If you heard that more than 89 million households worldwide had watched a particular film on Netflix during the first week after its release, you’d think something monumental was occurring, wouldn’t you?
The Social Dilemma, a documentary-drama about the role of technology in our lives, garnered all those viewers.
If you have access to Netflix, I strongly recommend The Social Dilemma. It’s a powerful film (some say sensationalistic and misleading) that begins with a quotation from Sophocles:
“Nothing vast enters the world of mortals without a curse.”
I also watched a webinar inspired by both the film and efforts to use it to come to grips with the impact it describes. I’ve concluded that even if the film is somewhat sensational, it has uncovered areas that critically need examination, discussion, and action.
This is a time when both nationally and internationally, we’re facing issues that require at least a good majority of us to operate with the same basic factual evidence on big issues: the continuation of our democracy, climate change, the pandemic are examples of these essentials.
I’m not advocating “group-think”; disagreement based on facts is always invaluable—never more so than when we are pondering these huge issues with vast ramifications.
I’m talking about what one webinar participant described as a “shared reality.” We can’t really approach our big problems without it.
Yet on a daily basis, we are confronted with technology that’s designed to atomize us—to cater to our individual wants, perceptions, and beliefs. We are much more financially valuable to these social media companies apart, as discrete individuals, than we would be together.
And so the social media companies exaggerate our separateness by providing us with tailor-made “news,” events, products.
A stark example in the film is what happens when two individuals in different places search Google for “climate change.” One may be referred to a list of resources claiming it’s a hoax. The other may receive studies and recommendations about how to combat it.
When you consider other technological advances, such as the telephone, you see the emphasis on connectivity. That was one of the great gifts of these tech companies at the outset—and it still is.
One of the interviewees in the film said he focused on such positives as locating organ donors and reuniting families. But then he—and others in the film—became aware of the down side: the terrible destruction wrought by social media to both individuals—especially young people—and society, worldwide.
The riveting fact about these revelations is that The Social Dilemma, directed by filmmaker Jeff Orlowski after hearing the concerns of his techie friends, features several of the people who created those very algorithms and systems: people who worked at Google, Facebook, and Twitter.
Over the past decade, they’ve become deeply regretful of the results of their work and are now seeking ways to redress the wrongs they’ve unleashed.
The Social Dilemma covers the ways the algorithms and systems on social media are designed to appeal to our subconscious needs, thereby directing our thinking.
The film’s participants trace all the harm to the monetizing model these companies employ: using these increasingly sophisticated algorithms, they learn all they can about us—essentially, to capture our attention and hold it for the benefit of the advertisers who reimburse them.
For a bit of pleasure, we give up a great deal—unknowingly. In fact, more than one of the film’s interviewees suggested that the algorithms are even getting away from their own designers.
As bloggers, we are voracious online communicators. We all use emails. Many of us are also users of social media—Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube. We are well aware of the benefits of these social networks. We are probably also aware to varying degrees of their drawbacks.
The negatives to us personally include encouraging our individual obsessiveness to check sites whenever notified of some activity—and to check our own “likes” specifically—a repetitive activity that purportedly affects our attention spans. (I found there’s no research to date indicating a permanent effect, but I do know that I’m better off since I removed from my phone the beep notifications that were clearly distracting me.)
The negatives also include forcing us to eyeball ads for goods and services that we may have briefly, perhaps even accidentally, touched on in an online search, but are now sure we can’t live without. (I pay no attention to the ads, so I guess that one’s lost on me.)
That’s just a sampling.
The film reveals the extent to which our brains are mere putty being manipulated by these giant companies as marketing tools for the advertisers that have fed their phenomenal growth.
Facebook As a Tool for War?
Then there’s the vast societal harm due to the alarming proliferation of sites bearing blatant misinformation, conspiracy theories, and hate mongering. Social media has had an enormous impact on our personal and societal lives worldwide—exacerbating our differences by directing us to messages tailor-made to our preconceived notions and beliefs.
The film shows violence in various countries, such as the Philippines, that was promoted via messages directed by Facebook to individuals who, Facebook’s algorithms told them, were susceptible to specific viewpoints.
It reveals the dark implications of a technology run wild that it suggests is threatening our democracy, the world’s economic stability, and our very existence.
