The Social Dilemma

Jeff Orlowski’s docu-drama, The Social Dilemma, paints a picture of a dystopia already upon us in which, catastrophically, we have willingly and without coercion handed over our freedoms to the technology of social media. If that seems too strong a claim, if that seems excessive, watch the film. Worse, this is happening when the executives of such companies as Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Spotify, HBO Max, Tik Tok are fully aware of what is happening. They have deliberately constructed the system this way, not only to monetize connectivity, but to put the system on automatic pilot. As the addiction to astronomical profits grows exponentially among the elite few, the addiction to a technology that reinforces existing beliefs rather than bringing them into question expands among the many.

Like the warnings on the climate crisis, the film is not just a dire warning, but a call to self-consciousness about what we are doing to our own societies, to our own children. We have become addicted, and we have allowed our children to become addicted, to a commercialized system which trades access to social media in return for providing advertisers access to our minds and hearts. Corporations are given access to our patterns of preferences so those patterns can be reinforced and manipulated. And it is being done in a feedback loop so that the more the social media is used, the more our preferences are reinforced, the more  our ability to choose is depleted and the more we become addicted.

These are not the conclusions of anti-digital neo-Luddites, but come from a dozen or so ex-executives, conscientious objectors, or, more accurately, defectors from the same companies who participated in constructing the system. These leading lights retained their critical sense and tools to diagnose the addiction. They came to some type of self-recognition of what they had done and were doing and left the behemoths of Silicon Valley. But the powerful moments in the film are not the repeated testimonies of one after another of these graduates of Stanford University, but the statistical data on what is happening to children, to teenaged addicts of the media. In the last ten years, suicide rates have climbed significantly upwards so that the pattern resembles that of the coronavirus pandemic, except there has been no flattening of the curve.

These victims are but the extreme tip of the iceberg. Vast swaths of teenagers have psychological and identity problems that can be traced directly to the addiction to social media. They suffer from depression. They suffer from anxiety. In the fictional side of this docu-drama of a typical suburban middle-class family, the two youngest children are the greatest victims. Isla (Sophia Hammons), the youngest daughter just entering her teen years, is addicted to Instagram that heightens her anxieties about her sense of self as she seeks and increasingly needs signals of approval. Ben (Skyler Gisondo), about two years older, reveals that he cannot escape his addiction as he falls deeper into the rabbit hole of fake news and a reinforcing tribal ideology.

The degree of suffering is far worse than has ever been measured among teenagers. I personally do not use any of these social media. I remain a digital troglodyte who uses the computer only as a search engine, for writing and for distribution. I do not even own a smart phone. Nevertheless, the film made me aware of how my searches, how the inputs into my mind, are being limited and effectively controlled, not to determine and dictate a specific content, but to reinforce the input of only a selective segment of information and analyses that limit my ability to undertake analyses and make choices.

The technology does not control the inputs. It is not a brainwashing system for a specific ideology. However, by the very way it works, by the very way it plays on appetites and desires far more than on cognitive curiousity, it leads to altered patterns of behaviour and an altered set of priorities and an altered system of evaluation which we do not control but that dictate the reinforcement of tribalism rather than globalism, of closed  rather than open loops and the propensity of “fake news,” yes, fake news to invade our conscious selves.

For these media are unregulated. They claim they are just platforms; they do not control the content. And they do not. Not in the sense of determining what actually goes in. Instead, the algorithms created and the apps developed automatically perform that function through the creation and reinforcement of feedback loops that increasingly limit the scope of what is available to our minds precisely at a time when the utopia of a universal world of information is readily available literally at the press of our fingertips.

Suddenly, the patterns of our politics, of demonstrations and political rallies, of both sides of the political spectrum and the ways in which political opinion is increasingly expressed, becomes clearer. And the dangers! The extreme dangers! For the essence of politics is, in the end, communication and compromise, the interchange of ideas and stratagems. However, the new system cares almost nothing about discourse and everything about capturing and reinforcing preferences, preferences of taste, preferences of ideas and even preferences for the shapes of others’ noses.

The witnesses are not disgruntled ex-executives who have been fired, but mostly very successful ones who resigned as they became more self-conscious about the system they were creating. As one ex-Vice President said, he does not allow his children to have smart phones or to access social media on their computers without supervision of the time spent and the programs accessed. This was not a declaration of paranoia, but a point about a real danger. Increasingly, we are evidently being pinned down to the log in Plato’s cave so that we see more and more images, not of what some “they” want us to see, but which we prefer to see. “They” do not have to control the content. It is sufficient if they control the reinforcement mechanisms. There is no one manning the projector behind us whom we do not know. Though this is sometimes the case, particularly in authoritarian societies, the system is more insidious. The controls and increasingly restricted boundaries are set by ourselves, We are married to the technology and the programming methods. The system is automated.

The Cassandras offering these warnings are not guys driven out of the industry because they were whistleblowers but mostly men who became rich from the industry and their contributions to the system, but who became aware that they had sold their intellectual souls to the devil. That devil was not an Other out to control us, but ourselves ready and willing to become bondsman to our own desires and preferences rather than to learn and question those biases. We are the devil. The evil is found on the tips of our own tongues that have become stuck and glued to the technology just as our tongues become attached to steel light poles when we touch those poles with our tongues when the weather is freezing.

