By Zach Hagadone
It’s a common thing for people beyond a certain age — say, those who graduated high school before or immediately after the turn of the century — to comment how grateful they are for growing up in a time before social media. An awareness of the inherent psychological peril of constant, instantaneous and, ultimately, superficial digital connection was apparent even as the term “social media” was being coined. Anyone who used MySpace in the mid-’00s can well remember the bizarre, fraught deliberations that went into organizing their “top eight” friends on the platform’s original front page.
Documentary film The Social Dilemma, which made its way to Netflix this month, zeroes in on the constellation of anxieties through which we travel in our daily scrollings. The central theme of director Jeff Orlowski’s investigation is the seemingly self-evident notion that social media users are exactly that: “users” who have entered into a cycle of addictive behavior to the exclusive benefit of Big Tech and its advertising partners in “surveillance capitalism.”
None of this is particularly surprising — least of all for those who remember the pre-internet world and anyone who’s been paying attention to the conversation surrounding online privacy in the past 10 years.
Where The Social Dilemma is most effective is in exposing the systemic nature of social platforms’ data exploitation, revealing it to be purpose-built for a business model that is less about getting you to click on ads than in rewiring your brain to deliver a whole chain of promised behaviors to its customers. As one speaker puts it succinctly, “If you don’t pay for the product, it’s you.”
Lest this come off as paranoid conspiracy thinking, Orlowski assembles a robust group of talking heads to unpack how, why and when social media came to occupy such a central place in the functioning of contemporary Western civilization. Most intriguing, a majority of those experts were some of the very people who shaped the thinking and built the tools that brought us to a place where revolutions can be sparked on Twitter and teenagers are diagnosed with “Snapchat Dysmorphia.”
Where the film stumbles is in employing a flimsy “after-school special” style dramatization of The Bad Things Social Media Does to Kids to attempt to humanize its larger arguments. Luckily, Orlowski leans just as much or more on the non-fictionalized narrative track, which does even more to underline that this “dilemma” is very much a human creation.
By and large, his Silicon Valley types seem regretful, if not a little bewildered, that their bright ideas about “likes” and hashtags have turned out to be profoundly destabilizing. While they recognize the features of “surveillance capitalism,” which one expert likens to trading in “human futures” just as speculators might gamble on oil futures, these “prodigal tech bros,” as some critics refer to them, don’t offer much in the way of a solution to this psycho-social-economic exploitation. Part of the reason for that, no doubt, is that this business model has resulted in the most profitable companies in the history of the world.
The other thing to consider is that in addition to hitherto unimaginable wealth, “surveillance capitalism” has also delivered world-changing power into the hands of actors — both big and small — beholden to no other interests but their own. Examples noted in The Social Dilemma include extremists, ideologues and dictators; charlatans and conspiracists; propagandists and provocateurs.
An article published Sept. 14 by BuzzFeed News, drawing on a purported former Facebook employee tasked with policing fakery and propaganda on the platform, highlights the real-world significance of what gets written online.
There are many “dilemmas” in all this, namely that our species’ need for social connection can and has been leveraged against it while we’ve constructed a business model out of a technology that poisons our civic life and harms our children’s mental health while remaining too embedded in it to change.
Anyone who uses social media, even in a passing way, is well familiar with all of this but — again — The Social Dilemma’s real contribution is in naming names like “surveillance capitalism,” “human futures” and “attention extraction model,” which underscore that the negative aspects of social media are not unfortunate byproducts of a misused boon, but integral to its form and function.
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