The Social Dilemma (2020)

*. A blog is a form of social media, so I guess I’m as guilty as anyone in the triumph of our new digital overlords since I’ve been doing this for over twenty years. Still, I take some comfort and pride in not being on Facebook, and not having LinkedIn or Instagram accounts. I’ve also railed enough, in print and online, on the ill effects of the digital revolution. So a documentary like The Social Dilemma was both preaching to a convert as well as covering a lot of ground I was already familiar with. Still, I’m glad it’s here, as I don’t think we can have enough warnings about what’s going on.
*. What’s going on is something more than just data mining, or the selling of users’ identity to advertisers as the real “product” of social media. I think we all know about that. Instead, as tech guru Jaron Lanier puts it in what I thought the film’s most insightful comment, the endgame is the transformation of the individual through the manipulation of their fears and anxieties, wants and needs. Big Tech (or Big Data) don’t just want to know more about us, they want to remake us into better (that is better conditioned, more submissive and reliable) consumers.
*. This transformation is achieved through social media tapping into our need for connection, the product of millions of years of evolution, and providing dopamine hits that addict us to their ceaseless tide of highs (likes and shares and up-votes). One can instantly relate to the dramatic vignette here of the teenage girl breaking into the lockbox that her mother has put her cell phone into. I’ve seen fathers have to wrestle their daughters to the floor to pry phones from their grasp. The addiction is real.
*. I should say something more about these dramatized scenes as they’re the main way The Social Dilemma differentiates itself from the usual sort of talking-head documentary. I’ve heard some people complain about the way the experiences of one family with cell phones is used to illustrate the ideas expressed by the various experts being interviewed, but I didn’t mind the change of gears. I thought they were well integrated with the rest of the movie, and helped to break things up a bit.
*. My only complaint was that having Vincent Kartheiser play the different aspects of the AI puppetmaster was misleading. There really isn’t a human face behind the AI of the tech giants, only the operation of various algorithms that are now mostly beyond human understanding and perhaps even human control. Not that making money is some absolute end that the directors of big tech didn’t always have in mind. It’s not like the money mill is some experiment that got out of hand, which is how it’s sometimes presented.
*. As the talking heads (mostly former executives from the big tech companies) point out, it’s not that the technology is evil but that it has its own agenda (making money) that is independent of, and indeed indifferent to, human welfare. A Fitbit watch isn’t designed to improve health, but to monitor us. Whether we get healthier by using it, or drop dead, doesn’t really matter to Google. In much the same way, if lies and disinformation move faster on the Internet, and thus drive more traffic and make more money, then that’s what the platforms are going to provide more of. They’re not interested in spreading lies per se, they just don’t care about the truth.
*. Put another way, the main interviewee here is Tristan Harris, ex-Google ethicist and co-founder of a group called the Center for Humane Society. But is it even possible to imagine a humane Internet now? That seems almost like an oxymoron.
*. I’m freestyling here, but that’s what a movie like this is meant to encourage. It helps that I’m in broad agreement with the points being made. My own take is that the Internet hasn’t created any of the problems itemized here — depression, anxiety, addiction, political polarization — but only made them worse by amplifying and exacerbating them.
*. I also don’t see the process being reversed. As is often the case in such documentaries the producers try to end things on an optimistic note, but here it seems particularly forced. Everyone is aware that in a fight between a divided and often oblivious citizenry on one side and ever more powerful AIs collecting ever larger troves of data, all backed by the world’s largest and most profitable corporations on the other, humanity has a huge handicap.
*. In many ways I think the situation is even bleaker than represented here. With the focus mainly on social media, things like online gaming, gambling, and pornography aren’t even mentioned, for example. And too much emphasis is put on Facebook, which is just one player, albeit a big one. Also, the domestic drama suggests, I think misleadingly, that the impact is greatest with young people. While that’s the demographic I feel sorriest for — their brains are being fried, and they’re never going to get them back — my own experience is that the parental (and even grandparental) generations are in this mess just as deep. It’s just that we can still remember a better time.
*. A dilemma? I guess there are trade-offs. Harris mentions Uber as being one of the blessings of the new world order. And someone else mentions the old line about how grandparents are getting to chat with their grandchildren on Facetime now. The price of all this, however, may be incalculable.

5 thoughts on “The Social Dilemma (2020)

  1. tensecondsfromnow

    Good piece. Although there’s facebook and twitter buttons on my blog, they’re for others, not for me; I share suspicions about the value of social media. That said, the WP community are great, and I enjoy the sharing of blogs, even if you’re essentially working to create material for someone else’s website…the negative ffects of social media may be, as you say, incalculable..

    1. Alex Good Post author

      I just have my fingers crossed for the young people. The rise in self harm and suicide with the advent of social media is a subject this doc touches on, but it goes even further than this to the shaping of a whole new human mind.

      1. tensecondsfromnow

        It seems to bake people’s opinions; once they’ve self-published, they seem to endlessly defend their position rather than adapt and change, from Brexit to Trump. I’m not sure people understand what social media is doing to them, but for every happy customer, there seem to be many who get bogged down in argument…

      2. Alex Good Post author

        Yes, and the doc does have something to say about this polarization. Basically how once your online your automatically encased in a bubble of opinion that is designed to reinforce your own most extreme views (because feelings of outrage and peddling falsehoods are what drive traffic).

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