On this week’s new episode of Too Embarrassed to Ask, Kara Swisher talks with Jaron Lanier, a VR pioneer and longtime technology critic who currently works at Microsoft Research. He’s the author of a new book, “10 Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now” and explains why those who have the opportunity to quit platforms like Facebook and Twitter should do so. He compares the problem to past crusades against “mass addictions” like smoking or drunk driving, arguing that hearing more voices from people who are outside of the addiction may be the most helpful way to turn the tide.
You can listen to Too Embarrassed to Ask on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts. Below, we’ve shared a lightly edited full transcript of Swisher’s chat with Lanier.
Kara Swisher: Today on Too Embarrassed, I’m very excited to talk to Jaron Lanier. He’s a scientist at Microsoft Research and is best known to a lot of people as a virtual reality pioneer, but most recently he’s the author of a book called “Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now.” Jaron, what timing. Welcome to the show.
Jaron Lanier: Thanks for having me.
I did an interview With Mark Zuckerberg about this issue last week. He didn’t have a lot of good answers on my questions. So, we have a lot of questions to you from our listeners, but first let’s talk about the book and explain why you wrote it. You’re known for virtual reality and a lot of other things. This is sort of a ... Is this a shift for you? A little bit.
No, not really. I’ve been writing critiques of the way we’ve been doing things in Silicon Valley since the early 90’s.
You have, indeed.
Yeah. I started to feel we’ve taken a wrong turn back then. I thought a couple things were mistakes. I thought this idea of trying to make everything free in exchange for advertising would inevitably lead to a manipulative society where there are always other people in between everything, trying to advertise, you know. And so, and I think that that prediction, sadly, has come about.
I even wrote a piece in ‘92, suggesting that some day there might be little AI programs trying to calculate how to manipulate people and those things would go to war with each other and eventually make society crazy enough to throw elections.
Aw. I’m so glad. What else did you say in those things?
Many dark things.
This is like Revelations.
Well, the thing is-
The world will end in fire.
I wasn’t the first to point out these dangers. I would date that back to Norbert Wiener in the very early days of computation, and he was worried about exactly these sorts of societal effects in a book called “The Human Use of Human Beings.” That you could set up a computer to be like a automated behaviorist to manipulate people and it would eventually become so cheap to do that you could create an insane, dysfunctional, unhappy society pretty easily.
I think that’s kind of what we’ve done or at least what we’re doing, and I do believe there are better ways. So, in addition to the work with virtual reality and other things, I’ve been concerned for quite a while with how we could restructure our digital civilization so it’s just not so creepy.
Yeah, and then you mix in Donald Trump and you got a lovely brew.
Oh, he’s a creature of it in a lot of ways. We’ll get to him in a minute.
So, you decided to write this book, “Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now.” What was ... Why did you decide to do the book on this?
Well, you know what happened is, last year, I published a book called “Dawn of the New Everything,” which was my memoir about the early days of Silicon Valley and virtual reality and all kinds of things. It was kind of a labor of love. I wrote it during a difficult period in my life. My wife had been battling cancer and this book was written largely in overnight stints waiting for results at the hospital and that sort of thing. And I finally got it out there. And then when I was talking to the media, to you guys, about it, everybody was asking me questions about the election, and social ills from social media, and the increase in depression, and teen suicide from social media, and all these things. And so, what I realized is that my early critical writing had spurred interest in what I’d have to say about these things. I really compiled this book in response to the media demanding that I come up with things to answer for, you know, to explain how things went so wrong.
It wasn’t a book I planned to write. I’d already written some of these ideas years earlier, actually, but in a way it’s a bit of an update and a compilation of earlier criticism, but now it’s of the moment. It’s an entirely different thing. You know, when you predict dark things, your fondest hope is to be wrong.
You know, and it’s really no consolation at all to be right about dark predictions, but anyway that’s what happened for me and other early critics. And so, I had this book and my fondest hope for it is, I think, realistic. I know there’s no chance in hell that everybody’s going to get off these things all at once because lots of people are psychologically addicted to it.
No, it’s crack. It’s crack.
Yeah. It’s like gambling addiction.
But, at the same time, there’s network effects where everybody is already on them, so if you want to just organize a soccer game for your kids or something, you know, it’s very hard to do it without these same tools. So, I totally understand that most people are not going to get off of these things just because I wrote a book.
However, I’ll tell you there are two precedents that kind of inspire me that both involve mass addiction. One was Mothers Against Drunk Drivers, and the other was the movement to reduce cigarette smoking in public. Both of those were asking large numbers of people who were chemically addicted to change their behavior, which seemed like an impossible task, but the only reason that was possible is that there were at least a few people who were outside of the addiction who could look at it from the outside and get some perspective and then communicate that perspective. And that’s what I’m afraid we’re lacking now. Again and again, when I talk to journalists about this, they feel guilty about it, but they know they are themselves addicted to Twitter.
