The Social Dilemma, the new Netflix documentary, tells a story most of us are familiar with, but conveys it with scalding urgency. What are we submitting to, as we sleepwalk through our lives, staring at our screens, twitching to our notifications? What will it take to wake up?
Silicon Valley insiders, engineers, ethicists, investors, and scholars describe how the internet has been taken over by social media oligopolies, and their power to change the very fabric of our reality. Whether it is Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, or Snapchat, these “attention merchants” are in the business of harvesting our minds, hacking our psychologies, to sell to us more efficiently. We give ourselves away with every click, we are mercilessly profiled, and we are bought and sold: to advertisers, corporations, political actors, anyone who profits from it.
Why does this matter, and why aren’t we resisting this manipulation? Because it’s so very pleasant, like being on drugs. Social media companies exploit our own hardwired human need to speak and listen to others, to care about social approval. And once we’re hooked, they experiment on us. A range of persuasive technologies is turned on – every morning, we are prompted to think thoughts we didn’t intend to, because of our phone’s notifications. Every “pull and refresh” that bridges new content is like the thrill of playing a slot machine, every tagged photo is a fresh dose. When you see bubbles that show someone is typing, it magnetizes your attention. These are not choices we consciously make, they suck us in at deeper, helpless level. Social media platforms know each of us minutely, can predict our tendencies, and can also mold our behaviour at scale.
Does this seem exaggerated? After all, every new technology has caused a moral panic, including the telephone and the television. But this time it’s different, warns the documentary. With exponential increases in processing power, this is a whole new species of power and influences, with artificial intelligence and constantly learning algorithms. You and I don’t stand a chance against a phenomenal machine that knows everything about us, it’s not a fair fight. Steve Jobs once spoke of the Internet as a “bicycle for the mind”, a benevolent tool that enhances human capacities – but these platforms are not our tools, we are their tools.
It didn’t have to turn out this way. Those in their 30s or older still remember the magic of the internet before this hyper-commodification, what a generous resource and community it used to be. There are still traces of that old humane ethic; Lanier points to Wikipedia, where all of us see the same information, it is not spying and calculating and giving us our own customised reality.
While we know, in concept, that social media locks us into our own echo chambers, we don’t quite understand what this means. The Social Dilemma jolts us into realising how our realities are composed of a stream of thoughts. If you and I are fed content meant to pander our own personal enthusiasms and trigger our fears, fake or real, then soon we come to inhabit entirely different realities. We don’t even realise that others are not seeing what we are seeing. That explains why political differences, arguments over climate change or coronavirus, seem so bitter and intractable now. Our shared truths, our common sense, the very basis for reason and compromise, are being shredded because of the commercial imperatives of social media platforms.
The documentary recognises that the problem is not the technology itself, but the social forces that it amplifies. A handful of Silicon Valley platforms have become the richest companies in the history of humanity, threatening democracy. Extractive capitalism is built not to care about the effects, just as it recklessly mined the earth and destroyed entire species, it has now turned on us.
When tech barons now say “data is the new oil”, they mean that this time, our humanity is the basis of their profits. For all the fine reassurances of tech CEOs, this danger is hard for them to roll back. Algorithms cannot restore the truth, they have no way of knowing it. There is continuous pressure on them to grow, shareholder interests to consider. Recovering control has to come from us, from massive public determination. As individuals, we can make small tweaks, pay for services, turn off notifications, erect privacy barriers. Governments must realign their financial incentives- by taxing data collection or data assets or regulating them as privately owned infrastructure.
Can this be done? When confronted with the concentrated power of those companies, and the fragile grip of democratic institutions, the status quo seems overbearing. But the future is open, all change depends on the hell we raise now. And the last line of The Social Dilemma puts it simply: “We have to”.