The Social Dilemma and the Human Question
Nathan Mladin writing for Theos (Theos Think Tank UK)
Nathan is Senior Researcher and Relationship Manager at Theos. He holds an MTh and PhD in Systematic Theology from Queen’s University Belfast and is the author of several Theos publications, including ‘Religious London: Faith in a Global City’ (with Paul Bickley), ‘Forgive Us Our Debts: lending and borrowing as if relationships matter’ (with Barbara Ridpath), and a chapter on Václav Havel in ‘The Mighty and the Almighty: How Political Leaders do God’ (Biteback, 2017).
Natan Mladin argues that Netflix docu–drama ‘The Social Dilemma’ reminds us that we are not autonomous as we think we are. 23/09/2020
The revelations from the FinCEN files, the debates over Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s replacement at the US Supreme Court, and the second wave of COVID–19 infections are the main stories at the time of writing. In this context, a review of a Netflix docu–drama, two weeks after its release, might seem ill–timed and somewhat frivolous. And it would be, were it any other documentary than The Social Dilemma, which highlights an issue that runs deeper, and is as pressing as any news story of the day: the damage that social networks and the tech companies that shepherd them are doing to us, individually and as a society.
It’s a familiar story – how the tech industry, and social media companies in particular, for all the good they have brought to our lives, have made us more distracted, more anxious, more isolated and depressed, more outraged and polarised. Addiction, fake news, election hacking, viral conspiracies are just a few of the many unsavoury phenomena linked to our culture’s social media dependence. While the broad outline of this story is known, it’s how the story is told that makes The Social Dilemma essential viewing – through the voices of industry insiders, former tech executives, engineers, and other experts, and, crucially, by lifting the bonnet on the business model as the root cause of what seem like disconnected problems.
An hour and a half of interviews, graphs, animation and drama add up to a bracing and sobering exploration of how social networks have wreaked havoc on our mental health, unravelled the social fabric, and undermined the premises of our democracy.
Tech companies, the film makes clear, are in an arms race for our attention. The digital environments in which we are immersed day in day out are meticulously designed, to the finest details, with this singular purpose in mind: to keep us ‘engaged’ for as long as possible – scrolling, sharing, liking, posting etc. And everything we do, online and increasingly offline, is tracked or surveilled; from the obvious to the creepy: the things we post and share, but also our typing speed and rhythm, our scrolling and clicking patterns, the time we spend looking at an image, and so on. All this ‘behavioural surplus’, as Harvard professor Shoshana Zuboff calls it, is aggregated and fed through powerful machine learning tools, which then churn out highly accurate models and predictions of our behaviour. It’s these models and fine–tuned predictions that are sold off to the highest bidders, mainly advertisers. It’s become a bit of a cliché to say it, but it’s still true: “If you’re not paying for it, you are the product”, or, as Zuboff puts it, the raw material.
The cycle is relentless and self–reinforcing. With every click and scroll we are unwittingly training the opaque algorithms behind the platforms to ‘know us better’, to predict and ultimately alter our behaviour – what we desire and fear, what we believe or distrust, and – most importantly for the advertisers – what we purchase.
The Social Dilemma, directed by Jeff Orlowski, compellingly shows the logical ramifications of this business model – the alarming increase in depression, self–harm and suicides, particularly among young girls, the increasing difficulty of civil democratic deliberation, conspiracy theories spreading like wildfires, election hacking and so on. It makes for a sobering watch that calls for swift action, chiefly tighter regulations for the tech sector if not a complete overhaul.
The case for the damage being inflicted by social platforms is overwhelming, but what intrigues me is how blasé or resigned most people I’ve spoken to about this topic are.
There are many reasons for this. Sheer ignorance of the facts – how it all works and what’s really at stake – is one. The Social Dilemma should help remedy this (there is also a whole raft of books published on the topic in the last ten years – see, for example this, this, and this). Our addiction to convenience and ‘free’ is another. Thirdly, one shouldn’t underestimate Google’s and Facebook’s sustained efforts to get us off the scent.
But I think there’s an even deeper reason: a particular picture of ourselves, as ‘brains on a stick’, fundamentally autonomous, fully rational, and firmly in control, is holding us captive. While this hubristic conception of human beings – what some refer to as the ‘modern subject’ or ‘sovereign individual’, with roots in Renaissance humanism and Enlightenment thought – may have succumbed in academic discourse some time ago, slayed by post–structuralist literary theory, neuroscience, cognitive and social psychology, alas, it endures, in zombie–form, in our collective consciousness. We simply don’t like to believe we can be manipulated into anything, be it clicking funny cat videos, checking our phone for the millionth time or purchasing yet another jumper.
This is increasing our vulnerability and making us even more susceptible to the dark magic of algorithmic manipulation and control. And the bitter irony is this: because of this false picture, while everyone worries about the Terminator–like AI coming down to overwhelm human strengths in the future, algorithms are already here, overwhelming our weaknesses.
Seen in this sombre light, The Social Dilemma is an important prompt to return to a more rounded and humble conception of ourselves; to recognise, amid mounting evidence, that we are not as strong, as free, as rational as we think we are. This, I suggest, is a crucial step, moving away from a technology that is shrinking our humanity, towards a technology that is truly humane.
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 Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (PublicAffairs, 2019).
 Nicholas Thomspon, ‘Tristan Harris: Tech is “Downgrading Humans.” It’s Time to Fight Back’, Wired, 23.04.2019, https://www.wired.com/story/tristan-harris-tech-is-downgrading-humans-time-to-fight-back/