It’s just so hard to create a space where we can talk about this problem from outside of it. So, if I can inspire even a few people to get outside of it, I think it can create enough of a space in society to have that conversation and to start to address it.
That’s a very good comparison to both those things. Especially because everyone used to smoke cigarettes. They did, and addicted to them. You don’t see it anymore. And it’s unusual when you do.
Now you see marijuana in San Francisco, but ...
Well, I mean, marijuana is not technically as addictive as-
No, not at all. No, I’m just saying something you’re smoking. That’s the last ... The recently-
That’s the last thing, yeah.
Only time I’ve seen people smoke is-
But, alcohol and cigarettes are two examples of how society really can address mass addiction. So, I feel very hopeful, but-
I like the term “mass addiction” that you’re using because I think that’s exactly right. It’s a mass. It’s sort of like to sugar. Sugar is a-
Well, sugar’s another one. Yeah.
The sugar one is interesting because it also has commercial interests, just like social media, the manipulation machines. You go to health food store, there’s nothing without sugar.
It’s like this pervasive corruption of the idea of health food, and so it’s a similar problem and it’ll take a lot of work, but it’s not as drastic or as important as the social media addiction problem.
Alright. We’re going to get some questions right now because we have so many of them. Let’s start with Tatyana Mamut: “Civil society has been absorbed into social media since social and political debate is happening in these forums. For the good of the body politic, maybe we should figure out how to engage more productively in social media instead of disengaging entirely.”
Now, you’re calling for ten arguments for deleting it. Not using it.
So, she’s saying you have to be part of it.
Yeah, see well that’s the tricky thing, and I can’t speak to anyone’s individual life. So, it’s very possible that for this person, that’s true. I would at least ask the writer to examine very carefully if it’s really true because sometimes it might not be as true as you think. I mean, I would just put forward that at the very least I’m part of the conversation. I’m able to sell books. I appear on media and I have no social media accounts, and somehow it works. Maybe for some reason I’m so exceptional that it wouldn’t work for anybody else, but I doubt that very much. I don’t think I’m that exceptional.
Right. That’s a fair point.
I suggest in one of the arguments in the book, the one about politics, that often times when people think they’re being productive and improving society on social media, actually they’re not because the part of the social media machine that’s operating behind the scenes, which are the algorithms that are attempting to engage people more and more and influence them on behalf of advertisers and all of this, are turning whatever energy you put into the system into fuel to drive the system. And it often is the case that the fuel you put in is better driving the reaction than the original.
The enthusiasms that drove the Arab Spring turned out to be even more efficient for introducing the people that turned into ISIS to each other, in recruiting for them.
Black Lives Matter in the U.S. turned out to be more efficient for creating a resurgence of the KKK and Neo-Nazis that we hadn’t seen in memory, you know? So, it might seem to you like you’re using social media more and more effectively, but so far the pattern is that you’re wrong.
You’re right. Right, good point. That’s a fair point. Jon Pincus: “How does he respond to the argument that without viable alternatives, walking away from Facebook or social media more generally is a privilege?”
That’s correct. It’s very true.
That’s one that Mark makes. He made to me last week before he ...
Yeah. Now, Mark’s been making that point that ... It’s sort of like a leftist point to try to diffuse criticism from the left. Here’s what I’d say. If you’re privileged enough to have the option of walking away from social media, and yet you don’t, you’re failing to use your privilege to defeat a system that traps other people who are less fortunate than you.
You have even more of a responsibility to see if you can get out of it than someone who genuinely is dependent on it. So, I think that that argument has a situation exactly backwards. I mean, I and you and the people we tend to know are privileged. We’re wealthier than ever. We have more options. That puts a moral onus on us to make some decisions that do what little we can to help those who are less fortunate, and this is one of those things.
If you are actually in a position to quit and you don’t, you’re making yourself part of the problem. You’re not doing anything to free those who are more trapped. You’re only enslaving them more by entrenching the system. As an affluent or valuable person to the system, you’re the one that the whole system is being funded by.
So, quit, for God’s sakes, if you can. That’s your responsibility.
And what about that idea is that without viable alternatives? One of Mark’s arguments is something like, we don’t have community churches anymore or groups or bowling clubs or this and that.
Yeah. That’s something that concerns me a great deal. I think we made a gigantic error in the dawn of the internet and, historically, I was very much around it. I was hanging out with Al Gore when he helped fund the start of the internet and I was the chief scientist of Internet2 which was the research consortium that figured out how to scale it in the 90’s. So, I was very much in these conversations, and at the time, there tended to be this very strong ideology of decentralization, and there still is. We still see it in the enthusiasm for blockchain and so on. But, the problem is, if you decentralize totally, so it’s just a bunch of individuals, what tends to happen is, instead of just a vast number of individuals working together, you tend to have authoritarian structures come about.
