Hi, I’m Matt—I’m an email-aholic. I check it too much. I can’t resist. I get a little rush each time I tap “refresh,” though, I have to admit, the high isn’t what it used to be. I want to stop checking my email. There’s no real reason to. It’s not like I get a ton of urgent messages, nor is it like I’m getting tons of awesome, uplifting emails (one-quarter spam, one-quarter non-spam that I treat like spam, one-quarter annoying emails from students, one-quarter mixed bag).
I know I’m not alone. There are others like me—who battle the same demons I battle. For some it’s email. For others it’s Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. Whatever the digital drug is, there’s no denying it: We’re hooked.
And it’s no accident, according to the creators of “The Social Dilemma” (exclusively on Netflix). We’re hooked because Google, Apple, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc., want us hooked, know how to hook us, and have indeed been doing everything in their considerable power to make sure that we can’t put down our smart phones for very long.
“The Social Dilemma” is a documentary that features leading figures within the tech industry as well as influential commenters on the methods and effects of various internet platforms (especially social media).
It ain’t pretty. Let’s start with the kids. They’re going crazy on social media. Literally. Not only are they hooked just like the rest of us, teens’ and preteens’ use of social media is having horrible effects on their psyches—anxiety, depression and body-image issues. The “Like” button is straight-up smack. Only legal.
Then there’s the adults. Let’s talk politics. Because that’s what everyone likes to do on social media. The problem is that platforms like Facebook and Twitter employ advanced algorithms (good ones, too) to make sure you get exactly the information fix you want—not info that’s true, or balanced, or important to hear; just the info that gives you pleasure. So Republicans are hearing what they want to hear, Democrats are hearing what they want to hear. And, of course, it’s not the same message. So we don’t occupy the same information space; we are experiencing totally different worlds. Which is a recipe for awful, divisive partisanship.
There’s more—plenty more. The tech giants are molding, bending, manipulating and contorting us to do whatever they want, which, among other things, is to keep consuming their products like frat boys guzzling cheap beer.
How are they doing it? Psychology and algorithms. They know how addiction works. And, given that they have access to all of our data—so much data!—they can feed that data into learning AI that then builds algorithms that predict our behavior with astonishing accuracy. They are like the mad neuroscientists in horror movies who control people’s minds, only they don’t have to bother with a neural implant. We are hypnotized.
Technology is not all bad, of course. As the current and former tech execs in “The Social Dilemma” point out, these platforms have also done good things—maybe even a lot of good things. But is it worth it? The overall message from “The Social Dilemma” is “regulate, regulate, regulate.” The penitent millionaires interviewed in this movie seem to hope that more government control of the internet could help with the aforementioned problems.
But here’s another potential solution: Delete. That’s what I did. Right after watching this movie, I deleted the Facebook app from my phone. There are things I like about Facebook, but, for a little while now, I’ve realized that checking Facebook brings me more pain than pleasure. I’m much more likely to feel anger, outrage and jealousy than admiration, love and joy. And, unfortunately, these bad feelings are addicting too—once I start with anger, outrage or jealousy, it’s really hard to stop. And these are not good feelings.
Watching “The Social Dilemma” is kind of a downer too. Unlike our carefully culled social media feeds, this movie is not designed to make you feel pleasure. It is designed to confront you with hard truths (again, unlike those social media feeds).
“The Social Dilemma” is an effective movie, though not necessarily a perfect one. The guy most at the center of the movie—former Google design ethicist, Tristan Harris—is a bit self-righteous and preachy (I mean, for the love of Pete, he pronounces his name “Trist-on”). And there’s a pretty cheesy dramatization woven in between all of the very informative, interesting interviews. The movie would have been better without that.
Still, watch it.
“The Social Dilemma” is rated PG-13 for some thematic elements, disturbing/violent images and suggestive material.