Not Without My Phone
Documentary Review: “The Social Dilemma”
An unnerving clarion call on the dangerous & deliberately addictive nature of social media, from the very people who created it.
The Social Dilemma may be one of the scariest films you’ll ever see. It’s basically about the impossibly low chance that the world’s most powerful genie can be put back in the bottle, a warning shouted from the rooftops by many of the very people whose work has gone into the creation of said genie over the past few decades.
It’s virtually impossible to imagine our society sans social media. And why should we? As this riveting documentary goes to great lengths to explain, because of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Redditt and the rest (supported by powerful search engines such as Google, Mozilla and Firefox), people have reconnected with each other over time and distance, social and political causes have been brought to the forefront, and all information is at our fingertips. What we don’t want to be reminded of is how pervasive, intrusive and ultimately controlling these devices have become in our lives. To the point of real addiction and all that addiction entails: depression, anxiety, feelings of worthlessness, and isolation. As every single principal interviewed for this documentary will attest to, the cruel truth of the paradigm is that because of the algorhythms built to sustain and personalize these social media platforms, the very privacy breaches and nuggets to addictive reactions are actually built in features and not bugs within the system.
The documentary weaves its disturbing narrative between two groups: a wide variety of Silicon Valley whistle-blowers and a dramatized storyline focusing on an average American family whose tween and teen kids are unwittingly dealing with full-blown social media addictions. As the film progresses, we see examples of what the real-life former techies are warning us about, there in living color with this family careening toward disaster but totally blind to the danger.
Tristan Harris takes center stage in The Social Dilemma, whose former life as a Google design ethicist paved the way for him to become a co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology. He is joined by (among many others) his co-founder Aza Raskin, Justin Rosenstein (co-creator of Facebook’s Like button), Shoshana Zuboff of Harvard University, former Pinterest president Tim Kendall, Renee DiResta of the Addiction Medicine Fellowship program at Stanford University, and legendary virtual reality pioneer, Jaron Lanier. And the story they tell is of an originally brilliant and beautiful technology that — because of the exponential expansion of the power of computers — has surpassed our ability to keep the genie in the bottle. The exploitation occurs thru data mining and surveillance capitalism in which huge profits hang in the balance, and the collateral damage is to a society which loses faith in the Truth and in Ourselves, deeply splintered and inviolably fractured. The most emotionally wrenching section of the film deals with the damage of social media addiction to tweens and teens, with startling statistics which line up the rates of anxiety/depression and teen suicide to exactly when computers became so powerful.
The Social Dilemma was directed by Jeff Orlowski (Chasing Coral; Chasing Ice) and written by Orlowski, Davis Coombe, and Vickie Curtis. It premiered at Sundance in January 2020, right before the Coronavirus Pandemic hit the headlines. Subsequently, the film was updated to speak to the vast number of dangerous social media conspiracy theories related to COVID-19. The documentary also doesn’t shy away from exposing the nefarious methods by which political parties, influencers and conspiracists manipulate and personalize social media feeds and push messages to its users, with the end result being to radicalize people as well as make them question their core beliefs in a fact-based world order.
As Chamath Palihapitiya (former Facebook VP of Growth) cautioned, “We curate our lives around this perceived sense of perfection. We get rewarded by these short term symbols of approval (hearts, likes, thumbs up, etc.) and we conflate that with value and we conflate that with truth. And instead, what it is is fake, brittle popularity. That’s short term and leaves you even more vacant and empty than before you did it.”
This film — notwithstanding the wonky science explanations behind the thesis — is really about common sense. And for anyone with middle school or high school aged kids in their families, this is a must-see documentary. We know we’re too connected to our devices. And deep down, we know our kids are completely addicted. The signs are everywhere. I urge you to watch the closing credits of this film, for practical tips from these whistleblowers on how to better take charge of yours and your kids’ social media life. As Tristan Harris poignantly states, we are not evolved as a species to handle the degree of social approval or disapproval dosed to us every five minutes. The question posed is whether Technology is, in and of itself, an Existential Threat. The answer seems to be somewhere in this netherworld of our own making, a strange blend of Utopia and Dystopia. It’s really what we make of it and whether we can create new and better code for the future.
The Social Dilemma is presently streaming on Netflix.
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