Right. So, there’s one.
Instead of just a world of people making their own websites and that we all had envisioned we got a Facebook, which then dictates from on top who gets to say what. So, I think decency in society in a sense of high standards, in a sense of commitment, come from intermediate-scale organizations like, you know, churches, universities, guilds, unions, corporations with ethical standards. All kinds of structures. It’s these in-between structures that people join voluntarily where you can talk about excellence and talk about standards. You can’t really do that globally or it turns into authoritarianism.
And what’s interesting is that there’s supposed to be the many and then there’s always one, but now there’s a lot of single ones like Google, Facebook, and none of them compete with each other exactly.
If you try to impose excellence from on top —
There’s no Microsoft. There’s ten of them. It’s as if they-
Yeah. There’s just these tech giants. That doesn’t work. What there should be is a million medium sized things that people join voluntarily that compete on the basis of their standards and their achievement.
That’s how things have worked in the past. That’s why a magazine with its own reporters can do higher-quality stuff than some mass volunteer effort that can be easily corrupted by trolls or Russians or whatever.
So, I think the urgent things that we come up with, these intermediate, this sort of coarse grain structure. Can I be slightly geeky?
Yes, please do.
When you’re trying to make a machine learning algorithm, you need to have this thing called the intermediate layer which are the accumulators in the middle. From a formal perspective, that’s the same thing as these coarse-grain structures. If you just have a global structure of individuals, you can’t have a society that learns or keeps standards or has memory. It’s a sort of this social and political version of the same issue we have in machine learning on an abstract level ... Yeah.
Next question. Adam Hevenor — you got so many questions — “Is GitHub, now owned by Microsoft, a social network and should I delete my account? P.S. I can’t and still do my job.”
So, he’s going to stay on it. He’s going to stay addicted.
Yeah. You know, I don’t know if GitHub’s a social network. Maybe it is. It’s an interesting question.
Certainly a useful one. Reminds me more of like Uber. Uber’s like a utility.
You don’t linger.
Microsoft owns a couple of other things that are probably on the list, like LinkedIn and maybe Skype.
But, you don’t linger there, do you? You use it and then get out.
Okay. So, not all of them are as bad, but here ... I have a problem which is I’m one of the first and now hardly the only figure who works within the industry who’s also critical of the industry. And I have an arrangement with Microsoft where I’m encouraged to criticize them if I want to, so I will. But I also find it a little awkward because I don’t want to be partisan. Just for those who think I’m just toting a Microsoft line, please remember I also sold a company to Google and I’m super fond of it and have friends in the other companies.
I don’t think anyone thinks you’re a shill.
Well, I always worry. Anyway, so, with Microsoft stuff like ... I would say with GitHub and with LinkedIn, you see a lower level of trolls and a lower level of just acid-y horrible personalities and conflicts and ridiculous pissing matches. And I think the reason why is that people have something to accomplish while they’re there. It’s not just pure social competition. It’s not just pure mind games. And the theory I put forward in the book is there’s actually a switch in our brains between being a lone wolf and a pack wolf. And when you’re a lone wolf, you pay attention to your environment, you’re a naturalist. And when you’re a pack wolf, you pay attention to politics.
And as long as there’s something real for you to pay attention to like your career or your code or just something real, I think people tend to not be as horrible to each other. I think that’s why there’s like a little less horror in some parts of the internet than others. And I think one of the problems with situations like Facebook and Twitter, in particular, is people get so caught up in just relationships with others that they lose track of reality, and so they do tend to spin out of control.
They do, a 100 percent. All right, so should he stay on it? Oh, just stay on it. It’s not as bad. “Oh, it’s a hellscape but not that bad a hellscape.”
Well, nothing’s perfect and I don’t think any GitHub user will tell you it’s perfect but it’s functioning. And I think there’s something like that for LinkedIn. Tristan Harris has had interesting critiques of LinkedIn for using addictive techniques, so I’m not going to say that LinkedIn is perfect either.
But I don’t think either ... You know what’s a really good acid test? Have Putin’s intelligence warfare units try to infiltrate whatever the thing is. And so, by that test, Twitter is problem. Facebook is a problem. Reddit is a problem. YouTube is a problem. But GitHub, I don’t think they’re there? LinkedIn, I don’t think they’re there. So far, Snap, I think they’re-
No, they can’t be in there. They can’t get in there. He controls it. He controls and curates it. That’s a very curated environment.
Yeah, but on the other hand, Putin’s people are clever.
Yeah, but where would they get in? Do you use that ... There’s nowhere to get in. There’s like, there’s the list ... There are like messages to each other and there is nowhere to get in Snapchat.
Yeah, but the point, though, is that I think that’s an acid test. I think the Putin test is the right one.
