‘The Social Dilemma’ Will Freak You Out—But There’s More to the Story

9 mins read

Is social media ruining the world?

Dramatic political polarization. Rising nervousness and melancholy. An uptick in teen suicide charges. Misinformation that spreads like wildfire.

The frequent denominator of all these phenomena is that they’re fueled partially by our seemingly innocuous participation in digital social networking. But how can easy acts like sharing pictures and articles, studying the information, and connecting with associates have such damaging penalties?

These are the questions explored in the new Netflix docu-drama The Social Dilemma. Directed by Jeff Orlowski, it options a number of former Big Tech workers talking out towards the merchandise they as soon as upon a time helped construct. Their reflections are interspersed with scenes from a household whose two youngest kids are battling social media dependancy and its uncomfortable side effects. There are additionally information clips from the final a number of years the place reporters decry the expertise and report on a few of its nefarious impacts.

Tristan Harris, a former Google design ethicist who co-founded the Center for Humane Technology (CHT) and has turn into a crusader for ethical tech, is a central determine in the film. “When you look around you it feels like the world is going crazy,” he says close to the starting. “You have to ask yourself, is this normal? Or have we all fallen under some kind of spell?”

Also featured are Aza Raskin, who co-founded CHT with Harris, Justin Rosenstein, who co-founded Asana and is credited with having created Facebook’s “like” button, former Pinterest president Tim Kendall, and author and digital actuality pioneer Jaron Lanier. They and different specialists speak about the means social media will get individuals “hooked” by exploiting the mind’s dopamine response and utilizing machine studying algorithms to serve up the custom-made content material almost definitely to maintain every particular person scrolling/watching/clicking.

The film veers into territory explored by its 2019 predecessor The Great Hackwhich dove into the Cambridge Analytica scandal and detailed how psychometric profiles of Facebook customers helped manipulate their political leanings—by having its specialists speak about the billions of data factors that tech corporations are always gathering about us. “Every single action you take is carefully monitored and recorded,” says Jeff Siebert, a former exec at Twitter. The intelligence gleaned from these actions is then used along side our personal psychological weaknesses to get us to watch extra movies, share extra content material, see extra advertisements, and proceed driving Big Tech’s money-making engine.

“It’s the gradual, slight, imperceptible change in your own behavior and perception that is the product,” says Lanier. “That’s the only thing there is for them to make money from: changing what you do, how you think, who you are.” The elusive “they” that Lanier and different ex-techies refer to is personified in the movie by three t-shirt clad engineers working tirelessly in a management room to maintain peoples’ consideration on their telephones in any respect prices.

Computer processing energy, a former Nvidia product supervisor factors out, has elevated exponentially simply in the final 20 years; however in the meantime, the human mind hasn’t developed past the identical capability it’s had for a whole lot of years. The level of this comparability appears to be that if we’re in a people vs. computer systems showdown, we people haven’t bought a combating probability.

But are we in a people vs. computer systems showdown? Are the corporations behind our screens actually so insidious as the evil management room engineers indicate, aiming to flip us all into senseless robots who’re slaves to our lizard-brain impulses? Even if our mind chemistry is being exploited by the design of instruments like Facebook and YouTube, doesn’t private accountability kick in sooner or later?

The Social Dilemma is a robust, well-made movie that exposes social media’s ills in a uncooked and speedy means. It’s a much-needed name for presidency regulation and for an actionable moral reckoning inside the tech business itself.

But it overdramatizes Big Tech’s intent—these are, in spite of everything, for-profit corporations who’ve created demand-driven merchandise—and under-credits social media customers. Yes, we fall prey to our innate want for connection and approval, and we’ll at all times have a tendency to turn into addicted to issues that make us really feel good. But we’re nonetheless answerable for and in charge of our personal decisions.

What we’re seeing with social media proper now could be a cycle that’s frequent with new applied sciences. For the first few years of social media’s existence, we thought it was the smartest thing since sliced bread. Now it’s on a nosedive to the different finish of the spectrum—we’re condemning it and specializing in its ills and unintended penalties. The subsequent part is to discover some form of stability, almost definitely by way of changes in design and, probably, regulation.

“The way the technology works is not a law of physics. It’s not set in stone. These are choices that human beings like myself have been making, and human beings can change those technologies,” says Rosenstein.

The problem with social media is that it’s going to be lots trickier to repair than, say, including seatbelts and air baggage to automobiles. The sheer dimension and attain of those instruments, and the means during which they overlap with problems with freedom of speech and privateness—not to point out how they’ve modified the means people work together—means it is going to probably take loads of trial and error to come out with instruments that really feel good for us to use with out being addicting, give us solely true, unbiased data in a means that’s partaking with out preying on our feelings, and permit us to share content material and experiences whereas stopping misinformation and hate speech.

In the most up-to-date episode of his podcast Making Sense, Sam Harris talks to Tristan Harris about the film and its implications. Tristan says, “While we’ve all been looking out for the moment when AI would overwhelm human strengths—when would we get the Singularity, when would AI take our jobs, when would it be smarter than humans—we missed this much much earlier point when technology didn’t overwhelm human strengths, but it undermined human weaknesses.”

It’s up to tech corporations to re-design their merchandise in additional moral methods to cease exploiting our weaknesses. But it’s up to us to demand that they achieve this, pay attention to these weaknesses, and resist changing into cogs in the machine.

Image Credit: Rob Hampson on Unsplash

By Vanessa Bates Ramirez

This article originally appeared on Singularity Hub, a publication of Singularity University.


Charlene is a Bay Area journalist who hails from the small community of Fresno. Drawing from her experience writing for her college paper, Charlene continues to advocate for free press and local journalism. She also volunteers in all the beach cleanups she can because she loves the water.