Last night, at the end of my viewing “The Social Dilemma,” a documentary now streaming on Netflix that launches a howitzer at the purported addictive evils of modern social media manipulation and the technologies that enable it, up popped on my screen one of those “You might also like” blurbs that are attached to most every piece of media these days. They’re designed, of course, to keep us glued right where we are rather than take the dog for a walk or finish up the dinner dishes or read a bit of poetry from a paper book before turning off the bedside light.
“Hmmm,” I said to self, while warmly considering the walk down the hall to the bedroom—“I’ve never seen (the 2005 Bob Dylan documentary) ‘No Direction Home’…maybe I’ll just peek in on the first 10 minutes!”
Two hours later (it was now midnight), I paused it for a moment and saw on the screen that there was an hour and forty-eight minutes still to go, so I finally (and reluctantly) turned it off and trudged to bed.
Not without my laptop, though, because I’d come across a couple of Dylan songs in the movie that I’d never even heard before, and via the glories of You Tube and Google, I wanted to give them another listen and find out more about them.
Two more hours after that, I finally (and reluctantly) turned out the light, feeling still restless and curious but thinking my sleep would be completely wrecked if I persisted in perusing Dylan songs and commentary, as well as the life and death of Medgar Evers (whom Dylan sang about), and the lives and music of Peter, Paul & Mary, which I had suddenly developed an avaricious curiosity about back around 1:15 a.m. or so. Links to their work had been just below another Dylan song that they had covered, and I really wanted to see what they did with it.
Oh, evil, evil modern media and its master manipulators!
“The Social Dilemma” is rife with such ironies, combining as it does all the refined propagandistic tools of cutting edge technology with sweeping generalization, selective, one-sided argument, and “expert” talking head refugees from various social media platforms (Facebook and Google most prominently), who intone against the dire threats posed to the human psyche and civilization itself by their former employers.
As one of the expert social media apostates intones, ‘We’re all lab rats—and not in order to help cure cancer, but to look at more ads so advertisers can make more money.’
Most interviewees are filmed sitting on a stool against a stark background, nothing on the walls of a large, attractively lit cement room that would resemble a prison were it not for the fact that no prisoner would ever have such an expansive, shrewdly artistic setting in which to hold forth on the doom that awaits viewers unless they delete Facebook, Instagram and Twitter the moment they rise from their couches. (And then vow to dramatically reduce their dependence on the smartphones that had lain beside them the whole time they had been watching this screed against all that ails us.)
A darkly foreboding piano riff plays just underneath their warnings of a kind of zombie apocalypse that awaits human civilization, with us as the unwitting zombies, addicted, brainwashed and algorithmed to death as we stagger through our unconsciously beholden, violence-riddled, ultimately mindless lives.
Inserted into this tableaux of sober documentary realism is a dramatization that follows a nice suburban family rendered dysfunctional by an evil cabal of programmers dedicated to keeping the kids’ eyes fixated on their machines, tracking their Likes and other, equally inane barometers of their worth as human beings. This part is corny, but consistent with the main storyline: Mark Zuckerberg & Co. are out to squeeze every last penny and minute out of your life, and our society will soon implode unless you Just say No!
Now, let me say this: There is no doubting that social media—all media, actually—can lead to addictive and even destructive behaviors (to both self and others). And the tools of modern social media, convenient and ever-available as they have become, magnify these effects to potentially alarming levels.
None of us is immune to the power of artificial intelligence (AI) and its ability to track, catalog, and digest every single click we ever make on the truly “worldwide” web and then use that information to develop ever more acutely targeted profiles of our habits, passions and predilections. Then they sell that profile to advertisers just waiting (and paying) to get their wares in front of us.
As one of the expert social media apostates intones, “We’re all lab rats—and not in order to help cure cancer, but to look at more ads so advertisers can make more money.”
Or as many digital era commentators have repeated ad infinitum about the social media world: “You’re not the user—you’re the product.”
When one walks through a high school or college campus or beholds hordes of human beings disembarking from trains or buses—every last one of them staring at phones or walking with blank expressions, earbuds firmly in place—or sees a gaggle of young people grouped together in eerie silence, all of them phone-transfixed and mute—it’s easy to see how this might have ultimately negative effects on human sociability.