“The Putin test.” I love that. I love that, Jaron.
The Putin test should be for everything. We’ve not passed it very well. Jessica Swarner: “I have not read so forgive me if already answered. What do you recommend for people who feel the need to have accounts, writers to promote work, need to prove large following with the help with publication, but who feel mental health drawbacks and want to delete?”
Right. So, I get this question a lot. I want to point out something which is that, as is famously known, there’s a tremendous real estate push on places like San Francisco where we are now and New York City. People still need to get to physical places. Just being there is already the real social network that isn’t actually controlled by anybody and like, do events, get out there, talk to people.
The other thing is you can make your own website. The other thing is you can work with publishers who like to promote things. The other thing is you can organize events in cool ways. You can do interesting social things that are like fundraisers that serve multiple purposes at once like in the real world with real people.
And I’m … I don’t know ... Maybe if I was on social networks, maybe if I had accounts, I could sell a few more books, but I feel like I’ve done pretty well, like it’s competitive out there and I’m actually doing pretty well as a writer so, I kind of feel like, once again, I’ve proven you can do it.
Yeah, if you’re interesting, absolutely. Several questions from Productive Citizen. He’s @technosucks. “Do you think we’ll ever see another social platform emerge at the expense of Facebook’s dominance? Will people eventually stop using social media or are we mindless lemmings that just love being abused by these platforms” and, three, what about ... I’ll get to the VR/AR ... Is about AR/VR convergence device passthrough cameras a better solution than translucent HMDs like HoloLens?
Let’s do the first one. Do you think we’ll ever see another social platform emerge at the expense of Facebook’s dominance, or have they …?
It’s an interesting question. It might start to happen nationally or regionally. I think that we’ve already seen Facebook blocked in one country. Well, it’s blocked actually in a few countries but there’s one country trying to make its own national alternative, which is Papua New Guinea, of all places.
It’s conceivable that if things continue to go bad, as badly as they have, then you might to see start to see nations try to break off pieces of Facebook for themselves or something. I think that’s one option. I think there’s also a possibility that could really bite Facebook in the butt pretty badly, which is its own engineers just getting fed up with the morally compromised position that they’re in.
Absolutely. “Will people eventually stop using social media or are we mindless lemmings that just love being abused?”
Oh, the lemming… Hey, let’s defend the lemmings for a second. This whole thing about the lemmings flying off the cliff was staged for a documentary. It’s fake. It’s an early rehearsal for fake news.
So, what would that be, zombies? What? What?
There isn’t any precedent for a whole society being put under continuous behavior modification surveillance and control. There have been societies with universal surveillance and universal indoctrination. North Korea is a current example of one. But this idea that you’re constantly in a Skinner Box, that’s a new thing. I don’t think there’s any precedent. I think we’re meta-lemmings.
Yeah, meta lemmings. Oh, wow. I love that. But of course, it’s unfair to lemmings. Then the one about VR/AR: “Is [an] AR convergence device with passthrough cameras a better solution than translucent HMD’s like HoloLens?” Would you please translate that for the people?
Yeah. Mixed reality is my old term. Augmented came later and you can stay up all night arguing with somebody about what the difference is, but-
I like mixed reality, yeah.
I don’t even know anymore but anyway, in either case, you’re seeing the real world. You’re seeing extra stuff that isn’t real that seems to be there. There’s two ways to do it. One is you have optical passthrough where you’re still seeing the photons from the real world and you have some way that you add this stuff, like some kind of special lens or something. Or all you see is video. There’s video cameras capturing the real world.
Both of them worked. I’ve seen excellent examples of both of them. The 2D video passthrough, you really have to have high performance because you’ll get sick, so you need to be around seven or eight milliseconds. With video passthrough, I’ll tell you what my problem is with it: Ethics. So far, since in my view, the economy of digital information is so corrupt and has such horrible incentives that prioritize manipulation above everything else. I’m not willing to give up the direct contact with the real world and I don’t think it’s ethical to make a video passthrough headset, yet.
Someday when we have better economics and it will be a purely technical decision-
Because it will be for free.
And honestly, both ways work fine. I don’t even think it’s an important decision, but for now, ethics dictate that we do optical passthrough.
We’re talking with Jaron Lanier. He is the author of a book called “Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now.” First [question], Liz Weeks: “Full disclosure, I haven’t read all of his books yet but how much of why we should delete social media is inherent in social media versus how it’s been developed so far? Is there a way to isolate the good parts of social media?” You’ve talked about this.
Yeah, I very strongly feel that we can isolate the good parts of social media which are very real and very true and just cut off and incinerate the bad parts, and the bad parts can be described very clearly as a manipulation engine. It’s the algorithms that are measuring you and then calculating what you should experience in order to change your behavior according to an algorithm. It’s that manipulation engine that’s the problem. It’s not the smartphone. It’s not the general idea of social media. It’s not the general idea of the internet. It’s none of those things. It’s really the manipulation machine. And that’s the thing that needs to be shut down.
