobs and Faker society
Lanier takes up each one of these “moving parts” as he details his fifteen arguments for quitting social media, and he makes a very strong case. Indeed, it is bracing to see how social media, once hyped as the way to bring people together and give everyone a voice, is now out of favor with so many people, even those like Lanier who are Silicon Valley natives. Lanier is no dictator, though, and he ends the book with a softer tone, saying he knows he’s not the one to make decisions for everyone else and that “not everyone has the same options.” So he doesn’t demand that users abandon social media today but rather that they—and especially young people—explore what life might be like without the radical influence of social media. Such self-exploration could take many forms: “explore wilderness or learn a new skill,” he suggests.
But whatever form your self-exploration takes, do at least one thing:
detach from the behavior-modification empires for a while—six months, say?. . . After your experiment, you’ll know yourself better. Then decide.
Writing about Lanier’s arguments offers an opportunity for students to begin the kind of exploration Lanier calls for, beginning perhaps with a whimsical account of how much they are like cats rather than dogs—or vice versa. And because the chapters are brief and very straightforward, each one makes a good text for a rhetorical analysis. No matter what they decide about his overall call to delete social media, Lanier raises questions that every student should think about as they come to deeper understandings of how their values and beliefs are shaped by social media.
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