Netflix’s recent documentary “The Social Dilemma” argues that when it comes to social media, we have let the proverbial genie out of the bottle. Individuals, especially young people, are addicted to a device that profits from selling our attention?—?resulting in disaster for our health and relationships, but wads of cash for Silicon Valley executives. Whistle-blowers from companies such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest want you to know what’s being done to you, and maybe suggest a few ideas of what you can do to stop it.
Tristan Harris, former Google designer and now the president of the Center for Humane Technology, tells the story of his own realization of the harmful consequences of the for-profit addiction coming from his own company.
“I felt personally addicted to email and I found it fascinating there was no one at Gmail working on making it less addictive,” he says in the documentary.
The power exerted over individuals through their devices is unprecedented, Harris believes.
“Two billion people will have thoughts that they didn’t intend to have because a designer at Google said this is how notifications work on that screen you wake up to in the morning,” he said.
Harris believes the responsibility to fix that problem rests on Google itself. But to his dismay, he found during his time at Google that any enthusiasm for such work was fruitless and short-lived.
“The Social Dilemma” illustrates the points made by the interviewees by following the imaginary life of a typical American family?—?especially the social media addiction plaguing the youngest son and daughter. The parents and oldest sister observe their family members disappear into the world of clicks, likes, and hashtags.
According to Jeff Seibert, a former Twitter executive, one of the biggest methods of maximizing interaction with a screen is through the tagging feature, which the make-believe son of the family in the documentary finds impossible to resist. This jeopardizes family relationships and even dating possibilities.
“When Facebook found that feature,” Harris says, “they just dialed the hell out of that.”
Social media companies seduce us with “free” services?—?paid for with our attention, not our money. Attention, after all, is a social media giant’s greatest asset. Fundamentally, these companies succeed by diverting our attention from the real world, focusing us on a stream of simulated reality where the only facts shown are the ones that keep us scrolling.
To combat dissemination of fake news, conspiracy theories, and extremism, intellectuals, former executives, and psychologists urge these big-tech companies to censor more content. To anyone who has been banned from Twitter for “misgendering” someone, or censored on Instagram for posting pro-Trump content, the idea that more censorship is the way towards an open and civil society seems self-evidently wrong.
But not to the experts in the documentary. These companies become rich by appealing to an individual’s worst instincts. In fact, according to Renee DiResta, a technical research manager at the Stanford Internet Observatory, they are a “global assault on democracy.” Pizzagate, Russian election interference, and more conspiracy theories could all be fixed if Big Tech executives and designers simply stepped up and censored negative content, those interviewed in “The Social Dilemma” seem to argue.
No one thought the experiment could go this wrong. (Experimenters never do. Just ask Dr. Frankenstein.) Social media became toxic when well-meaning people toying with technology created addictive algorithms with minds of their own. Now those same well-meaning people are asked to solve the problem?—?using the same technology that created it.
They just need one new tool: mass censorship. But censorship used out of an abundance of good will is easily misused. It can be exerted exclusively against one side and for the other, which jeopardizes free thought and viewpoint diversity. In fact, big tech censorship is unlikely to be any more conducive to our digital flourishing than big tech algorithms. But this fact seems to never occur to those championing a solution based on censorship, or at least it doesn’t bother them enough to address it.
The documentary, while raising important questions about how much technological progress is too much progress, errs on the side of overwrought sensationalism, making some of their claims seem unbelievable. The son in the film is manipulated by three identical men, all played by Vincent Katheiser of “Mad Men,” behind computers set on sucking in the boy’s attention in exchange for a few pennies from an advertiser who may or may not have the boy’s best interest in mind. At one point one of the men asks, “Are we sure this is good for Ben?” The other two men scoff at him?—?why should they care?
The idea that we are being manipulated by senseless robots capable of a disastrous amount of ill-will in an “Inside-Out” style side-show— without the laugh lines and bright colors—should frighten us. And it does, but almost to the point of unbelievability.
“You’re making me feel like a lab rat,” an off-camera interviewer tells Sandy Parakalis, former operations manager at Facebook, after he explains how Facebook conducts experiments to make “users do what they want them to do.” Parakalis responds, “You are a lab rat, we’re all lab rats.”
Facebook, Google, Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter, and other massive tech companies can too easily and effectively run algorithms that predict and influence individual decisions and habits. The opportunities for tyranny and exploitation are ripe for the taking and, in some cases, have already been taken.
Tristan Harris believes the power of technology poses an existential threat. What’s so existential about a fun device where you can see pictures of your baby cousins, watch cat videos, and maybe check on your crush’s relationship status?
“It’s the technology’s ability to bring out the worst in society, and the worst in society being the existential threat,” Harris says.
“The Social Dilemma” may resort to sensationalism to make its points, it may ask more questions than it answers, and it may rely too much on the goodwill of social media companies wielding the weapon of censorship, but the documentary will provoke you to rethink our society’s incessant usage of our mobile phones and social networking apps.
Whether upon watching “The Social Dilemma” you are spurred to put time limits on certain apps, switch your phone to grayscale mode, turn off notifications (I can personally recommend this one), or delete the apps altogether, the film is worth watching. Because if anything, our oversaturated social media landscape is starving for any argument against incessant and all-consuming social media usage, not the opposite.