THE SOCIAL DILEMMA should be everyone’s dilemma

You will almost certainly find many viewers decry Netflix’s eye-opening documentary The Social Dilemma as hysterical polemic; an over the top rebuke of our Information Age. Like everything else around us right now, the content will polarise.

It is an extension of arguments that thinkers and writers such as Shoshana Zuboff (who appears here as a marvellously coiffured talking head) have been making for some time about the perils of surveillance capitalism. That our dominant, all-pervasive big tech platforms—Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, Reddit etc…—deal in, as Zuboff describes it, “human futures”. Rather than we as a society using social media as a tool to communicate, learn and principally buy, we rather are the tool of almost artificially intelligent algorithms that understand more about our psychology and habits than anyone in our lives, and even we as individuals could possibly understand. We are the commodity. And the result is that our entire fabric of society is being controlled and fundamentally broken by this machine-led, money-driven system.

The Social Dilemma packages up ideas that you may well have heard before into an effective, streamlined docu-drama, one that plays as much like a horror movie at times in how it pushes our buttons to be afraid, very afraid, of Big Tech and their manipulation of human existence. Some, therefore, will find it hyperbolic and perhaps even simplistic. It is a film with a clear agenda, one designed to influence us in the manner the networks it decries itself does. Netflix is, technically, no better. After watching the movie, I automatically pressed the thumbs up button and rated it. I therefore sent data off to Netflix’s servers which will influence what their algorithm shows me on the “you might also like…” screen. There is an irony about that that the makers of The Social Dilemma might not have appreciated.

Yet it speaks to how I, as much as you reading most likely, remain a willing cog in the manipulation machine. How do I use social media? And could I detach from it completely? These are the questions I’ve been asking since I finished The Social Dilemma.

In fairness, The Social Dilemma does manage to point out, amidst its withering depiction of Big Tech as the sinister darkness destroying our polarised world, what social media and the technology that enables it has done for us in a positive fashion.

Tristan Harris, a former Google design ‘ethicist’, is one of the many formative Big Tech innovators who talk us through the nebulous web that our use of social media propagates, and he emerges from the documentary as level-headed, humane, deeply concerned but also hopeful that we can do better.

He describes our slide into social media addiction as a simultaneous “utopia and dystopia”, given on the one hand we can use Uber to summon a cab to our door in minutes and take us wherever we want to go as an incredible step forward, while citing terrifying statistics on the other about how suicides and mental health issues in young people have increased since 2009–unofficially the year Facebook, Twitter etc… really took off—as exponentially as 150% or more. The slick, almost miraculous realities of Amazon online shopping and fast food to our door is counter-weighed by how much real world damage and loss of life our use, and social media’s use of us, is costing our civilisation.

For a long time, in the face of a barrage of evidence that social media is incredibly harmful on a multitude of levels, I have been convinced that the secret is how you use it.

Very rarely do I post about anything other than my online interests. I shared one photo from my wedding day. I will share one photo of a newborn should I have children one day. I don’t take selfies. I don’t constantly discuss what I’m doing, where I’m going, who I’m seeing. Conscious of Big Tech platforms gathering reams of data, even without permission, I try to feed the machine as little as possible. I use Facebook to share writing, the odd film watching experience, or converse in groups. I have used Reddit for discussion & sharing pieces but I’ve become less enamoured of what feels like an echo chamber among echo chambers since I started experimenting with it toward the beginning of lockdown. I mainly use Instagram to post images of nice places I’ve been and books I’ve read, but rarely surf it. YouTube I watch when needed but never engage on. Snapchat, TikTok and beyond… they’re for the young (unless you’re Jane Fonda), I have no business being on them.

If there is one platform on which I try to maintain a social presence, it’s Twitter. While many consider Twitter, not without good reason, to be the broadest toxic cess pool for ‘the discourse’, poisoning discussion and debate amidst a barrage of disinformation and opinion, the network most aligns with my interests and what I seek to gain from social media: connections with like minded people.

I remember when Facebook first launched and initially it felt like an advanced, easier to use version of Friends Reunited (remember that?); a means for the last generation who experienced their youth without social media, smartphones etc… to reconnect with school friends and people from their childhood. We migrated from the digital blogspot that was MySpace, with its clunky formatting and on-cue personalised songs, to a streamlined means of interaction that, at first, was designed around a community experience. Facebook made sense back then, before it was monetised and, as The Social Dilemma points out, turned over to the ever-evolving capitalist algorithm.

Twitter, subsequently, felt more like a means of connection but not with people I already knew. When Facebook started evolving away from community and toward product, toward targeted advertisements that are now so sophisticated they almost seem to know what you’re going to think about buying before the idea pops into your head (lately it’s working hard to sell me Maynard’s chewy sweets for some strange reason), we moved our online friendships to WhatsApp. Despite a greater sense of privacy for the user, Facebook own it and it still works to provide the company with data. Yet for now it serves a purpose. Most of us have WhatsApp groups these days for friends and family we don’t see on a daily basis and it remains a handy, quick and easy resource, even if it doesn’t remotely replace the real thing – face to face interaction. My primary friendship group—largely fellow University alumni & their partners—saw our dynamic improve once we began finding a way to come together in the flesh again.