The utility of it was what was good about it. And actually, when I first met Mark Zuckerberg, the first time we met, he talked about it like a utility but unfortunately, it’s not a lights-on thing. It’s become something very different than a utility.
One of the earliest stories to emerge from social media, this was even before Facebook existed, that I found very moving was that people with unusual illnesses could find each other and share experiences. And that sort of thing is valid, so in the last few years when my wife’s been battling cancer, we had hope that we could go online and find useful information. And the problem is that there is such a giant mountain of manipulative and deceptive crap that nobody has enough time. Nobody can take the effort to cut through it-
Because you’re sick.
Yeah. It’s essentially become worse than useless. This beautiful thing-
Google is easier, right?
Google is easier, just Google things. Even then-
Even when you Google things like, I mean, I could give you some specific examples, but the truth is that the whole thing is corrupted through and through because of perverse incentives —
It’s dirty results.
— where people who want to add good information have only altruism and no positive feedback and people who want to add bad information have monetary incentives, plus a lot of positive feedback. They get better strokes, actually. The truth is that it’s very hard to get good information.
It’s a good idea but badly done, I think, is what you’re talking about.
Well, the potential is still there. I still am an internet idealist. I haven’t lost it. It’s been dark times and it’s harder and harder to get anything good out of it and yet, I still believe that we should have it and then it’s a worthwhile project.
I agree with you about facing it. When I interviewed Mark last week, I said ... Their saying was move fast and break things and I said, “You know, you move fast, you broke things. Now you better freaking fix them.” They’re fixable in terms of how we do it. I think their incentives are all misaligned and the compromise is so deep.
There’s a thing that is very hard emotionally for the people who run the current big companies to do, which is, they have to change their business model. They have to move away from manipulation as the product being sold to some other formulation where they’re just selling a service. And the problem is that manipulation is kind of a power trip. It makes you more the center of the universe and if you’re just brokering goods and services-
They also won’t… I did an interview with Tim Cook where he was saying just what you were saying and he was like, this is based on a thing that never will work. Like eventually, it always becomes manipulative, no matter what you do. And the response from Facebook and Mark was, “Guess what? Apple is really expensive.” Instead of saying, “Huh, that’s a really interesting observation. Maybe I should think about it,” like, “They’re elite. They sell for too much money” and I was like, “That’s not really news and it’s not really the point of what he was saying.”
Right. I think I answered this already earlier, that saying that we’re manipulating the world and ruining it because it otherwise would be unfair to poor people is just an incredibly stupid ... I don’t even know how to respond to it because it’s so dumb. But can I point something with the tech companies? First of all, I like tech companies. I like Silicon Valley. I like big tech companies. This is my world. I like building big things. I love building big clouds. I love trying to fight giant algorithms and trying to see if we can make quantum computers work. I love all these things.
I’m not anti-tech companies but of the top five, of the big five, notice something interesting: There’s three of them that have been able to diversify their profit centers, and those are the ones that do the least of the manipulation business model, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon. You might have complaints with those companies. You probably should. But note that. The other two, Google and Facebook, they can diversify their cost centers to insane degrees, Google especially, coming up with all these crazy things. But for profit centers, they’re addicted in a way that makes them brittle.
You’re 100 percent right.
The thing is I think changing the business model actually would allow them to diversify and would serve their shareholders. I don’t view this as being anything that’s anti-Facebook. I really think what I’m saying is coherent with the interests of all the stakeholders of Facebook.
Yeah, that’s fair to point. Robin Raskin: “Jaron seems like an all-in or nothing kind of guy. With VR, he was a big evangelist of mixed reality world. Now, it’s ‘get the hell out of Dodge.’ Is there a happy medium or is it part of a binge personality? What is the tipping point?” … That you have to be a binge personality to be on social media, not that you’re a binge personality. Like you were just saying, people want to hold on to parts of this.
Well, I think the reason people want to hold on to parts of it is twofold. One part is because of genuine value because I do think there’s a lot of genuine value and good stuff on social media. I think it would be dishonest to argue otherwise. And yet, there’s also this addictive element and there’s an element of a network effect that keeps people on certain services that they might otherwise wish to move away from.
As I said before, my advocacy is not to kill the very idea of social media but rather the manipulation engine. And right now, the manipulation engine is the business model of big social media. It’s, and as I pointed out, here and elsewhere, it’s not even a great business model. The deleting of the accounts is a way to create, as I said, a public space outside of the addiction sphere. The outcome that I want, eventually, is to have the best of social media without the manipulation engine. That’s where I want it to go.