Not surprisingly, Facebook responded with a detailed rebuttal, which you can find here. “You are not the product,” it seeks to reassure us, insisting that it’s made many changes since the film’s interviewees worked there. (Facebook and others have made some changes of late to identify blatant misinformation on their sites.)
But while we’re discussing Facebook, I’ll note that I also just came across an Atlantic article titled “Facebook Is a Doomsday Machine,” which says much of what The Social Dilemma says about Facebook and the others (without mentioning the film).
Impact on Young People?
Great concern in the film is placed on the effect on young people. Social media became prominent around 2010. Generation Z, one of the speakers points out, began using social media in middle school.
These kids have shown increasing incidence of depression, opioid addiction, self-harm, suicides, and other dysfunction as they measure themselves by their appearances compared to that of their peers and assess their online likability.
Is there a quid pro quo with all the dysfunction? This has also been a time of great economic and social instability. So I’m not sure how much social media has contributed, but I do know that many kids’ lives are consumed by these social networks.
The Mayo Clinic, after citing the positives involved in teen social media use, observes that
“social media use can also negatively affect teens, distracting them, disrupting their sleep, and exposing them to bullying, rumor spreading, unrealistic views of other people’s lives and peer pressure.”
What Can Be Done? The Beginning of a Movement for Change
Suppose there were a movement designed to teach us how to be alert to the manipulation instead of surrendering to it, and to build a community consisting of those who want to see our technological advances help us find our commonality and work and live together in peace?
Picture a society that values each individual, seeks to help us agree upon facts so that we can work toward solutions to the problems of economic and racial inequality, protect our planet, and replace anger with compassion. Do you think a movement to create such a society is viable? Would you be interested in joining?
I figure though it may sound far-fetched, it’s worth a try. I am now a cardless-carrying member of the Center for Humane Technology, whose mission “is to drive a comprehensive shift toward human technology that supports our well-being, democracy, and shared information environment.“
There’s no membership fee and no request for a commitment to join. You just sign up. The website provides a trailer for The Social Dilemma and a podcast that I haven’t yet listened to.
I learned about it by watching the webinar I mentioned earlier: “Beyond the Dilemma: Unpacking Solutions to The Social Dilemma.” The webinar featured two of these techies-turned-community (world) organizers—Tristan Harris and Randima (Randy) Fernando—who are founders of the Center.
Fernando introduced the webinar by observing that when he and his colleagues saw the remarkable response to the film, they envisioned the beginnings of a worldwide movement devoted to reversing what I think of as the Frankenstein’s monster they created with this powerful technology—and reshaping it for societal good.
Fernando stressed that technology is never neutral. He and his colleagues see this movement as narrowing the gap between the powerful and marginal, helping build a “shared truth,” and helping to prepare us to deal with unforeseen side effects of tech innovations.
That shared truth, though worthy and essential, seems elusive to me now, but certainly has its appeal.
Part of the effort involves regulating technology’s societal harms while still allowing its financial functioning in a healthier world—via a different business model that doesn’t sell us to advertisers as its product.
Harris pointed to what may be a realistic alternate monetization approach: There are utility companies that used to make higher profits whenever we left more of our lights on for longer periods. But then they switched their model and charged a specified amount.
Those users who stayed within that limit saved money. Those who exceeded it had to pay for the excess usage. BUT the surplus funds were put into a pool that was invested in solar and wind energy, thereby benefiting both the forward-looking companies and the broader society.
Can what works for a public utility be feasible in the tech world? I wonder.
The Necessity of Awareness
Harris and Fernando appeared on the webiner with Trudy Goodman, PhD, founder of Insight LA, a California meditation center that organized the webinar, and Jack Kornfield, PhD, an author and leading meditation teacher who trained as a Buddhist monk in Thailand, India, and elsewhere.
I found the webinar to be an ideal pairing of people and perspectives. Fernando and Harris spoke about the technology and their post-documentary efforts.
Goodman and Kornfield provided the messages for a critical skill we’ll all need as a first step toward comprehending the technology’s impact on our lives: heightened awareness.
If we are to appreciate the extent to which we’re being manipulated, we must be able to step outside ourselves and view our role in the larger picture.