Social media has driven me, however, toward connection with people who understand, and appreciate, my interests. I fostered an entire X-Files fan community around a podcast online that still thrives five years on. I became involved in more than one Star Trek community, and still am connected to many podcasters and writers who I met through that forum. I have links now with film writers, novelists, other podcasters and more. Many of these people I will never know on any other forum, and certainly not in person. Few I can count as ‘friends’, as I define the term. Some I simply admire as people, or churn out content I find entertaining, while others I don’t have a great deal of interaction with, if at all.

Not every Twitter relationship is reciprocal, which is where it differs from Facebook in many ways. That’s based heavily on connected profiles and common interest groups, whereas on Twitter people push out content and engage with users who follow them, or see a retweet from someone else. Said engagements can often be brief and fleeing. Twitter, in some sense however, feels more controllable. You can choose who to follow or engage with, with less social stigma if you stop doing so, unlike on Facebook where the idea of ‘unfollowing’ someone remains the equivalent of socially shunning them. Mind you, I admittedly use a program which allows me to see who unfollows me on Twitter, and if I see my follower count drop, I will check it. If it’s someone I’m following who I feel is on an equivalent level, I’ll probably stop following them too. So perhaps I am seeking some level of reciprocity?

The Social Dilemma has, at least, started the process of me asking questions about how I use social media and, frankly, how willing I am to be used by it. Without pulling the plug, there are few options available now, given how integral advertising and data mining have become to every single network, to ameliorate the effect social media has on us. The film talks about how Big Tech has programmed their software to act as dopamine to keep us hooked, keep us chasing the next hit, which will hopefully lead to ad impressions that fuel the coffers of company shareholders.

One of the many sobering, on-screen statistics recounts how only two industries term people as users: software and drug dealers. Watching this, as abhorrent as I found much of this information that often contextualised fragments of knowledge I had picked up over the years, I knew that I would remain party to it. I’m not ready to detach. I, naively and falsely, believe I can in some small way remain in control of what I digest and make it work for me. This is part of my addiction and, now, my dilemma. For the long term state of our mental health, we should all probably at some point pull away. Some often do, citing difficulty in coping with the impressions and informations and fights and reinforcements of everything they believe or find difficult in life. I can’t blame them. But these people, almost always, end up coming back. Few of us can resist.

What worries me going forward is what stands as the key anxiety within The Social Dilemma: the fragmentation of objective truth which is, rapidly, leading to its complete erosion. “If we can’t find a way to agree on what’s true… we’re toast” Harris puts it, and he’s surely right. Every day we are assailed by another lie from Donald Trump or Boris Johnson or Jair Bolsonaro, or another lurking conspiracy theory growing traction, or another polarised debate between Democrats and Republicans or Remainers and Brexiteers.

We are seeing more mass protests and literal street fighting than I certainly have ever known in my almost forty years of life. We are seeing more democratic structures challenged or be completely demolished, whether it’s Britain planning to flout international law to try and negate a Brexit deal they signed so they could win an election, or the Chinese crushing dissent in a Hong Kong that refuses to buy into their strange hybrid of communist-capitalism as part of their vision for a Chinese century. The list goes on. I haven’t even mentioned the colossal problem of climate change denial which is seeing us literally watch the planet burn while we move further and further away from cooling it. Madness appears to have consumed us and, as many of the statistics in The Social Dilemma show, Big Tech and their networks are a significant causal factor in the last decade for our global disquiet.

Do I know what to believe? I’m a liberal (perhaps not in the classic sense), progressive voter who feels equal rights should be for everyone, yet I also believe that capitalism works as a basis for democratic security. I’m left wing but I don’t want state planning, yet I do want state support, free healthcare as a human right, and for the super wealthy to be heavily regulated. I believe, truly, that I am one of the enlightened, and those who don’t want those things listed above are less so. They are part of the problem right now, not the solution. What worries me is that social media, and the exposure I’ve had to the subjective truth The Social Dilemma explains we are all subject to, has warped my ability to see clearly.

Someone I know and respect is planning to vote for Trump. They have their reasons, but I am so far from understanding them, and so close to feeling repulsed on a moral level about that person’s actions, I have wondered if I can even connect with them anymore at times. That’s dangerous. That makes me no better than the fanatics who refuse to listen to other points of view. How can we work as a global community when we place a moral and personal judgement on someone for what they believe, rather than attempting to understand why they believe what they do? We can’t. And social media doesn’t want us to. Big Tech knows that strife, bad news—fake news—sells to a much greater degree than cold, boring, objective truth. So in that sense, I really do have no control. I really am feeding the machine.

The Social Dilemma might not lead you to ask these questions of yourself. You may just roll your eyes at another doom-saying prediction of our ever evolving dystopia. But if it doesn’t leave you thinking, as it has me, at least about how that black box you run your life on in your hand affects you, I’ll be surprised. I don’t yet know what it means for me.

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