The Social Dilemma

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Somewhere between the greenlighting of the 2013 Owen Wilson/Vince Vaughn comedy The Internship – about two washed-up Generation Xers trying to make a go of it at Google – the attitude towards the tech giants changed.

Intended as a genial comedy – and part financed by Google – it went into production skipping along on the trade winds of the zeitgeist but by the time it hit the screens the mood had shifted, the winds had veered. The end result looked propagandistic and borderline scary.

That shift is what The Social Dilemma is about, a talking-heads documentary bringing into the mainstream misgivings by former industry lynchpins about the ways in which the tech giants are changing our world. FAANG (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Google) might indeed have fangs.

The film runs briskly through the issues: how Facebook users are its product not its users – you (your data, or more precisely the plasticity of your mind) are what is being sold to advertisers; the vastness of these giants, the richest companies that ever stalked the planet; the deceitfulness of their business model (do you really understand what they are buying off you, and what they get in return for your “free” access?); how the human propensity to become addicted to stuff is being exploited by the “technologists of persuasion”; the relationship between social media and the dopamine hit – “you’ve just been tagged in a photo” or “so and so is typing…”; the massive rise in teenage self-harming since 2010 (2009 was when mobile tech was first able to really connect to social media); how the “digital pacifier” effect is draining human self-motivation; the giants’ role in the spread of hate speech (the co-ordination of the mass killing of the Rohingyas in Myanmar via Facebook); social media’s effect on politics, the benign face of which was Facebook’s “massive scale contagion” experiment to see if it could get people out to vote without them realising (it could); more precisely the manipulation of elections (Bolsonaro in Brazil). And so on.

Ranging over these topics (and others) are a well sourced, eloquent and passionate group of former tech employees – Facebook, Twitter, Google, Instagram, Pinterest, YouTube, Apple – all of whom were evangelists for the companies they used to work for but now all wonder if things haven’t run out of control.

None of them regrets drinking the Kool-Aid. Most echo the opinion of Tim Kendall, Facebook’s former director of monetisation –  it was awesome… until it wasn’t.

Most eloquent of them all is Tristan Harris, the former Google employee who founded the Center for Humane Technology and now gives talks on what’s going on and going wrong. Founding father of VR Jaron Lanier – dreadlocks rattling as he expatiates – advocates the deletion of social media accounts. Sandy Parakilas, former Facebook Operations Manager, makes the point that “truth is boring” and – updating Mark Twain’s “a lie is halfway around the world before the truth has got its pants on”* – opens the can of worms that is feed bubbles, the loss of standards of objective truth, increasing political polarisation, the destabilisation of societies and the growth of hate speech.

Sophia Hammons
Sophia Hammons as one member of a typical “connected” family. © Netflix

Which is how we ended up at Pizzagate, when a lone gunman arrived at a pizza restaurant to break up a paedophile ring operating out of the basement of a building that had no basement. Or the 5G coronavirus debacle. Fake news, we’re told, spreads six times faster than true news, according to one MIT study.

It’s a lot of ground, too much, perhaps. Personally I’d have preferred a focus on one aspect or the other, the personal or the political.

Director Jeff Orlowski and his team are also clearly worried about the number of talking heads, and so have mixed things up with dramatised breakaways to a fictional family’s daily slog through the social-media landscape. Meh.

The Social Dilemma is all a touch generic if you’re already familiar with notions like “the attention economy”, and it swerves policy solutions (such as breaking these mega companies up), the fact that it’s Netflix financed possibly playing a role here. But as a primer on our new world order this is undeniably a useful and absorbing documentary – I only checked my Facebook once while watching it.

*Fake news alert! Ironically, Mark Twain didn’t actually say that and no one is entirely sure who did, though Jonathan Swift is a candidate.

© Steve Morrissey 2020

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