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Netflix Documentary 'The Social Dilemma' a Rough Ride at Times, But a Ride Worth Taking
October 12, 2020  | By Alex Strachan  | 3 comments

Who's watching you? Are you sure the decisions you make aren't being manipulated — without you realizing it — by what you see on social media? How influential are Facebook and Twitter, anyway, and how much do they really know about you?

And who, if anyone, is watching them? Who watches the watchers?

These questions lie at the heart of The Social Dilemma, filmmaker Jeff Orlowski's alternately absorbing and frustrating documentary about social media released this past month on Netflix. The Social Dilemma was originally unveiled at the Sundance Film Festival pre-COVID, but the version on Netflix has been updated for the post-COVID era, and it's all the more chilling for it.

Documentaries are admittedly a dime-a-dozen these days, but what makes The Social Dilemma different — and all the more unsettling — is that it features a dozen or so insiders, young (for the most part) former employees and decision-makers, men and women, who were deep on the inside when Google, Facebook, and Twitter's platforms were being designed for the brave new world of instant communication, and what they have to say is both interesting and unsettling.

In social media's early days, tech designers were driven by a heady idealism and the idea that instant global communication with your friends, family, and people you might not know but who share your values and outlook on life would be a force for good. I want to save the world, the feeling went, and I want to be in touch with other people who want to save the world.

Somewhere along the road to global enlightenment, though, something went terribly wrong, and The Social Dilemma explains what, when, how, and why. This is no episode of Westworld. This is real. This happened in the real world. And it's happening now.

We know this, of course, or at least most of us do. The Social Dilemma  — Man Men actor Vincent Kartheiser is one of the principal actors in the film's frequent and not entirely convincing dramatized recreations — digs deeper, though. It's not often that a film not only shows what went wrong but why.

We learn that Googling a simple question like, "What is climate change?" will prompt a different answer, depending on which part of the country you ask the question in. Google "climate change," for example, and you'll get a different answer depending on which part of the country you ask the question in (Google knows where you are from your computer's IP address.) The first answer you'll see to any given question will be the answer most liked by the majority of people who live in that area. So "What is climate change?" will get a very different answer if you ask it in California or in Wisconsin.

This is problematic because the answer is not based on fact but rather on opinion. As The Social Dilemma explains, this is because, deep down, social media platforms were not designed to be entirely altruistic. Those early days may have been driven by idealism, but idealism doesn't pay the bills. In the end, as with most technological innovation, social media algorithms were designed to generate revenue through advertising. The most effective ads are those that target you personally, your needs, tastes, wants, and desires, based on who you follow, how many times you  "like" posts on a particular Facebook page, and what you search for. Social media platforms are calibrated to record everything you see and do while you're on that platform.

The whistleblowers in The Social Dilemma know this because they helped design the system. It's called data harvesting. And if left unregulated and unchecked, the information can be used to harden preconceived opinions, whether it's trivial — your favorite James Bond — or meaningful: who you vote for, and your opinions on race, immigration, justice, and COVID-19. These are things that could potentially swing an election — or convince you not to vote at all.

That's fine if, say, you believe in saving endangered species or want to help those in need by donating to Doctors Without Borders, but it becomes problematic if enough people believe in an oddball conspiracy theory to get it trending on social media. The Social Dilemma touches on Pizzagate, for example, and explains what happened to drive a misfit to fire an AR-15 inside a pizzeria in Washington, DC, the 2016 election campaign. (The Social Dilemma includes video footage of the shooter being apprehended and the startled reaction of the arresting officer who, while handcuffing the shooter, asks him what he thinks he's doing, and the shooter's answer leaves him speechless. It would be funny if it weren't so serious.)

The insider whistleblowers at the heart of The Social Dilemma are a mixed group, despite their similar ages — 25-35 — and their outlooks on life. Some are more convincing than others, understandably.

The most prominent voice, though, belongs to Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist (yes, there is such a thing!) at Google and co-founder of the self-explanatory Center for Humane Technology.

Harris, now 36, earned his degrees at Stanford University, where he studied the ethics of human persuasion, among other subjects, and he makes a convincing case — the one-time true believer now unsettled by feelings of regret and penitence.

In his final days at Google, Harris penned a technological encyclical for his colleagues at Google, arguing that Google, Facebook, Apple, and the others, bear an enormous responsibility — his words — to make sure people don't spend every waking hour of the day with their heads buried in a smartphone.

His colleagues appreciated it; his bosses at Google did not. As The Social Dilemma points out, noble sentiments don't help the bottom line, and in the corporate world, the bottom line counts for everything.

The Social Dilemma is flawed in parts, but in the end, it's a fascinating, eye-opening, and surprisingly lucid look at the science of human persuasion. Both as a force for good — fundraising, GoFundMe campaigns, crisis management, and keeping in touch with loved ones halfway around the world — and a force for bad: distraction, addiction, narcissism, and the erosion of the trust that binds societies. The Social Dilemma is a rough ride at times, but it's a ride worth taking.

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This is excellent article, thank you for the share! This is what I am looking for, hope in future you will continue sharing such an superb work.
Mar 7, 2024   |  Reply
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Jan 27, 2023   |  Reply
On the same idea, I would love to see how all this Technology has changed our language. Not simply the myraid of new words, acronyms-- but the changing meaning of ages old standards. We think using language and it would naturally change thinking.
Oct 12, 2020   |  Reply
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