The Social Dilemma comes with necessary and troubling information that many have been sounding off about for years.
The premise: The corrosion of communication as a result of the lack of regulation practices around technology, specifically social media. And the uncertainty of our future because of this.
The participants: From Google to Facebook, Uber to Pinterest, former employees of key tech companies voice their concerns about the state of our society. Then there’s computer scientist Jaron Lanier, who offers some of the most truth-telling of the bunch. Anyone who’s read his work and enjoys straight-shooting thoughts of reason (“just get off the apps, delete them, go outside”) will appreciate his role in this film.
There’s also insights from those who’ve invested, researched and written about these tech companies and their tactics. At the helm of the production is Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google, who specializes in understanding the psychology of what persuades people—the mechanics behind manipulation.
Harris loved magic when he was younger and speaks of the art of magic in the film, showing how the magician “understands some part of our mind that we are not aware of,” much like algorithms are increasingly capable of doing, too. Those recommended videos, suggested ads and groups aren’t just there by fluke. But we know this. So, why are we still clicking on them?
Throughout the film we are introduced to over 20 voices, urging for an overhaul of technology and the players responsible for deciding our self-worth and success these days. Some segments come with alarming facts, highlighting the increase in suicide rates, anxiety and depression following widespread social media use, for example. Others provide more anecdotal content about social media addiction and the virtual merry-go-round it precipitates.
“These services are killing people and causing people to kill themselves.” – Tim Kendall, former president of Pinterest
This addiction is best voiced through the few outside sourced clips of Chamath Palihapitiya, Facebook’s former VP of growth. He’s also the man who “basically made the playbook when it comes to scientific AB testing of small features changes on a platform,” we are told in the film.
“We curate our lives around this perceived sense of perfection because we get rewarded with these short term signals: hearts, likes, thumbs up. And we conflate that with value, and we conflate it with truth,” says Palihapitiya. “Instead what it really is, is fake brittle popularity that is short term and leaves you, and admit it, even more vacant and empty than before you did it.”
Palihapitiya goes on to talk about this vicious cycle of needing the next dopamine hit of appreciation, compounded by two billion people desiring the same thing, plus all the reactions that spur from this cycle is really, really bad. This stands in stark contrast to what former Google and Facebook engineer Justin Rosenstein said about the original idea around Facebook likes, which was “to spread positivity.” How often do you feel that positivity these days?
The documentary premiered at Sundance back in January, before the coronavirus made us glued even more to technology. But now with its release on Netflix, and added references to the pandemic, it could hit people harder, especially seeing how social media can incite rage, violence, hate speech and misinformation, each day. And it continues to. ‘How many more days do we want starting and ending like this?’ is the rhetorical question viewers are left to ponder.
“The very meaning of culture is manipulation.” – Jaron Lanier, computer scientist and author
The film also presents a selection of quotes that serve as timely placeholders. Quotes such as “Nothing vast enters the life of mortals without a curse” from Sophocles. Also, “There are only two industries that call their customers ‘users’: illegal drugs and software,” from Edward Tufte. And let’s not forget: “Whether it is to be Utopia or Oblivion will be a touch-and-go relay race right up to the final moment,” from Buckminister Fuller.
The film also hears from venture capitalist Roger McNamee, who was an early investor in Facebook.
“Do you check your smartphone before you pee in the morning or while you’re peeing in the morning, because those are the only two choices,” he says in a laughing but all too real manner.
McNamee speaks about how Facebook is essentially “2.7 billion Truman Shows,” and reiterates much of what Harris says in that “we all need to have some shared understanding of reality, and if we can’t agree on what’s truth then we cannot navigate out of any of our problems.”
Jaron Lanier cautions that if we continue to allow the mayhem of social media to dominate our lives, “we could probably destroy civilization…we probably don’t survive. I really view it as existential,” he says.
“AI cannot solve the problem of fake news. Google doesn’t have the option of saying ‘oh this is a conspiracy’…they don’t have a proxy for truth that’s better than a click.” – Cathy O’Neil, author of ‘Weapons of Math Destruction’
Professor and author Shoshana Zuboff is another strong voice in the film. She talks about the selling of certainty.
“This is a new kind of marketplace now…just like the markets that trade in oil futures, we now have markets that trade in human futures, at scale,” says Zuboff, who goes on to suggest these markets should be outlawed.
So what do these tech insiders suggest to do now?
-Turn off notifications and delete apps off your phone.
-Never accept the recommended video, instead always choose.
-Use search engines like Qwant that don’t store your search history.
-Understand that you are voting with your clicks. Be mindful who you’re helping.
-Before sharing anything make sure to fact check it and consider the source.
“Our phones have become our digital pacifiers.” – Tristan Harris, co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology
The 93-minute film is available now on Netflix.
More information about the production can be found via the website.
There’s a roundtable Q&A session happening on September 16, which features The Social Dilemma director Jeff Orlowski and selected film subjects.
All photos via Netflix