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By Lane Gwinn
The Times 

The documentary-drama The Social Dilemma: A call to digital arms

A recommendation to everyone who goes on-line


October 1, 2020

WORLD WIDE WEB—Recently I watched The Social Dilemma, a documentary-drama directed by Jeff Orlowski, currently available on Netflix. The movie presents a series of interviews with Silicon Valley engineers and tech experts discussing the science behind technology addiction, surveillance capitalism, and other dangers embedded in popular social media platforms. There is also an acted and scripted story interspersed between interviews, illustrating how a family faces the effects of their social media use.

The interviews are harrowing; they cover what many of us already knew or suspected about social media structure and its potential dangers. The difference here is that the people interviewed are the people who created the platforms and features they want to warn viewers of.

The incredibly steep advancement of the technology, the manipulation and vulnerability of users, particularly teenagers, and the unregulated use of data gathered and sold are just some of the topics presented in this film. It articulates complicated issues clearly and without political spin.

One of the issues described by these experts is the deepening divide between the country’s political parties. It gives the best explanation to the question, both sides ask themselves, “how can they vote for that person? How do they ignore all the information that’s out there?”

The answer is a very efficient algorithm that doesn’t care about content, truth, or social dialogue and preaches to both choirs separately. It only cares about keeping users on-line, on-site, and actively sharing posts—all with the sole purpose of mining data and monetizing users’ information. Unlike phone companies, these businesses have no regulations limiting how they use your data or who they sell it to.

Tristan Harris, a co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology, explains, “social media isn’t a tool that’s just waiting to be used. It has its own goals, and it has its own means of pursuing them.”

Harris is one of the experts featured in the film and is a well-respected tech leader since first working at Google as a design ethicist. He famously challenged social media companies in a presentation to his Google coworkers, titled A Call to Minimize Distraction & Respect Users’ Attention. In that paper, he suggested that Google, Apple, and Facebook should feel an enormous responsibility to make sure humanity doesn’t bury itself in a smartphone.

The harsh reality revealed in this movie is that the basis of social media companies’ success is to do precisely that, bury users in their smartphones.

As Harris reminds us, “If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.”

The Times will be running a series of articles on social media, Facebook, and journalism through October.


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