And that’s not even to mention—though “The Social Dilemma” does, with great alarm—the pernicious effects of government, or virulently anti-government, propaganda campaigns launched and sustained via social media, all designed to fan flames of hatred, intimidation and misinformation. We have seen this everywhere now, from China to Myanmar, Brazil to the good ol’ US of A. (Please leave us alone as we vote this month and next, Mr. Putin…)
The film makes clear that probably chief among the ills of social media is its algorithmic base that winds up knowing us almost better than we know ourselves, and then personalizes what it presents to us by feeding us more and more of the same—and worse.
The effect, besides getting us to buy items the targeted ads dangle in front of us, is to confirm and even intensify our biases, aligning us with others of like mind around a kind of digital campfire, going full tribal against the tribe huddled on the other side of the mountain, viewing diametrically opposite materials than we are.
“Here!” say the demonically targeted algorithms, shoveling more hot coals on the resentments and suspicions boiling inside each of us. “You are sooo right! And check out this You Tube clip that tells you a lot more about it!”
Clearly, the sometimes dreaded word “regulation” needs to come much more into play, as it already has to various halting degrees, if we are to minimize the power of the most pernicious and malevolent forces who have seized upon social media in the cause of violence, discrimination, or unfettered capitalist greed.
But in its dark warnings of impending doom from forces never before seen in human history, “The Social Dilemma” is both overly simplified and alarmist. It almost completely ignores the extraordinary benefits we also accrue from these head-shakingly revolutionary tools to disseminate knowledge and enhance human communication and connectedness.
And it also ignores the fact that human life and societies haven’t exactly been a big bowl of peaches around which unbiased, cheerful people of goodwill have been gathered to share in the bounty of the earth until social media wrapped its tentacles around our unwitting minds not even two decades ago.
Propaganda, hatred, ignorance, addictions and riven societies long predated Facebook and Twitter, after all. At one point in the film, an off-camera interviewer asks a disaffected expert what he fears might happen if we continue on our present, social media-abetted course of hardened, begrudging camps occupying the left and right extremes of our politics.
“Civil war,” he despairingly responds.
Oh, you mean like the one we fought 160 years ago, after the technological evils of the printing press and train travel caused us to despise each other and forsake all that had been only good and peaceful in our society until then?
Looking at some of the scenes of unrest and violence “The Social Dilemma” lays at the feet of Facebook, Twitter and Google, one can easily forget the thousands of years of violence that preceded social media, along with the now billions of users who employ it for other purposes altogether: to spread helpful, interesting knowledge, start Go Fund me campaigns to help neighbors, keep up with their kids, grandkids, nieces and nephews, research topics at the drop of a dime, settle fun bets at the dinner table via a quick Google search, ad infinitum.
Yes, social media can and has been put to evil uses—just like every tool ever invented and presented to humankind as an enhancement for our lives.
The wonders of jet travel—“Let’s go to Paris this summer!”
Its evil twin—“Let’s destroy the Twin Towers—God is great!”
Life-saving pandemic information, and FaceTime Zoom calls to help ease our loneliness.
Life-threatening misinformation, and chat rooms to hatch plans for slaughter.
It has been ever thus, with every previous technology, and always, we have scratched our way forward—often via additional technology and surely with needed regulation—to minimize all such progress’s pernicious side effects while folding the progress into our lives.
It won’t be any different, I don’t think, with social media and the various implements that convey it.
Yes, the scope of it all is intensified and accelerated, like everything else in modern life. And our lives may feel like they’re reeling a bit as we grapple with how to adapt.
But humankind has been grappling with one seemingly mortal threat after another since we first started huddling in caves for warmth and united resistance to predators. We’ve been extraordinarily skillful at figuring out survival strategies all along, though.
Now, so much seems to be pressing in on us that we are tempted to think, “This time is different! The apocalypse really may be here!”
And so it may. But I wouldn’t bet against us just yet, and certainly not on the basis of an intriguing, worthy, but needlessly alarmist film that, while making important points and posing substantive challenges for our future, uses all the finest technologies of modern persuasive propaganda to inveigh against the very tools that made their own work possible.
