Jul 12, 2018

Jaron Lanier on wolf mentalities in social media

Talking with Ezra Klein (a), starting around 24:00:

Lanier: The theory goes like this – there are some species out there in the world that are strictly social, like say most ants. And there are some that are strictly solitary, like a lot of cephalopods. But there are some species that can switch, and sometimes be solitary, and sometimes be social.

In our popular imagination, a very frequent one that comes up is the wolf. So we think of wolf packs, and we think of the lone wolf.

What I observe is that the mentality you have to bring to bear is very different if you're a lone wolf than if you're a member of a pack. If you're a lone wolf, your core concern is the real world, because you have to survive in it. You become a naturalist... You have to pay attention to the weather, and the food, and predator & prey, and light & dark, and heat & cold, and sightlines, and shelter, and all kinds of things... it's all about the natural world.

When you're a member of a pack however, your most immediate concern, the thing that overwhelms everything, is politics. You have to be concerned about your competitive fellows. You have to be concerned about your relationships to people above you in the hierarchy, and below you.

And then of course you unite with your fellows in opposition to other packs – you become soccer fans, united as one.

So what I think happens with people is that there's a deep switch inside us that switches our mode of perception from one to the other. The lone-wolf mode of perception is really appropriate in some cases and really inappropriate in others; and the pack-switch, the pack mode of perception is really appropriate in some situations and inappropriate in others.

If you're in a military unit you have to be in the pack-switch, because of course teamwork is everything.

If you're a citizen and you have to consider who to vote for, it's essential that you be in the lone-wolf setting, or else politics just turns into nonsense, it just turns into identity politics.

If you're a shopper in the marketplace, you have to be in the lone-wolf setting, or else the market turns to nonsense, it turns into fads and tulip crazes and whatever. You have to be able to provide your own perspective, your own intelligence to be merged into the larger system. And if you lose that value by pre-merging with other people, then the system itself becomes broken.

And so, I think what happens online is when people are put into a situation where there is no natural world that matters, when there's nothing of consequence – they're not earning money, their only available benefit is from mind games or social games. Naturally they're thrown into the pack-switch because that's all there is.

But then when you're in the pack-switch but there's no clear pack you end up in these constant weird struggles. You're in this world of eternal damned, hopeless politics with everybody around you, all the time. That's why I think people become assholes.

There's a little bit of evidence to support this – when you have online gathering situations where there is something at stake that's real, everybody doesn't become an angel but the asshole factor does go down.

I think there's less assholedom on LinkedIn for instance, where people are worried about their careers and they have some real stake in the situation. And they become assholes to a greater extent the less they have any real stake in anything outside of the politics.

So that's the theory.