Catastrophising – the tendency to jump to the worst possible conclusion, often with little evidence in support. It arises from our innate, neanderthal-like ‘fight’, ‘flight’ or ‘freeze’ response to potential threat. Each month, the clever crew at Netflix shelve out a new documentary that taps into this human tendency, checking the world isn’t asleep in front of the TV. September’s instalment? The Social Dilemma.
Filled with ex-Silicon Valley ‘tech-bros’ repenting their sins, the latest ‘hot-take’ in a long line of Netflix documentaries seeks to lambaste the engineering behind those social media icons we so nonchalantly tap into every day. The documentary cleverly tells the stories of addiction, depression and extremism that we can all be vulnerable to. The Social Dilemma is supposed to be a wakeup call.
So, did it achieve the goal of opening our eyes to what those wizzes in the Valley have been cooking up? The answer is sort of like your partner breaking up with you and then three weeks later you checking if they still feel the same: you sort of knew, but you just wanted to be sure.
Let’s start with some positives. The documentary does a good job of illuminating how subject to manipulation our behaviours, thoughts & feelings are. The tech giants of this day and age rely on their knowledge of human behaviour, and how to manipulate it, to dictate the product they provide. Take the example of YouTube. YouTube will recommend videos based on those that you’ve already watched. Their auto play feature seeks to alleviate the effort of having to search for new content when finishing a video. This can ignite a bit of a waterslide, often dubbed the nefarious ‘YouTube’ hole, where you find yourself 2 hours later watching Lord of the Rings conspiracy theories claiming that Sam never actually left the Shire. By recommending content, not only does YouTube nudge you to continue to click recommended videos each time you use YouTube, but it also acts to reinforce what you know and the strength by which you believe it.
This reality that, the most ubiquitous brands in the Western world play on the ability to manipulate & shape human behaviour, really shouldn’t come as a surprise. The documentary packages this well as an ethically-challenging concern, with slightly-Orwellian undertones – albeit ones we’re not always conscious of. To underscore even further the Orwellian nature of these social media behemoths, the more we are present under their watchful eye, the more they learn about us. If I spend the next 20 minutes on Instagram looking at content on Travis Scott, I can return to the discover page not long after to see a new video of the rapper raging at a 2019 concert in Houston, or a photoshoot for his most recent Jordan shoe collab. The algorithms that these social platforms employ are not only clever, but they trade on our future wants.
It’s this notion of “human futures” that is a continual motif within the documentary. Orlowski, the documentary’s director, through a rally of ex-employees, emphasises that this is the currency these social media titans trade in. This ability to prognosticate our future selves is where money is made. We interact with a social media platform, data is collected on our behavioural patterns, which is then sold to advertisers in order to expand their target audience. Imagine being able to predict your partner’s behaviour? You might get an idea of how the relationship will go, what they’ll react favourably to and what sort of person they will become. Information on our future selves is invaluable, because it’s the closest we can get to seeing the future before it happens. Our future decisions have become monetised by the social media giants. It raises the question, what do we have left if we don’t have autonomy over our future selves?
Despite all of this, you shouldn’t panic. No really, you don’t need to. None of this should register very seismically on your internal shock Richter scale. Panic is the result of an absence of perceived control, usually born from an unexpected event. The Social Dilemma has done a fantastic job at highlighting how equipped certain individuals are at developing intelligent AI. It hammered-home the idea that we should be mindful of our activity on social media, know that we are easily manipulated and that it’s all-too-easy to develop an unhealthy, over-reliant relationship with your phone.
But give yourself some credit. Did any of this really surprise you? Have you gone and deleted all of your social media apps? No, because two-fold: you kind of knew all of this already, and deep-down, you know that it’s you who has autonomy over your actions.
For time, we have become increasingly aware of social media’s presence in our day-to-day activities. It’s no secret that our phones will pick up on conversations we have in the open world, resulting in the presence of an ad on social media that magically resembles the topic we were just discussing. The infamous 2018 Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal rocked the world’s moral fabric, giving us a glimpse at the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how these social media giants can undermine a political system. It’s not the power of these companies that should necessarily have us double-taking. Instead, it’s the lack of responsibility and utter neglect for human autonomy that has needed to be broadcast into our field of awareness – a fault which The Social Dilemma tries to make social media a scapegoat for.
But social media isn’t the scapegoat here. This documentary does far less to scare us into deleting any trace of our online being and throw that silly little pocket device in the river than it does to hold a mirror to some fundamental human flaws. We are naïve. We are very easily lulled into engaging with something when it marries convenience with necessity, while simultaneously neglecting the price that comes with it – just look at how we treat alcohol and junk food. We distort our views of wellbeing. Social media has played a role in providing unconventional ideas of what should make us happy, but we choose whether to let those ideals pay rent in our newsfeeds and take our attention’s vacancy. We are curious procrastinators. Throw a headline at us that says ‘PROOF Trump Spies for Russia (VIDEO)’, and washing those sheets can wait another couple of hours.
With these human flaws in mind, this doesn’t mean The Social Dilemma hasn’t served a purpose – even if it wasn’t the one it intended. These fundamental flaws of being human should be revelled in, not thrown out with the baby and the bathwater. How do we get better at anything? We start with identifying where we’re going wrong, with a significant portion of this requiring a bit of self-reflection. So much of the debate about social media’s risks keyholes in on how we need to change the technology. Very seldom do we have the courage to place ourselves under the microscope for inspection.
As humans we need to get better at our relationship with social media. It’s far too jejune to blame social media for how we behave. To do so would be to forfeit any free will & strip ourselves of agency. Instead of just having a singular spotlight on the responsibility of social media, why not rig up another spotlight and shine it on our own responsibility to be aware of how we behave & how it can be manipulated? No intelligent algorithm can work its magic without you taking first action, and continuing to take further action. Your attention can’t be monetised unless you wilfully give it up. We are the start point, but we are also the end point.
The Social Dilemma will stand the test of time. If we reach the “checkmate on humanity” that the protagonist & former Google employee Tristan Harris outlines, we’ll look back on it with a wry smile and maybe a quip along the lines of “well, we were warned”. If we learn how to tame the beast, we’ll reminisce on the documentary as the gentle reminder many of us needed. If things stay relatively unchanged, we humans like to hypothesise, so revisiting the documentary will be a useful exercise in fuelling our forecasting appetite.
So what do you do now? Anything but catastrophise.