Judith Grant Reviews “The Social Dilemma” (Netflix 2020)

I recently had a chance to watch the 2020 film, “The Social Dilemma” (Jeff Orlowski, director, now streaming on Netflix). When it was released, Variety called the film, “easily one of the most talked -about docs at Sundance this year.” Using an innovative documentary/drama hybrid format, the film features an impressive list of former Silicon Valley insiders from tech powerhouses such as Google, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Mozilla, all of whom were variously software designers, engineers, operation managers and vice-presidents. They come together in the film to sound the alarm about the dangers of social media, a medium they themselves created and from which they more than likely reaped large incomes.

Reaching beyond mere identification of the serious problems associated with social media, the film makers issue an explicit call to activism, directing viewers to a website (https://www.thesocialdilemma.com). There, you are invited to “take action” against the “dilemmas” created by social media such as crises in mental health especially among teens, democracy and disinformation, and racial discrimination. The website is useful for links to many articles and research papers regarding social media and its problematic effects. According to the website, the goal is to create a “humane tech future” where humans are protected from manipulation by social media. How technology is designed, regulated
and used “people not profits.”

While I cannot deny that I learned things from this film, I still found watching it to be an exercise in frustration. It is a classic liberal plea for regulation that misses the very point that it tries to make. The former industry insiders engage in a good bit of anguished hand-wringing about the “unintended consequences” of their roles in the creation of the tech of highly addictive social media, as well as the development of ways to create, stoke and then monetize social media addictions. The key target for them appears to be the algorithms that enable the transformation of personal identity into sellable code. This in turn allows identities to be sold in a market for “human futures,” and then recycled back again to users in the form of targeted advertising for commodities. It also creates profiles that enable social media apps to “recommend” groups, pages, businesses and political organizations. Many conspiracy theories, for example, have been fueled by social media suggesting that people “like” new pages and groups based on their algorithmic profiles. Finally, it generates affective relations that keep people coming back to the social media drug; who likes your posts? Who wants to be your friend, who follows you? As a driver to social media, algorithms are uncannily effective. The algorithms, we are told by various experts in the film, are now developed and implemented by computers that communicate among themselves at such a high degree of intelligence and at such a high rate of speed that it is now impossible for human software engineers to completely understand what they are doing. Not good.

Still, I flat out do not believe one of the film’s central claims; namely, that the tech community saw no downside to creating these technologies and then directly linking them to the market. It is simply disingenuousness of them to claim that they were as surprised as we were when their feel-good, no-downside industry turned sinister. Simply consider the fact that many of these industries began with men who were highly engaged in online gaming environments and hacking. This alone almost ensures that they had very sophisticated understandings of the addictive potential of these technologies. And we only need to look to the genre of choice for nerds everywhere (myself included), science fiction, to see that downside of technology has been a topic of great interest in popular culture and has been explored at length in that genre since the 1950s. This is even aside from more serious debates in science and philosophy of which they must have been at least somewhat aware.

Is part of the blindness due to the simple fact that this industry was almost unimaginably lucrative? The film mentions but downplays profit as a problem, and instead points a finger at the dangers of technology itself. It’s “people, not profits” slogan sounds like a pre-packaged afterthought given the content of the film. In fact, the dark sides of capitalism plus technology have been known at least since the 19th century. Marx, for example, wrote extensively about how the use of machines sped up production and fundamentally transformed human beings into tools, an extension of the machine. Watch Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times or Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. The latter, a silent film from the 1920’s, is a meditation on the objectification of humans in a mechanized world where machines drive human actions and destroy the human soul all for the purpose of increasing profits. The commodity form interpolates humans into capitalist logics partly via what Marx called the “dance of commodities.” Marx argued that the effect of this explosion of sensory stimulation creates a kind of mesmerizing shock effect. That 19th century marketplace is a rudimentary version of what the internet and social media does to us today. The problem is not the technology per se, but its relationship to the process of increased commodification and objectification.

Steve Jobs’ whimsical notion that the computer is like a “bicycle for the mind” purposefully uses a benign and beloved machine that has nothing to do with the kinds of “Great Accelerations” that have been written about extensively by technologists and scholars interested in the anthropocene since 2005.[1] The industrial revolution taking place in Marx’s time was one of these Great Accelerations. The digitization of today is another. In fact, the growth of information technologies increases exponentially, is highly predictable, and can be easily been tracked, as many reproductions of the “Great Acceleration” graphs have demonstrated. Steve Jobs’ metaphor of the bicycle ignores the capitalist-technology nexus so presciently written about in the 19th century by Marx. Perhaps it is not that surprising that those who benefitted from the marriage of capitalism and technology are reluctant to entertain the thought that a large part of what makes the internet so dangerous its monetization. As one of the speakers in the documentary puts it, Russia did not hack the election, it exploited platforms that already existed for advertisers.

[1] See for example, Will Stefan, et al., “The Trajectory of the Anthropocene: The Great Acceleration,” Anthropocene Review, 2015 Vol. 2 (1), pp. 81-98.

                        Judith Grant 
                        Ohio University
                        February 2021

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