While technological innovation has altered society and human psychology for centuries, never before has a revolution affected so many people in such a short time. Never before have a handful of Silicon Valley programmers had the power to alter the very fabric of society with a few lines of code. Although these programmers started their innovations innocently with an eye on a future of technological prosperity, in reality the corporations have corrupted their original dream by implementing business practices that have detrimental effects on the human psyche. 2020 Netflix documentary by Jeff Orlowski The social dilemma therefore explains why we need to find a solution to the problem of manipulative, addictive, user-data driven technology before the world is engulfed in the flames of polarization, denial of truth, dramatically increasing rates of self-harm and suicide, mass loneliness, and surveillance capitalism.
Is the world really on a fast track to an apocalypse, or are we just solving the (albeit massive) problems of a childish and largely unregulated domain? Given that the introduction of any radically new product has inevitably invited a period of unrestricted chaos and chaotic usage before regulation by authorities, can we not acknowledge that social media has been available to the public for just over of a decade and are, as such, only in their first stage of development? For example, following the introduction of the automobile in the late 1880s and 1890s, the road was a dangerous and bloody place. Accidents abounded, many died, and traffic laws were virtually non-existent. Fast forward to today, and today’s mix of a cohesive web of laws, traffic lights and new vehicle safety features means that today’s streets are a far cry from what they were. Why should social media be any different?
Tristan Harris, former design ethicist at Google, became co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology, and Jaron Lanier, founding father of virtual reality, the whistleblowers behind The social dilemma— have been strong advocates for such regulation of social media. They have always sought to expose the evils of unchecked Big Tech industries and try them in the court of public conscience. With the best interests of humanity at heart, they strive to fight to ensure that the technology we invent is on our side. These whistleblowers echo Upton Sinclair’s expose of meat industry practices in the early 20th century, or Edward Snowden’s more recent leak of the NSA’s surveillance program.
However, we must be careful to avoid over-optimism; technology is integrating into society at an unprecedented rate, often with detrimental consequences. The film’s arguments floated in the ether for a few years (largely thanks to the efforts of Harris and others like Chamath Palihapitiya, Aza Raskin and Shoshana Zuboff), but never before have the pitfalls of the current social media system been delivered so succinctly, dramatically and urgently to such a wide audience.
In one of the film’s most disappointing moments, popular social psychologist and author Jonathan Haidt shared that rates of suicide and self-harm among tween and teenage girls have skyrocketed since 2009, when social media was made available for the first time on mobile. Among adolescent girls, the rate of non-fatal self-harm increased by 62%; for tweens, 189 percent. Over the past decade, suicide rates for these groups have increased by 70% and 151% respectively. These are startling numbers and it’s hard to argue with the claim that social media is the primary cause of these spikes.
The film is not limited to statistics or abstract opinions. It also depicts a family’s struggle to balance the use of technology with real-world relationships. This subplot grounds the issues facing society in a concrete microcosm that exemplifies a relatable example of tech addiction, even if it comes across as a bit melodramatic and cheesy. In a revealing but unintentionally comical scene from this story, a preteen girl (Sophia Hammons), her father (Chris Grundy) and her brother (Skyler Gisondo) are asked by her mother (Barbara Gehring) to lock their phones in a container during dinner. . Minutes into the meal, the girl gets up, disappears out of frame, and seconds later dons a hammer and glasses in the background. (We see that his attention span is ironically at least long enough to listen to his science teacher’s lectures on lab safety, which is one of the film’s few bright spots). She ends up breaking the container and retrieving her phone, but in doing so, she breaks her brother’s screen.
The broken screen kicks off the rest of the story arc. The mother tells her son that if he can go a week without his phone, she will buy him a replacement screen. Three days a week, however, he finds out over the phone that his ex-girlfriend is in a new relationship. Despising his mother’s promise, he finds himself sucked down an all-too-familiar YouTube rabbit hole focused on a fictional political movement called “Extreme Center,” a satirical take on the levels of absurdity and confirmation bias that permeate extremist politics. today.
As he delves deeper into the political movement, he begins to forget about his connections and ends up attending an Extreme Center rally, where he and his Luddite older sister (Kara Hayward) are arrested.
The mix of dramatic narrative, stylized animation, and a barrage of competing opinions from relevant experts in their fields serves to make the film engaging, informative, and terrifying all at once. The soundtrack, reminiscent of the elongated and disturbing tones of the 2010s bearing the same name The social network also serves to create a feeling of opaque unease, and is therefore the perfect choice for this kind of documentary.
The rhetorical choices go awry, however, when filmmakers exaggerate the scale of certain issues and assign too much blame to Big Tech. For example, the teenager is often portrayed as a lifeless doll whose attention is diverted from site to site by a trio of corporate puppeteers. While it’s understandable that the filmmakers hyperbole its plight, their overdramatization is a symptom of one of the film’s few ideological problems: it blames Big Tech too much and not enough of the parents and children themselves.
The film also sometimes imposes a singular point of view problem on the audience, which can backfire. At one point, Roger McNamee, one of Facebook’s early investors, said, “If you want to control the people of your country, there’s never been a tool as effective as Facebook.” This statement seems fundamentally wrong. Yes, Facebook can be an incredibly damaging tool, which has been used to disrupt democracies and fuel conspiracy theories, but it can also liberate people and expose them to vast expanses of previously unknown information.
So should we all lose our minds to our collective exploitation by faceless corporations and quit social media as soon as possible? No, we shouldn’t (and certainly won’t). What we should do, however, is become more attentive consumers and continue to criticize the way companies manipulate their customers. The social dilemma is a prime example of this criticism, as it paints a heartbreaking picture of the current path we find ourselves on due to a lack of large-scale reform. However, it does not describe the long-term future of humanity, because with sustained efforts for change, this dilemma can be reversed. A few lines of code from a humanist programmer may one day trigger a new revolution, the one that will get us out of this mess into a technological utopia.