Kornfield praised the film for providing an “understanding of how the system structurally went out of control. We have enormous creative capacities, but they’re not always connected to our hearts, values, and what really matters.”
He compared our current situation to Henry Ford’s inventing the automobile, giving people mobility, creating jobs, heightening connectivity.
But without anyone’s considering the consequences, next came traffic jams, where everyone was just stuck (and, I note, increasing use of fossil fuel to the detriment of our environment).
To Kornfield, the film is a conversation starter to help people understand “we’re being led.” Goodman said the documentary-drama fueled her rebelliousness because it showed her vulnerability in having less free choice in decision-making than she’d thought.
An Insider Takes Us Inside
Harris has been called the conscience of Silicon Valley because he began raising questions about the societal harms years ago. Working at Google, he asked why no one was involved in making Gmail less addictive.
He said in the film that “about 50 designers—25- to 35-year-old white guys—had an impact on 2 billion people.” We have a moral responsibility at Google to solve this problem, he insisted then. But that didn’t happen.
He seems to be well versed in just about everything. In the webinar, he dropped in a reference to biologist EO Wilson’s view: we have paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like accelerating technologies.
Harris pointed out that social media have led us to conflate what’s good and true with what’s popular. We’re rewarded when what we say goes viral, reaching tens of millions of people.
But the quote, idea, or observation that achieves that status is invariably what’s black or white, certain rather than uncertain, attacking the other side as wrong rather than starting a conversation and listening.
He likened us to the yellow journalists who stressed sensationalism instead of facts, and in the late 1800s, actually led the US into war with Spain over Cuba and the Philippines. In the world of social media, more followers translates into fame and money (and ego gratification).
Since the social media algorithms are so closely targeted to each of us, Harris suggests a “reality swap”: exchanging phones—even with someone close to you—and scrolling through that person’s feeds.
You’ll get a different hyperreality (the consciousness’s inability to discern reality from a simulation of it.) You can then ask yourself: “How would I be seeing the world if these were the messages I was receiving?” The climate change Google search mentioned in the film is a prime example.
According to Harris, the challenge is that our short term memory can hold about 7 items (+/-2) before we feel overloaded. And the “rewards” of more likes, etc, fuel the dopamine in our brains, which can be addictive. Add to those cerebral tendencies the one for “confirmation bias” in which fake news travels 6 times faster than other information.
The result is that technology knows more about our own weaknesses than we do. And all that opens us up to exploitation by those using the technology for profit or their own political or even nefarious ends.
Both Harris and Fernando said we have to envision the world we want. Our goal, Harris stressed, is to follow Wayne Gretzky’s guidance: You skate to where the puck is going to be.
To continue as we’re going, he believes, is unsustainable. If we can’t agree on facts and reality, we can’t get beyond our current dilemma and achieve any progress toward a viable world.
The Way Out?
I think it’s fair to sum up this effort as Conversation…Education…Regulation…Shared Problem-solving.
We must try to diagnose the influences and how they affect us. If we are aware that infinite new messages are exploiting the biases in our brains, we can escape our bubbles.
Kornfield stressed that the Buddha asked,
“‘Why do we need society?’ If people come together with respect and care for one another, society will prosper and not decline. Buddhists follow precepts of not stealing, not killing, and not speaking what’s hurtful. We have laws for the first two, but we don’t have a consensus on speech. To get beyond the echo chambers of false truth, we need to do this together.”
As all four participants are meditators, they agreed that mindfulness is a key aspect of our awareness and our finding the path forward.
The best news: We’re the only species trapped in our own society that has the capacity to see that we’re being hijacked by our own weaknesses.
Harris said he’s had conversations with people in the Biden administration who are interested in the efforts espoused by the Center for Humane Technology.
Can they be implemented?
He quoted President Lyndon Johnson: “Here’s something we really need to do. This is really important. Now make me do it.”
What do you think? This technology is so ingrained in us now that even cutting back seems difficult. Some of the techies in the film described limiting their personal use (and their children’s) or leaving these social media altogether.
Do you see the need to reduce your dependence on them generally and on your smartphone and all it brings you, particularly? Are you tempted to try? And do you find the arguments about the extent of the harms persuasive? And the proposed movement to redress them feasible?
Lots of questions, I know, but this is a topic that affects us all. I’m eager to hear your thoughts.