Darn that intrusive video technology! For the fun but incisive lyrics, go here: https://tinyurl.com/y3dpujjr
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Andrew, this was one of your best posts, both in style and content. We spoke several years ago about why you created this blog- you said it helped you organize your own thoughts about perplexing issues, and come to a personal conclusion, which you then share. I especially appreciate your precise use of language, your thoroughness and objectivity in covering all aspects of the subject, and your ability to create a conversational tone to your messages.
Thanks for including me in your distribution!
Thanks so much, Gerry—for reading, and for being kind enough to share your response. I well remember that exchange we had, and I still feel the same—I write maybe 60% to hash out what I think about the matter at hand and the other 40% trusting that someone or other will get something out of it. So it’s good to know when the latter happens! (I actually might amend that formula to more like 55-35, with the other 10% now simply the power of habit after nearly eight years! Can’t stop now, can I???)
“But humankind has been grappling with one seemingly mortal threat after another since we first started huddling in caves for warmth and united resistance to predators. We’ve been extraordinarily skillful at figuring out survival strategies all along, though.” This quote from your post really resonated with me. When I look at the next generation who have this technology in their veins, and I see the compassion and awareness it brings, I have hope. For example, my 15 year old granddaughter raising funds through zoom ballet classes for kids to support the people of Yemen. She’s raised almost 2,010 dollars at this time! My 11 year old granddaughter using Instagram to ask for donations for her hotel help out project, providing much needed personal items such as soap and toothbrushes to the homeless population of San Diego. My youngest taking online ballet classes with a male premier soloist dancer at ABT who has become a role model and who has encouraged my grandson through personal Instagram messages! The next generation,I am hoping, will know how to harness the power of technology! And learn how to resist its “darker side”. I remember when people preached that the evil of the black box in the living room would destroy society! Just a thought!
I’m glad you brought all that up, Karen. I’m aware and have seen countless examples of what you’ve described with young people today, and despite the dark times we appear to be living in, I’ll say this for boomer parents: we haven’t solved all the world’s problems (good luck with that!), but it appears we’ve raised a gaggle of conscious, woke and giving kids who have a clear sense of social mission. The kids you’re talking about deserve a lot of credit, but all those ideas and inspirations of theirs did not appear out of thin air. So kudos to you & your hub & extended family for providing your descendants with the solid foundation they have felt confident and free to spring off of.
And yes on that boob tube! Almost devoted a paragraph to your point but always conscious of word count, but jeez: It was the good old days when Americans spent 8 or 10 or 14 hours in front of the TV daily watching soap operas and recycled sitcoms? The Internet is a den of snakes compared to those enlightened times?
Thanks for another well-crafted post my friend however I draw a bit more of an alarmist conclusion. The Social Dilemma is certainly overwrought and not designed to be a “a fair and balanced” treatment of social media, rather it is meant to sound an alarm and one I think is clearly worth sounding! As with any new form of communication there is disruption, I remember reading Socrates was sure writing/books and such would destroy ones’ mind and the ability to think! Now we are living through another communicative disruption and how we respond will likely prove to be of serious long term import. While a certain amount of regulation and such would seem to be warranted (Facebook, Twitter etc are attempting to do this currently) I think intentionally developing mental frames such as self-questioning/critical skepticism/ evaluating sources etc is a core issue here. Mindlessly allowing the AI algorithms driving social media to foster the individual creation of “reality” that follows a rabbit-hole of self-reinforcing tape loops is a recipe for life in an invisible mental prison! A quick glance at the rise in conspiracy mongering, cults of various stripes, climate denial, anti-vaxxers, and other forms of science denial suggests a significant challenge in modern life is one of epistemology (how to we know what we know). While certainly not a new issue, we have a long history of crazy conspiracies, cults, snake oil peddlers and the like, what is new here is the incredible power of social media to amplify, inflame and sometimes imprison. I doubt there is any simple antidote to this “social dilemma” other than the commitment to critical thought, mindfulness and related forms of vigilantly nurturing cognitive health attuned to the realities of the new tech. A most useful first step is fully grasping the dynamic of how cleverly insidiousness the AI algorithms behind social media actually are representing not another conspiracy but rather a text book example of unintended consequences run amok. One positive example here can be found in the 14 states currently providing some organized form of “media literacy” https://medialiteracynow.org/your-state-legislation/ ( great for the kids but how about their parents?) While engaging in the expected hyperbole of an issue based documentary, I think the core issues raised in The Social Dilemma and related books (see Jason Lanier’s 10 Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now) provide essential fodder for our on-going quest to make sense of our contemporary tech-infused world.
