‘Why I believe we need to remake the internet’

Polymath: Lanier is one of the world’s leading collectors of rare musical instruments.
by Jaron Lanier

Considered one of the most brilliant minds of his generation, his interests include computer science, philosophy, art and classical music. He is considered a founding father of virtual reality.

The internet was once seen as the most egalitarian, democratic force on earth. But it is now so tragically broken that we might just have to build it again from scratch.

Early digital culture had a sense of being a unique socialist mission. Everything on the internet must be purely public, available for free, because if even one person cannot afford it, then that would create a terrible inequality.

But at the same time, we also believed, with equal fervour, in this other thing that was completely incompatible: we loved our tech entrepreneurs. We loved Steve Jobs.

How do you celebrate entrepreneurship when everything is free?

I can’t call these things social networks anymore. I call them behaviour modification empires.

Well, there was only one solution back then, which was the advertising model. In the beginning, it was cute. The ads really were ads. But as computers became cheaper and more efficient, their algorithms got better. And what started out as advertising really can't be called advertising anymore. It has turned into behaviour modification.

And so I can’t call these things social networks anymore. I call them behaviour modification empires.

I don’t think this is a matter of bad people doing a bad thing. I think this is a matter of a globally tragic, astoundingly ridiculous mistake, rather than a wave of evil.

On social networks, there is social punishment and social reward. And we all know the feeling of these things. You get this little thrill — “Somebody liked my stuff and it’s being repeated.” Or the punishment: “Oh my God, they don’t like me.” These common feelings are doled out in such a way that you get caught in a feedback loop. And so even well-intentioned advertisers who think that they are just advertising toothpaste end up advancing the cause of the negative people, the cranks, the paranoids, the cynics, the nihilists.

As has been publicly acknowledged by many of the founders of the system, everybody knew this is what was going on.

The alternative is to turn back the clock and remake that decision. This would mean two things. It would mean first that many people, those who could afford to, would actually pay for these things. You’d pay for search engines, for social networking.

How would you pay? Maybe with a subscription fee, maybe with micro-payments as you use them. Amazon and Netflix have proved that internet services need not be free.

We can imagine a hypothetical world of “peak social media”. What would that be like? It could mean you can get really useful, authoritative medical advice instead of cranks.

It could mean when you want to get factual information, there’s not a bunch of weird, paranoid conspiracy theories.

We can imagine this wonderful other possibility. I dream of it. I believe it’s possible. And I’m certain that the companies would actually do better in this world. I don’t believe we need to punish Silicon Valley. We just need to remake the decision.

Of the big tech companies, it is really only two that depend on behaviour modification and spying as their business plan: Google and Facebook.

They cannot diversify, because they’re hooked. They’re hooked on this model, just like their own users. They’re in the same trap as their users, and you can’t run a big corporation that way.

I don’t believe our species can survive unless we fix this. We cannot have a society in which, if two people wish to communicate, the only way that can happen is if it’s financed by a third person who wishes to manipulate them.

In the meantime, if the companies won’t change, delete your accounts, OK?

This is an extract from a talk presented at a TED conference. You can find a link to the video under Become An Expert.

You Decide

  1. Should some people have to pay to use the internet?


  1. List three pieces of advice that you would give to someone who is overly influenced by what they see on the internet.

Word Watch

Steve Jobs
The founder of Apple was named the most powerful person in the world of business by Fortune in 2007, while CNBC named his as the most influential person of the last 25 years.
Despite costing £9.99 a month in the UK, Netflix is now estimated to be worth more than $100 billion.
Silicon Valley
The part of California, located in the San Francisco Bay Area, where the vast majority of the world’s major technology companies are based.

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