Father of virtual reality: Facebook and Google are dangerous 'behaviour-modification empires' resulting from a tragic mistake

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  • All of the troubles surrounding Facebook and Google can be traced back to a mistake, according to TED speaker and virtual reality visionary Jaron Lanier.
  • At this point, Lanier said, we shouldn’t call companies like Facebook social networks. “Call them behaviour-modification empires.”
  • Lanier believes the only solution is to essentially turn back the clock and remake that early fateful decision to keep the internet free.
  • He received a standing ovation from the audience, which was filled with prominent members of the Silicon Valley tech community.

VANCOUVER, Canada – Jaron Lanier, an author and programmer who is widely considered to be a founding father of virtual reality, gave one of the most provocative early talks at this year’s TED Conference in Vancouver, Canada.

During his talk, Lanier posited that all of the troubles surrounding tech giants like Facebook and Google can be traced back to a “globally tragic” mistake with roots in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

“Early digital culture had a sense of lefty socialist mission about it,” he said, noting that a common sentiment in Silicon Valley at the time held that everything on the internet must be purely public and free. At the same time, there was (and is) an ongoing love affair with tech entrepreneurship and industry titans like Steve Jobs.

“How do you celebrate entrepreneurship when everything is free? The solution is ads,” Lanier said. “[Services like Google and Facebook] were free with ads. In the beginning, it was cute. Then the customers and other entities who use this system became more experienced and clever. Advertisement turned into behaviour modification.”

Negative stimuli tends to rise to the top of social networks, Lanier said. This is because negative emotions rise up faster than positive ones. And that ultimately makes it easier for misinformation and other manipulative pieces of information to take over.

At this point, Lanier said, we shouldn’t call companies like Facebook social networks. “Call them behaviour modification empires.”

Lanier believes the only solution is to essentially turn back the clock and remake that early fateful decision to keep the internet free. Consider how things might be different, he said, if we paid for things like search and social networking – perhaps with subscription fees or micropayments.

Just as companies like Netflix and Amazon have helped stoke a world of high-quality “peak TV” by convincing people on the internet to pay for TV and films, we should consider a world of paid peak social media, where misinformation would be hard to find. Instead, high-quality factual information could take its place, Lanier suggested.

TED is a conference filled with tech industry giants, and Lanier knows his audience. He assured the TED crowd that he wasn’t trying to vilify the individuals behind the Facebooks and Googles of the world.

“I love you guys! The people are fantastic,” he said. These people are, he said, victims just like the rest of us.

At the end of his talk, Lanier issued a dire warning: “I don’t believe our species can survive unless we fix this.”

Watch Jaron Lanier’s talk below:

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