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Unfriend Request

January 27, 2010

Though I said I was going to try and avoid getting derailed into book reviews again, it be sore temptin’ to review Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not A Gadget after all, after reading an excerpt in the February issue of Harper’s magazine (sorry, paywalled).  Lanier sets himself out as an enemy of “the cloud,” “the hive mind,” and the “wisdom of crowds.” 

A program like Facebook promises to organize your social information in the most useful manner, but Lanier argues that it conditions people to think the way the majority thinks about relationships:

An individual who is receiving a flow of reports about the romantic status of a group of friends must learn to think in terms of the flow if it is to be perceived as worth reading at all. Am I accusing all those hundreds of millions of users of social-networking sites of reducing themselves in order to be able to use the services? Well, yes, I am. I know quite a few people, most of them young adults, who are proud to say that they have accumulated thousands of friends on Facebook. Obviously, their statements can be true only if the idea of friendship is diminished.

This is one of my own pet peeves as well – though in a couple of cases I’ve actually been glad to reconnect with someone, for the most part my Facebook “friend requests” come from either a) people who I haven’t talked to for years because we have nothing in common other than being members of the same site who used to know each other as friends of friends, or b) people who blow me off repeatedly in real life yet feel compelled to add me on LinkedIn or FB because of the nature of the site, its constant prompting to add more “friends.”   There’s even one member of class c), people who should remember how much we hate each other and leave me the f*** alone, but the site’s more-more-more ethos leads people to willfully forget these things in the mad quest to pump up their numbers.

However, “collecting” people is nothing new – during the worst years of AIDS, I used to hear people say of the number of dead, “I’ve crossed hundreds of people out of my address book” – and I would wonder, how the hell do you get hundreds of people in there?  How close can you really be to hundreds of people, how much can you really care about any of them?  If you’re the kind of person who thinks more is automatically better, Facebook merely allows you to manage your social butterfly collection more efficiently.  But as Lanier argues, if you’re not one of those people, the site works hard to make you into one.

He’s also astute about crowdonomics, that while the cheerleaders say “we all benefit” from the shared knowledge that comes from user-generated content, the fact is that those who are harvesting the knowledge and the content are those who truly benefit.  How many times have you seen those “Your Opinion Matters” blurbs slide across your screen and around your popup blocker?  Of course it matters – they’re going to bundle it with all the other mattering opinions and get a pretty penny for reselling information derivatives without putting out a cent in capital expenditure.  Your Facebook “friends” constantly generate free content for the site in the form of status updates and test results and groups joined, content which keeps eyeballs on the page, and therefore at least in proximity to if not on the ads.  (Maybe I just haven’t generated enough stuff on FB for it to “serve” me ads efficiently, but it seems rather incompetent to me since, with my status as gay and single, all I get are Find Gay Singles In Your Area Or On A Gay Singles Cruise Or Then Again Just Hook Up With This Hottie Who’s Online Now.  You’d think it would try and sell me a book now and then, or something I might actually be interested in clicking on.  Then again, maybe the metrics dictate that 90% of gay singles are dumb enough to click on these ads, so there you go, the wisdom of crowds.)

Everything boils down to metrics – the tastes and shopping habits of you and your Facebook “friends,” your “opinion” on the clickyness of one Pantone color over another – and everything boils down to metrics because in the end, all content becomes nothing but soil in which advertising is to be planted:

There is, unfortunately, only one entity that can maintain its value as everything else is devalued under the banner of the noosphere. At the end of the rainbow of open culture lies an eternal spring of advertisements. Advertising is elevated by open culture from its previous role as an accelerant and placed at the center of the human universe. Advertising is now singled out as the only form of expression meriting genuine commercial protection in the new world to come. Any other form of expression is to be remashed, anonymized, and decontextualized to the point of meaninglessness. Ads, however, are to be made ever more contextual, and the content of the ad is absolutely sacrosanct. No one dares to mash up ads served in the margins of their website by Google. The centrality of advertising to the new digital hive economy is absurd, and it is even more absurd that this isn’t more widely recognized. The most tiresome claim of the reigning digital philosophy is that crowds working for free do a better job at some things than antediluvian paid experts. Wikipedia is often given as an example. If that is so, why doesn’t the principle dissolve the persistence of advertising as a business?

A functioning, honest crowd-wisdom system ought to trump paid persuasion. If the crowd is so wise, it should be directing each person optimally in choices related to home finance, the whitening of yellow teeth, and the search for a lover. All that paid persuasion ought to be mooted. Every penny Google earns suggests a failure of the crowd—and Google is earning a lot of pennies.

If you want to know what’s really going on in a society or ideology, follow the money. If money is flowing to advertising instead of to musicians, journalists, and artists, then a society is more concerned with manipulation than with truth or beauty. If content is worthless, then people will start to become empty-headed and contentless. The combination of hive mind and advertising has resulted in a new kind of social contract. The basic idea of this contract is that authors, journalists, musicians, and artists are encouraged to treat the fruits of their intellects and imaginations as fragments to be given without pay to the hive mind. Reciprocity takes the form of self-promotion. Culture is to become precisely nothing but advertising.

Lanier’s point is well taken – after all, the most radical of the anti-copyright crowd shrug off the loss of direct income from creative work and tell you to “go aftermarket yourself,” sing for your supper in Medieval fashion by performing live, selling t-shirts, asking for donations.  (How a writer is supposed to do this is never answered – there is no Monsters of Prose tour to make up for lost copyright earnings.)  But the things we are expected to give away are not really free from me to you – the ad-serving middleman always gets his cut, which in the end is often 100% of the profit.

I’ve used this Doris Lessing quote before, but it’s worth repeating:

Imagine us saying to children: “In the last fifty or so years, the human race has become aware of a great deal of information about its mechanisms: how it behaves, how it must behave under certain circumstances. If this is to be useful, you must learn to contemplate these rules calmly, dispassionately, disinterestedly, without emotion. It is information that will set people free from blind loyalties, obedience to slogans, rhetoric, leaders, group emotions.”

Lessing’s primary concern was to immunize people against “undulant rhetoric,” the language of politics, an immunization needed even more now in the light of a recent Supreme Court ruling, marking a point at which advertising and “speech” have become one and the same thing.  But political advertising works because advertising works, on weak minds.  Strengthening more minds against the power of these attacks is necessary if civilization is to survive in any non-Orwellian form.  The mere existence of a crowd does not guarantee its wisdom, especially when those who manage their meeting places are so eager to turn them into mindless mobs.



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