I don’t find much at all to argue with here, Kevin. You and the movie makers are right that there’s a problem that needs addressing—which I wish they would have done with some sense of perspective. Would have made for a far better, more powerful film.
For me, it’s much more a matter of emphasis and effectiveness. Sounding an alarm is one thing, whether it’s about social media, the population problem, the arms race, climate, crime, income disparity, whathaveyou. But IMHO, the producers here undercut their own position by sounding hysterical and making it appear that the whole of the digital age will surely land us in hell unless we go cold turkey on social media and its implements. They sound far too much like polemicists and zealots who may succeed in turning a few folks off to social media and freeing them of their addictions, but also turn sensible people off to their message, as zealots usually do.
That’s because too many people use social media—2.7 billion Facebook members, 1 billion on Instagram and 330 million on Twitter worldwide at last count—and the vast majority of them are not in Q-Anon or militias or hatching plans to blow up government buildings. Most of them use it benignly, and get a lot of satisfaction from it without it running and ruining their lives. For the film producers not to acknowledge that with even a nod, but instead craft a 90-minute broadside that makes social media involvement akin to holding a gun to your own and civilization’s head, is to miss or ignore much too large a part of the picture.
The important question is not how to wean people from social media, which most of the featured speakers seemed to endorse either explicitly or implicitly, and which is simply never gonna happen, but how to make it better, how to tame its deleterious effects without impinging on its many salutary qualities. Right now, it’s very much a work-in-progress, but for the filmmakers to take the darkly foreboding position and tonality that they did was a mistake, I think, and represents a lost opportunity to move the needle significantly on this much needed discussion. Glad we’re having part of it here, though!
We just saw the movie. WOW! can’t stop thinking about it. It is just soo true. I love that they quoted Buckminster Fuller because in his book “Critical Path” in 1982 he said the only way for humanity to continue on the planet is if people think for themselves and do not substitute their own discernment. Now almosat 40 years later we still have the same message being quoted. Thanks for suggesting the film.
Truly the political arguments of today have been one rabbit hole against another and I have so missed having any real 2 way dialogue.
Yes, I enjoyed the Fuller and other quotes too, Mary, and only wish they had left them up longer—I was still reading sometimes and it was jetting off to the next frame!
I wasn’t so happy with the film, but it was definitely worth a look, and going forward, will hopefully result in more consciousness of the main issues it raised. Thanks for checking in here.
The Good, The Bad and the Ugly 2: The Internet
1, In 1939, what character actor appeared in five academy award nominated or winning films, Gone with the Wind, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Stagecoach, Only Angels Have Wings and Stagecoach for which he won best-supporting actor Oscar?
2. What NBA great averaged 46.3 points, 5.8 assists and 6.5 rebounds in 6-game playoff series?
3. Family dinners void of conversation due to video game playing.
4. What’s the driving distance between Ann Arbor and Niagara Falls, ON?
5. On Facebook I see my college roommate became a first time grandfather.
6. Damn, this is the 3rd time my Chase Visa card has been hacked from Australia!
7. I just read Camus’ The Stranger for free on http://www.macobo.com/essays/epdf/CAMUS,%20Albert%20-%20The%20Stranger.pdf.
8. Cyberbullying, sexual predators, and easy access to pornography for children.
9. Like Karen, video (Zoom or Facetime) conversing with seven California grandchildren is priceless.
10. Who is the only U.S. President to be elected to the Confederate Congress?
There you have it, Mr. Spencer! Need that soundtrack playing from the movie in the background. Check out the Danish symphonic version, it’s fabulous!