Sophocles wrote: “Nothing vast enters the life of mortals without a curse.” This is the first quotation we see in this documentary. “When all things befall you – the blessing and the curse,” (Deuteronomy 30:1) unless you free yourself from being mesmerized by the blessings of this wonderful technology and take the curses to heart, then you will be responsible for the loss of your freedom that is already well underway.

The utopian promise of the system was married at the hip to a bed of desire that makes the system so delectable. It is also very easy. At the same time, there is a built-in a poisoned piece of fruit that devours our independence, our ability to make free choices and, instead, enslaves us within this idolatrous feedback loop of consumption, of reinforcing ideas, thoughts, beliefs and preferences. Predictive Artificial Intelligence (AI) uses “attention extraction” to keep you clicking as the harvesting of your data and identity is used to send advertisements your way that, in turn, reinforce existing propensities. Infinite scrolling and push notifications keeps readers constantly engaged. By using these techniques, our brains are not only manipulated, but reinforced by algorithms.

Look at a sample of specialists on social media and the roster of veterans responsible for developing a technology with such a cursed outcome:

  • Tristan Harris, a design ethicist at Google, co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology and the star of a film that tries to avoid the star system
  • Professor Anna Lembke from Stanford University, an addiction expert
  • Robert McNamee, an older suit-and-tie early investor in Google and/or Facebook
  • Justin Rosenstein, a former Google and Facebook engineer who introduced the “Like” button for Facebook
  • Jeff Seibert, a former Twitter executive
  • Professor Shoshana Zuboff, a specialist on social media

Orlowski and his collaborators, producer Larissa Rhodes, writer/editor Davis Coombe, writer Vickie Curtis and composer Mark Crawford, combine the cited interviews with animated cartoons, dramatic re-enactments, and the graphical awesome and fear instilling graphics on statistics that we have become so familiar with in the age of a pandemic. But the system is far more corrosive than Coca Cola, for it is an auto-immune disease. The very systems in our hearts and brains and guts used to defend ourselves are turned inward and counteract our ability to think critically and occupy a healthy space for making decisions.

We come away from the film with some memorable mantras, aphorisms and analogies:

  • “If the product is free, you’re the product.”
  • “How do you wake up from the Matrix when you don’t know you’re in the Matrix?” 
  • “We have created a system to induce dependency on digital pacifiers as the drugs of choice.”
  • “We are the silver (or gold) mine” for the really valuable data is our preferences and not what is actually chosen.
  • “Never before in history have 50 designers made decisions that would have an impact on two billion people.”

The exercise of AI attention extraction or harvesting, to use an agricultural rather than an industrial metaphor, is the modern mine’s old pick-axe and shovel or the farmer’s hand-held plough. Professor Shoshana Zuboff called what is extracted as not the metals or the foods, but more akin to the “futures” in a stock market in which these data markets are like pork bellies.

These high tech innovators and entrepreneurs, in their drive to advance a utopia, have created a Frankenstein, a monster that has been delivered into the hands of advertisers in order to generate the revenues, in order to monetize the system, and offer us such cheap and easy access to the offerings. No better seduction system has ever been created in the whole history of humanity.

Can the pervasive influence of non-regulated, or, at the very least, under-regulated social media be stopped from destroying civilization from within by the employment of government regulation and, possibly, taxes on information transfers? The documentary does not offer an answer, only a series of warnings about the disaster already upon us and the urgency of changing course. For the paradox is how do we, like Münchausen, lift ourselves by our own shoe laces never mind bootstraps when the very system designed to facilitate more informed choices becomes enslaved to a system that undermines trust, that weakens democratic practices and that puts us on a trajectory, not simply of rolling a boulder up a hill that rolls down again just before we reach the pinnacle, but puts us on a treadmill or a wheel for infinite scrolling like a pet rat who cannot even move up a hill or easily get off the exercise device.

Harold Adams Innis, the famous Canadian economist who pioneered “staples” (fur, fish, metals, lumber, wheat) theory to explicate the workings of the Canadian economy, suggested that the system of communications developed by a society shaped the culture and development of civilization. Marshall McLuhan offered us the slogan, “The medium is the message” to capture how the printing press and, later, radio and television, shaped the way we thought by the very character of the technology of communication. They were joined by a host of Cassandras, warning about the dangers of powerful advertising media that favoured immediacy over continuity and permanence. The technology threatened to undermine society as we knew it and to produce a new culture.

The current cohort of Cassandras are much scarier than Harold Innis or Marshall McLuhan. For the technology no longer just shapes how we think but allows the reinforcement of our feelings and fears by means of a feedback loop that threatens civilization itself. Technology that used to shape and undergird different expressions of civilization is now the hydrogen bomb that threatens to destroy it if pandemics and climate change do not cross the finish line first.

Yuval Noah Harari is a critic of Silicon Valley as he posits that we now live in a new epoch. [Cf. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2015), Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2017), and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (2018)] While he adopts the latest epistemological position that all traditional modes of establishing objectivity have evaporated as mist, what is left is a blank slate awaiting, not a higher form of knowledge, but new myths, new narrative, new tales we can tell ourselves. However, this opportunity emerges at the same time that Silicon Valley has produced a new system that induces us, not to choose, but to reinforce what we already preferred.

How do we escape? Tomorrow: Culture Wars and the University


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