‘The Social Dilemma’ sheds light on utopian tech world’s dystopian underbelly

The Social Dilemna
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Grade: 4.0/5.0

“The Social Dilemma” is a highly relevant documentary, especially for the world we live in today, one immersed in social media.

Director Jeff Orlowski intends this film to be alarmist — it questions if our decision-making abilities are being taken away from us and if we are being manipulated by technology. “The Social Dilemma” features narratives and interviews of former top executives at companies such as Facebook, Google, Pinterest and Twitter. These former admirers of the technology they helped create — now turned defectors — are joined by other technology experts and scholars as they push the panic button and ask viewers to rethink the conversation on the future role of technology. The camera angles on speakers seemingly hesitant to even speak up heightens their sense of frustration and loss, as they witnessed the hijacking of a utopia they had hoped to create with technology.

Indeed, technology has been a game changer for our society, providing accessibility and connectivity like never before. However, an interesting quote by Edward Tufte, professor emeritus at Yale, appears in the film and gives the viewer a moment of pause: “There are only two industries that call their customers users: illegal drugs and software.”

“The Social Dilemma” forces its viewers to consider how we as consumers have become so used to free stuff: free maps and directions, free photo storage and online music, free email accounts and our free social media accounts. And yet, the film points out that we don’t stop to think about who is paying the thousands of tech workers and hardware and why the tech companies are the biggest profit makers. 

As Tristan Harris, formerly of Google, explains in the film, “If you are not paying for the product, you are the product.” In other words, you as the user are being sold to the advertisers who are all vying for your attention and who want your behavior to change in their favor. Pure and simple, it’s what Harris refers to as an “attention-extraction model,” based on engagement, user growth and ad revenue — all of which is powered by algorithms. 

Harris likens it to a prison experiment in which companies are harvesting money and data from people’s activity, and asks the viewers how people can get out of the “matrix” if they don’t know they are in it. 

The explanations of the underbelly of social media technology sound rather Orwellian. After all, as the film claims, algorithms are but opinions in the guise of code. And artificial intelligence, with its machine learning, is getting better and better at learning just how to keep hold of the user’s attention and engage in subtle behavior modification. 

The conversation around the dangers of exhaustive data collection and monitoring of users has been ongoing for a while, from Capitol Hill hearings to a spate of conspiracy science fiction movies. Orlowski’s documentary adds to this “Big Brother” narrative by proposing a fictional narrative of a young high schooler who is nudged toward polarization by this persuasive technology, going through gradual shifts in behavior and perception with his every click and hover on social media. 

In fact, an important message in the documentary is that the increasing polarization and acrimony of today is in part due to technology. Because everyone sees a different news feed that is reinforcing and cementing their beliefs, it can confuse them into thinking “fake news” is real. At the same time, the documentary appears to claim that it’s not the fault of the AI, as AI does not make value judgments; rather, the system itself is biased toward false information as it inherently makes more money, meaning that such technology could well be exploited for the wrong purposes. 

“The Social Dilemma” is an engaging watch with a compelling call to action: to apply massive public pressure for reform. Suggestions for this reform include the use of ethical design, more oversight and perhaps even a data tax so that companies do not feel the need to collect every possible data about its users. 

But in the meantime, the “techies” featured in the documentary have some short-term suggestions for users of social media: Turn off notifications and don’t open a recommended YouTube video — always choose them yourself. 

Contact Hari Srinivasan at [email protected].