Clearly I must now add The Social Dilemma to our must-see list. Teaching a freshman year critical thinking course many years ago, I came across an article suggesting, during the nascent days of texting and all things digital, a danger that the plasticity of the human brain would adapt to abbreviated forms of communication to the extent that it could lose the ability for sustained attention needed for strong reasoning and thinking skills. Reading stacks of freshman essays absent analytical and logical expression of thought of course persuaded me that the forecast was coming true before my very eyes. A few senior faculty members provided me reassurance that my alarm had been shared by generations of writing instructors. Various forms of social media have, in fact, re-shaped how we communicate and, by extension, likely how we think. Good, bad, or indifferent, it is here to stay and to further evolve. My hope is that we can provide sufficiently enlightened role models for our youth so that information and points of view are used for the advancemet of compassion, empathy, and higher order thinking skills. It’s a tall order, and perhaps unattainable. I look forward to seeing the film, and close by recommending a Netflix must-see: The Trial of The Chicago 7; a very timely piece tying together 1968 poliitical horrors with those faced today.
Hello Andrew. I am a Chilean who is beyond excited about stumbling upon your blog at 3 am.
Reading this post, while i agree that the documentary is a bit alarmist, i do think its naive at best to think that the amount of good the social media do is somewhat equal to the harm, this would imply that they are somewhat “balanced” or even worse “neutral”. No technology is ever neutral, it always has a purpose from the moment it is created.
As this networks are now primarily used for ads, this implies that the method they use to keep you watching have no ethic boundaries, and way too often, they will use radicalization of whatever your beliefs are to keep you there.
Politics use this to target and manipulate the campaign content they show you, so politics for the average civilian is no longer about being informed, because every bit of information on social media and the internet is severely biased, if not outright fake.
So i think this goes beyond whether they are poorly or criminally used by people, and its more about how are we going to put this neuro-predator social media engineers in line, so that they dont take advantage of a mass of people who not only have barely vague critical thinking, but are also adicted to the easy dopamine they provide.
To me this is an ethical problem of the ones that are responsible for making this tech.
First, Victoria, I am honored that anyone would come upon a post of mine at 3 a.m. and decide to read it. Those are sacred hours, as I well know—and they are meant to be put to good use! I also very much appreciate you raising these points; I think they reflect legitimate concerns about where social media is taking us, for better and for worse.
If I am reading you correctly, you would say it is for the worse, while I would straddle that position, making the case that just like the humans who manage and engage in it, social media is a mixture of bad and good, benign and evil intentions.
I think our most significant disagreement is in how we view the fundamental nature of technology. I think your assertion that “No technology is ever neutral, it always has a purpose from the moment it is created,” is likely true, but I would assert that the main initial purpose of most technology is that their developers are trying to improve human life and make a living themselves from their inventions. Nothing wrong with that—we all have to figure out first how to survive and then thrive by selling something—our time, our talents, our inventions. On balance, I’d say that very few new technologies or inventions are developed with evil intent, but most all of them CAN be used for evil purposes if their users desire. This goes for everything from the wheel (what a boon it has been for humankind, but it can also crush people or help move explosives and criminals from one place to another quickly) to airplanes (can help us visit loved ones and see the world, but also drop bombs and kill millions), to social media (a great propaganda and organizing tool for evil people, but also a wonderful information resource and means of keeping in touch with far-flung friends and loved ones in ways almost impossible via other tools).
A story from just the past week: a longtime friend posted on Facebook that a dear friend of hers had been killed in a robbery. She wrote a mini-essay on the impact this friend had had on her life, from which she received a huge outpouring of sympathy and care from her Facebook cohort, in real time, that consoled and allowed her to come to better grips with the tragedy, while also serving as a stirring testimony to her friend. Sure, she could have put word out via friends who told other friends what had happened, who might have called or put a card in the mail for her. But the information, and my friend’s ability to express her deep anguish, would have been much more difficult to convey to that many people via other means, and then her friends’ responses would have been delayed at best, and likely not as abundant. This is a place where social media shines, and no other tools can accomplish the same thing with the same efficiency and reach.
Are there deep problems with social media? Of course. But name me a human endeavor that doesn’t carry with it deep problems! The problem as I see it, my friend, is never with the technologies that can always be put to dual uses, but with the human beings who put them to evil uses, and also with all us other human beings who fail to regulate technologies to encourage their best use and minimize the worst. This goes for everything from guns to drones to radiation to Facebook and Twitter! In Shakespeare’s words, “”The fault, dear Brutus, lies not within the stars, but in ourselves…”
Thanks again for writing, and please do feel free to share further thoughts on this matter or anything else. It’s an argument that is a long way from finished, that much we do know for certain!