I think it’s almost impossible not to be addictive. It’s an addictive thing. The way you look at it, you could constantly find ... It’s like getting like a little sugar pellet every second. I don’t know if it’s possible to use it and not feel addicted to it because it’s so interesting.
I think it is possible. It’s really an interesting question. Is it possible to be engaged with anything where it shouldn’t count as addiction? What we mean by addiction is something that starts to have an ill effect on your character, that’s involuntary and that sends you into a spiral. I don’t believe it’s true that contact with other people over the internet has to lead to an increase in teen suicide that’s predictable. I don’t think it has to lead to a predictable rise in tribal violence and warfare wherever it shows up in the world. I really believe that those things are not needed. I also am not a utopian. I don’t expect something to be perfect. But I think what we have is just so deleterious. It’s just so damaging that it’s not survivable.
Yeah, absolutely. Keith Smith: “Will there be live concerts in VR where everyone has the best seats in the house?”
A lot of entrepreneurs have tried to do that already. I’m sure anyone with even a phone-based VR headset can get easy access to a few spherical concert recordings and things. I played around with a few crazy things like that, but I’ve never released, where you can go inside the instruments and all kinds of crazy stuff. Something like that could be good. I think the notion of live interactions with extraordinary qualities could be both wonderful a business and a wonderful cultural experience in the future.
I agree. I have to say I just did a thing. They have all these new VR... You put the head things on and then you basically wear a computer on a bag.
“The head things?”
The head things. But you know, we did it with four people and it was one of those rooms in a mall, it was so much fun! I had such a lovely time with my kids. I did. It didn’t make me feel the way digital often does. It didn’t make me feel isolated. It was fun.
Did you do the one at Universal CityWalk?
No, it was here, Westfield Mall. One of the Westfield malls.
Okay. There are three or four people doing these now which are like little location based —
It was super fun.
— and they often have haptic elements so it’d be hard to do at home.
Yeah there was haptic, there was wind, there was some water.
Yeah all of these things.
I did Carne y Arena, the one about immigrants. It was wonderful. It was wonderful.
Some of these are kind of better than ... I have to point out something, which is I’m kind of a Berkeley leftist by character but I cannot deny that economic incentives really kind of run the world. And so here you have a situation where people make money based on your willingness to buy a ticket in the moment. And suddenly the content quality is higher, the curation is better and it lasts for more than three seconds and it’s kept up. Notice that incentives…
Another example that I kind of like is people used to say, “There’s no way we could ever have people paying for video online” because it’s available for free and yet Netflix happened. And the reason I bring up these points is when somebody has this defeatist attitude that the current social media model where third parties are manipulating those who communicate with each other, “it’s the only possibility,” we should point out that there’s actually a world of other economic models that have worked online, that do work with digital media and often work really well. And this is one great example.
Yeah, I have to say I felt linked with them but it was in a digital environment. We were obviously, my one son became a pirate lady. It was fun. He had a good time playing like that. And we enjoyed each other, we enjoyed it together even though it was ridiculous, but at the same time it was real. And you could see it iterating into something really-
Entertainment is always going to be a little ridiculous, let’s face it.
Yeah, but it was great, it was great.
I kind of like the one that Walter Parkes is doing with the ... It’s called Dreamscape, I think?
I haven’t seen that one.
Yeah, he was a producer on “Minority Report” so many years ago and we’ve kept-
That’s one of my favorite movies, in spite of the fact that I hate Tom Cruise. I’ve watched it 10 or 20 times.
We on worked that a million years ago and ever since then he’s been trying to get this thing going and he has one of these things, they did a pop-up store in Universal City. The City Walk thing, in L.A. And I think they achieved a kind of warmth and rhythm to it that was really nice.
You can see ... I could see for the first time how warm and wonderful it could be. I was just on a roller coaster recently in Hong Kong with, you wore a VR. It was wonderful.
I tell you, I’m not up for that, but people tell me it’s great.
I have to tell you it was great because after a while, after the tenth roller coaster it’s like, “It’s the same roller coaster.” But this was wonderful. I was down under the sea, but you also were physically moving. So it was really quite something. I was really pleased with it.
“What’s the most” — this is Aaron Cohen — “What’s the most evil application VR you’ve seen?
Oh my gosh!
Well you have been in Minority Report a couple right?
You know Minority Report is a really interesting example.
Please go back and watch that, Jaron was an advisor to that.
Yeah, I made up some of the technologies and scenes in it and some of them were actually implemented.
The hand thing, yeah.
Well the hand thing, of course the gloves. But also the machine vision where you’re grabbed and put into an ad and the hero is trying to run away but it shows up in ads.
Yeah, “the last time you bought fleece” or something like that because his eyes were different.
