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Watch: The TED Talk that people at TED were talking about

“I can’t call these things social networks anymore — I call them behavior modification empires.”

VR pioneer Jaron Lanier sits on the TED conference stage in front of the letters T, E D
VR pioneer Jaron Lanier speaks at the 2018 TED conference in Vancouver
TED / Bret Hartman

This year’s TED conference — this past week in Vancouver — kicked off with a series of talks lamenting the state of society, from sexual harassment to school shootings.

The talk from the bunch that seemed to generate the most discussion — especially among the tech types I spoke with there — was an off-the-cuff rant by Jaron Lanier, a VR pioneer who slammed the free, ad-supported nature of the internet as one that is starting to cause great harm to humanity.

You can now watch his talk, also embedded here.

“What started out as advertising really can’t be called advertising anymore — it turned into behavior modification,” he said, referring mostly to Facebook and Google. “I can’t call these things social networks anymore. I call them behavior modification empires.”

Lanier called on these giant corporations to consider a switch to a paid business model, which he thinks will lead to a better, more useful, more wholesome product.

“I don’t believe our species can survive unless we fix this,” he said. “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.”

Lanier’s talk was timely if nothing else, speaking the same day that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was dragged in front of Congress to discuss his company’s latest privacy scandal, in the wake of election interference and pervasive misinformation.

It seems impractical, if not impossible, that Facebook and Google would completely overhaul their businesses, tossing out their world-leading advertising engines to start charging a fee for their services.

But it’s increasingly clear that something is going to have to change.

“In the meantime,” he concluded, “if the companies won’t change, delete your accounts, okay?”

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