While the Justice Department is conducting antitrust proceedings against Google, Elizabeth Warren is running fundraisers against Big Tech, and Josh Hawley is writing a book called The Tyranny of Big Tech. The Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma has found its own market.
The film focuses on the methods social media uses to get our attention and the effects of those methods. Presented by a number of former employees of large tech companies, the documentary also plays skits to show the impact of technology’s presence in everyday life. As a longtime skeptic of social networking, I was pleased to hear some friends say the movie made them question their use of social media. I was hoping the film would generate widespread reflection, especially among Millennials and Gen Z, as their inclusion on Netflix is all but guaranteed.
The social dilemma points to some of the bad habits encouraged by using Twitter, Facebook, Google, and others. The film draws attention to the amount of time wasted scrolling through these platforms. It also describes the way social media algorithms maintain contact through engaging content and narrow people’s horizons. Social networks cause people to appreciate vain and fleeting things like likes and retweets. A featured personality aptly describes social platforms as “digital pacifiers”.
However, the climax of the film features Tristan Harris, a former Google employee and the film’s lead interviewer, testifying before a Senate committee that online social platforms must be held accountable. Another figure, Shoshana Zuboff, author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, makes an extremely morally confusing comparison between the prohibition of slavery and the prohibition. . . targeted advertising. The film seeks to claim that man’s subservience to technological entertainment is an fait accompli, and that it must be strictly regulated to prevent it. As Harris puts it, “There’s this screen and on the opposite side of the screen there are these thousands of engineers and supercomputers whose goals are different from your goals. Who is going to win this game?”
Let’s be very practical about what is going on in this supposedly shameful process. Suppose there is a YouTube user named Thomas who likes to see “Fail Compilations”. YouTube can tell from Thomas’s display data that he usually logs in around 9:30 p.m. and pours these videos through. YouTube believes that this is how Thomas relaxes before bed. As soon as Thomas opens his YouTube app every evening, suggestions such as “Best Fails of September 2020” will be submitted. And after Thomas watches this video, YouTube will automatically play and suggest more of it. Meanwhile, the website is showing ads with a relatively high CTR for people watching similar videos. That’s it. That is the threatening “surveillance capitalism”.
“To the extent that we officially take a mean and dirty view of humanity, mean and wretched people will emerge.”
I have no objection to the movie’s claims that websites and platforms encourage us to use them too much and that prolonged use of social media and entertainment is bad for people. Indeed, these should be completely undisputed claims. However, the film is structured as if consumers were not involved in this process. In reality, most of us fail that virtual marshmallow test at every decision point along the way. We can’t resist scrolling through another 50 tweets, watching another hour of YouTube, or clicking through the inflammatory news links from 20 Facebook friends.
During an election cycle, it is all too obvious that being a responsible person is crucial. Given America’s inability to ascertain collectively agreed facts, widespread use of these websites by one person often has network effects. In other words, being an idiot on the internet not only harms actors but affects the nation as well, as the original idiocy creates an opposing idiocy.
What can a democratic and free society do about it? How can we reconcile the need for prudent behavior with the right to wrong? As Irving Kristol wrote, self-management is “something strenuous, something where we make painful demands on ourselves, something that leads us to a normative idea of the self that we should properly strive for.”
Rather than waiting for social media sites to come under political pressure, we have a simple, if strenuous, workaround: deliberate separation. We should strive for a concept of ourselves that usually skips chocolate cake and limits useless internet time. We should ask ourselves not to be absorbed by social networks, to reject the Like fest on Instagram or the futile political argument on Facebook or the worthless YouTube rabbit trails. It’s sure to be a painful process – we’ve gotten to this point because we like to give in on our phones and eat vegetables. However, the lifeline for a good use of our time remains.
As George Will could say, the social dilemma has half a point firmly under control. The film is well suited to demonstrate the downright damaging effects social media can have on our communities. Sometimes it is even as bad as ideological radicalization. Awareness of these challenges is the first step in developing appropriate norms for using social media. But his conclusion that we are all helpless consumers who have been fooled by Instagram and Facebook is a deeply depressing misunderstanding of humanity. The film describes thoughtless machines that, if they are pelted with enough content and ads, keep scrolling and keep buying. In the essay quoted above, Kristol warns us, “To the extent that we officially hold a mean and dirty view of humanity, mean and wretched people will emerge.” A regulatory goal yet to be defined would only be a rejection of the human ability to act and thus of dignity. Instead, we should overcome our social dilemma with honesty and conscientiousness and take on the task of self-management.