That was actually implemented. That was the first face tracker and face transformer that ever existed. Which we sold to Google! But anyway, the thing about Minority Report from so long ago is, it was supposed to convey a dystopian future. It was supposed to be a warning. It was supposed to be an exploration of ethical failure and digital devices. And instead to this day, we’ll be in some design meeting and someone will say, “Oh that’s such a cool device idea, it looks like something from Minority Report.” And I just have to put my-
“Oh no you didn’t!”
My hands to my head and say, “Nooooooo!” Oh my God!
I love that movie, you’re right. You’re right. But I think you can get both messages.
It’s so hard, I mean I adore technology and I adore that people love it so much, of course, it’s the future. Of course we love it. It’s our commitment to our own children and making the world better. But I don’t know why it’s so elusive to try to get at the ethical layer of it and it’s so important.
Well, there’s lots of reasons for that. “What’s the most positive and world changing application of VR you’ve seen?”
That is an interesting one. There are some specific ones in medical treatment that excite me a lot. Well, I’ll use my wife’s case. Long, long ago in the 80’s, I and some other people including Ann Lasco and a surgeon named Joe Rosen made the first surgical simulator. A real time one using an early VR system at Stanford Med. And all these years later, my wife had to have a certain difficult operation for her cancer and her surgeon had been trained by somebody who had been trained by Joe using a procedure designed in VR and trained for in VR. So it all came around. And it went great.
Oh, that’s wonderful.
Yeah, how about that?
So when we do tech it actually is real, it can help real people including even us and it does really-
Yeah, simulations are really important.
It does really come around.
I agree with you on that. “Given your opinion regarding negative impact of open-source communities, or concerns about mobbed mentality how can you possibly undue the consolidation and control of media under the single roof called Facebook?”
Yes, how can we rid ourselves of our boy prince?
Well, I mean what I would say is-
He’s not Joffrey but-
We’ve faced worse in the past, you know. We’ve faced mass addictions in the past as we described before. We’ve faced media monopolies in the past. We have had all of these things and my sense is that things have generally gotten better over time, although it’s been rocky. But the reason it’s gotten better is because of critics, it’s because of people being demanding. So the way to be optimistic about this is to be critical of it.
The criticism has the optimism built in, complacency does not. Complacent people are pessimists and kind of useless and destructive. So I think in the very act of criticizing it I’m expressing a hope that we’ll find our way out.
100 percent. I like your thinking. It’s interesting because it does have impact on people when you do criticize properly. When you do it properly. Peter Fasano: “Each of the social platforms and mobile hardware are activating digital wellness features into their products. Are alerts and limits the right mode of user engagement for those digitally addicted already a confirmation bias?”
Mmm. Yes, so that’s a tricky one. I don’t know if anyone has good universal data on how widespread these apps are that are trying to help people get a handle-
Right, and Apple just hasn’t released there’s yet. Right? The update isn’t out.
Right. So Apple is a proponent and there are others as well.
Google just added some.
And it’s a funny thing about these things, you have to be empirical like we’d really have to do studies on what the real effects are with people over time. You have to do both latitudinal and longitudinal studies. Meaning, a lot of people over a lot of time to understand it. Sometimes when you try to make things better, they get worse. Like you put out a food with reduced sugar and people eat more of it and end up with more sugar or something like that.
I think turning off your stuff. Like, you cannot access it. If you give yourself self-imposed, it’s almost like not buying sweets for your refrigerator.
You know what I do, and I realize not many other people are going to do this. But I need to have a smartphone on me just for practical stuff, like everybody, and it’s not because of my Microsoft affiliation because nobody else at Microsoft does this. But I’m using a Windows Phone precisely because it-
Doesn’t have very many apps.
It’s a dying platform.
It’s a good phone.
It’s a great phone actually.
It’s a good phone. It’s actually a very good phone.
And I set it to black and white, which is a frequent and good recommendation.
Yeah the grayscale. Let me say that to everybody if you have that it’s called grayscale and on the Apple, you just click it three times on the right on the new one.
Yeah, and on the Microsoft one if anyone has one, it’s within the ease of access. It’s considered a tool for people with visual disabilities. And by using an out-of-date platform, you could also look at, what’s the one from Canada with the little keys? I don’t even remember anymore.
Blackberry, yeah. Maybe the Blackberry would do this as well. Something where just the apps aren’t even working. And then for texting, so far, we’re see where this goes with end of net neutrality but so far, when you just text across phones, it’s not feeding a manipulation network.
No, no, no, yeah. I text.
Between those things, email and texts, you can have a smartphone and do everything you need. You can get all the news you need. You basically are fully functional, there’s no loss that I can discern.
You can also remove a lot of the ... Someone was telling me, talking about the idea of just keeping the utility things. You don’t sit in linger on your Uber app. You just use it and then you’re out of it. You don’t even linger on Google. You just search, or a map, you don’t linger on map you just use it.
Also, you can use Google, at least so far, without an account.
And also you get what you want and you go.
