“So we’ve created an entire global generation of people who were raised within a context where the very meaning of communication, the very meaning of culture, is manipulation.”
Hopefully you “like” Screenfish’s Facebook page and follow us on Twitter and Instagram. But keep in mind that each of those actions tells the world a little bit about you. And those various platforms will use that (and all the other info they’ve collected about you) to allow others to try to manipulate you. In The Social Dilemma, documentarian Jeff Orlowski takes us on a tour of how those social media platforms shape and manipulate us as individuals, and as a society.
The film is filled with commentators who have stepped away from important positions in social media companies, many for ethical reasons. They have first hand knowledge of the hows and whys of social media. One, a former Twitter executive, tells us: “What I want people to know is that everything they’re doing on line is being watched, is being tracked, is being measured. Every single action you take is carefully monitored and recorded. Exactly what image you look at, and for how long you look at it. Yeah, seriously, for how long you look at it.” These people go on to explain how all that information is monetized (one of the people we hear from is the former director of monetization at Facebook), and how others can use that information to target you with ideas (not limited to ads) that may shape your life in many ways.
The film isn’t a completely dark picture of the internet. Those who worked in the industry early on got into the work with visions of the good that could come from it. As one points out, it has allowed families to be reunited, organ donors have been found. It has literally saved lives. But that comes with a price. As one of the commentators tells us, social media are both utopian and dystopian simultaneously.
Many people may worry about the extent to which social media have filled the world—especially when parents think about how much screen time they should allow their children. Some think the way we connect with social media has destroyed the personal connections we had when it was face to face. That has become a problem for many. Even those who speak in this film note their own struggles with online addictions that they have had to deal with—and they invented some of these things.
That tendency to be tied to our screens is only an aspect of the real problem, which is how that opens us up to manipulation by business, political, and perhaps even immoral actors. They can tailor what they say or show to whom. It makes it very easy to spread disinformation and fake news more rapidly than real information can be shared. At the heart of the problem are questions about truth—including if there can be any real truth in this “information age”. (What an irony that the more information we have available, the harder it is to find the truth.) I like a reference in the film to the Peter Weir film, The Truman Show. Each of us is unaware of the people watching us and shaping what we think is reality.
While all the commentators are interesting, the one who got my attention was Tristan Harris, who worked as the Google Design Ethicist (who knew such a thing existed) before starting a non-profit to deal with the ethics of this “attention economy”. In a presentation he gives during the film, he offers this warning: “We’re all looking out for the moment when technology will overwhelm human strength and intelligence. When is it going to cross the singularity, replace our jobs, be smarter than humans? But there is a much earlier moment when the technology exceeds and overwhelms human weaknesses. This point being crossed is at the root of addiction, polarization, radicalization, outrage-ification, vanity-ification, the entire thing. This is overpowering human nature, and this is checkmate for humanity.”
That really takes this examination of the role of social media into the realm of the spiritual (although that is not the kind of language these people use). One of the big spiritual questions they don’t quite ask (but would be of great importance) is the role of free will and determinism in this process. Do we have choice in this, or does the manipulation of social media have control of us?
Another question of import is whether the genie can be put back in the bottle. That is a question that these people struggle with a bit at the end. Some may doubt it can be done without real regulation, which is difficult to bring about after the fact. The film’s message is not to focus on the “can it be done” question, but to make the point that we must regain that control.
The Social Dilemma shows on Netflix. For more information go to Netflix.com/TheSocialDilemma.
Photos courtesy of Netflix.