Is social media a blessing or a curse? Can we control it or is it controlling us now?
The Social Dilemma is a fearsome, bleak documentary by director Jeff Orlowski that combines facts with fictive scenarios in 93 minutes to produce a damning critique of social media and society. It verbalizes vague terrors about surveillance and consumerism that have plagued us since the boom of the digital age. It comes with testimonies from developers and engineers of the World Wide Web; men and women who saw their utopian visions warping into dystopia in front of their very eyes.
There’s much discourse already when it comes to the power of social media; there’s a lot to be said about its necessity and its flip-side. It has been instrumental in countless changes that have affected not only personal lives but global economy and politics. Google has brought information to our finger tips; never before in our entire existence had individuals have access to so much data at once.
Twitter, Facebook and Instagram have all morphed from being platforms of self-expression and connectivity to battlegrounds where some of the world’s most important and time-sensitive case are argued. These platforms have the power to start or quell revolutions, topple or install governments and lead the charge for or against the century’s most pressing concern – climate change.
Given that these digital entities were never designed to become tipping scales in the battle of survival for the planet, how did we get here and what does it all mean?
According to Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google and co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology, social media is both a curse and cure simultaneously. It has managed to reveal the best and the worst the world has to offer but if collective will is not harnessed to advocate for less capitalistic and more humane digital spaces, the very fabric of our society will implode.
The documentary is a sinister watch but perhaps the most important movie that you will take time out for in the entire year. It helps put not only our individual addiction to our devices in perspective but also charts how our own data and biases are used against us. A former Google and Facebook engineer, Justin Rosenstein points out that Facebook’s ‘like’ button was designed to be a tool for spreading “positivity and love,” not the behavioral tracking device or validating mechanism it has become.
Several veterans of Silicon Valley weigh in with tales of good intentions from the early days of social media (prior to its own vastness) even as they paint a bleak picture of the current situation. “If the product is free, you’re the product,” Harris reveals. While we are aware that out data is mined and then sold, the technical details of the transaction and the extent of it is beyond the lay man’s imagination.
Several veterans of Silicon Valley weigh in with tales of good intentions from the early days of social media (prior to its own vastness) even as they paint a bleak picture of the current situation. “If the product is free, you’re the product,” Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google and co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology reveals
The extensive use of predictive AI is employed to manipulate the user for maximum attention extraction; those YouTube rabbit holes are designed to keep you clicking, as is your newsfeed. Your timeline is curated to become an echo-chamber for your preferred predilections, which basically means that if you’re bent towards conspiracy theories or right wing politics, social media will actively radicalize you even further. That’s not because your political leaning is correct or even matters to the puppeteers behind the screens but because validating your view point will increase your dependency on the platform even further.
Professor Soshana Zuboff, an American author, Harvard professor, social psychologist, philosopher and scholar, believes that these data markets need to be outlawed. Others believe that unless data mining is taxed, the much needed reform will be hard to enforce.
There is however, critique of the critique itself. While social media platforms such as Facebook have been instrumental in helping spread misinformation and extremist politic messages, it does overlook the fact that countless other platforms that aren’t monetized also play a major role in spreading ‘false news’ and radicalizing the youth.
WhatsApp, private and encrypted, has been the driving force behind helping disseminate propaganda. Websites like 4chan.com are known for promoting violence and there other dark recesses of the web where there is little regulation have played their role in popularizing dangerous commentary.
Jaron Lanier, a computer scientist, VR pioneer and author, states that the stakes for reform could not be higher. “If we go down the status quo, for let’s say another 20 years, we probably destroy our civilization through willful ignorance … fail to meet the challenge of climate change … degrade the world’s democracies so they fall into some type of autocratic dysfunction … ruin the global economy. We probably don’t survive. I really view it as existential.”
In conclusion, the experts who appear on screen all have common parting advice – leave your phone alone, for as long as you can. Keep digital devices away from children (the commentary of monetizing YouTube for Kids is eye-opening) and remember to not believe everything you see or read on the internet.