Like you’re not spending a lot of time.
And put as many blockers as you can on whatever browser you use.
Don’t have an account. Don’t have a Google account when you use Google or a Bing account when you use Bing for that matter.
Right, just don’t sign in. You can use it and not sign in.
Well, that’s tricky.
No, you can do it. I have a Gmail account and I don’t sign in.
You don’t know what they’ve ... I have to say, I’m not sure. I know in the case of Facebook they’ll always install things that you basically can’t get out of at all. But I don’t know in the case of Google. I’m not sure. But I think you can invent these things on yourself. You don’t have to take my advice. Just come up with ways of reducing the connection and the thing about it is, by every measure and this is actually been measured by peer-reviewed researchers, you become better informed, you have more free time and you become happier. So like, why not?
So old phones, dump the apps, give like a couple of things. Old phone.
Turn off anything that’s auto-feed. Like, if you’re going to watch something on YouTube video make sure you have it set in such a way-
That you only watch one thing.
Yeah and that can be a little tricky if you’re not signed in and you have no account. But you can do it. You can certainly do it with browsers. Try to use the thing that’s not what everybody else is doing. And that’s a little bit confusing to any software that’s trying to create a calculated experience for you.
So Snapchat for all old people right? You do catch on to it after awhile. It’s actually not that addictive. Well my son uses it all the time. That’s not true. When you get good at anything you get fast.
Well like I said, I don’t like to comment… And you know, one of the issues with me is I have friends at all the companies I have a lot of friends at Snap and I don’t want to say ... Everyone I have met, and I’ve met a lot of people at Google, Facebook, Twitter, Snap, all those companies, they are for the most part, with a very few rare exceptions in my view, people who are trying to do good for the world. And are there in part because they’re trying to do good for the world. I ... don’t vilify them, there’s no point in that, but do protect yourself.
Right, okay. One last tip the people can have? The most important if you had to pick the 10 things.
If I had to pick a tip for how to live?
Of the 10 arguments, what do you think is the most-
Oh! For me-
And then you can give us a tip for how to live too.
The latter arguments are more important than the earlier ones. The latter ones being the economic argument, the political argument, the spiritual argument. And the one that’s probably the least familiar to people is the spiritual one. The economic one being that this free model is gradually telling us all that our data isn’t worth anything, so we’ll be replaced by robots that depend on our data but we won’t be acknowledged, so we’ll have to go on some kind of giant basic income model because we’ll be worthless. It’s like such a dark vision of society that it’s almost unspeakable. The political argument that we already covered that you think you’re doing good with social media but behind the scenes, the manipulation engine is actually finding all the worst people and empowering them.
The spiritual argument is the one that I think people are less familiar with which is that when you use social media you’re gradually engaging in rituals that make you buy into a whole way of thinking about life and death and the world in which you’re one cog in a giant information machine. And there isn’t a separate thing of consciousness but rather information is what’s real. Information meaning that which can be transmitted by a phone or a device and that I think it gradually creates this sense of spiritual panic in people. And if anyone was going to read only one of the arguments, I might encourage them to look at that one because I think it’s the one that should be better known that isn’t.
100 percent. Or get an app I have called WeCroak. Do you know that one?
That’s very pleasing. It’s a very pleasing to read death quotes all day long and then you sort of get a thing. I do grayscale most of the time which is another thing. There’s all sorts of little things you can do. You can also try to put it down.
Leave it home.
Another thing to do is get an old battery so you can’t use it too much during the day.
You’re going to tell me to ride a horse soon. So anyway, this has been a wonderful-
Horses are great.
Horses are great. There’s been another great episode of Too Embarrassed To Ask. I’m a huge fan of Jaron Lanier. His book, you absolutely have to buy, it’s called, say the name of it.
It’s called “10 Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now.” Can I tell you just one other thing?
There’s a cat on the cover of the U.S. edition The U.K. edition has a mountain. But the U.S. one has a cat and he’s a real cat. His name’s Potato and he was rescued from an Oakland parking lot.
Okay. Potato’s real. Not digital?
Not digital. He’s a real cat.
Yeah, because cats are big on the internet, I hear.
Yeah I have a theory about that.
Quickly. You have to tell me.
It opens the book. I think the reason cats are so popular online is that they symbolize the independence that people are afraid of losing. Cats are not controlled by ... Nobody controls your cat. Cats aren’t truly domesticated. They can still survive in the wild. They came to us, we didn’t grab them and modify them. And that’s what we want people to be. We want people to be able to survive in the wild. We want people to be able to think for themselves. We want people to be individuals and not subject to constant predictable control. And we’re afraid we’re losing our cat nature.
But they make damn adorable videos too.
When they’re playing the piano and stuff like that.
Oh yeah, yeah, yeah.
Anyway, this has been a wonderful episode.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.