The ‘Social Dilemma’ has a message: Put the phone down and listen up | #facebookdating | #tinder | #pof | romancescams | #scams

Netflix’s recent doc­u­mentary “The Social Dilemma” argues that when it comes to social media, we have let the proverbial genie out of the bottle. Indi­viduals, espe­cially young people, are addicted to a device that profits from selling our attention?—?resulting in dis­aster for our health and rela­tion­ships, but wads of cash for Silicon Valley exec­u­tives. Whistle-blowers from com­panies such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Pin­terest want you to know what’s being done to you, and maybe suggest a few ideas of what you can do to stop it.

 Tristan Harris, former Google designer and now the pres­ident of the Center for Humane Tech­nology, tells the story of his own real­ization of the harmful con­se­quences of the for-profit addiction coming from his own company. 

“I felt per­sonally addicted to email and I found it fas­ci­nating there was no one at Gmail working on making it less addictive,” he says in the doc­u­mentary. 

 The power exerted over indi­viduals through their devices is unprece­dented, Harris believes. 

“Two billion people will have thoughts that they didn’t intend to have because a designer at Google said this is how noti­fi­ca­tions work on that screen you wake up to in the morning,” he said.

Harris believes the respon­si­bility to fix that problem rests on Google itself. But to his dismay, he found during his time at Google that any enthu­siasm for such work was fruitless and short-lived.

 “The Social Dilemma” illus­trates the points made by the inter­viewees by fol­lowing the imag­inary life of a typical American family?—?espe­cially  the social media addiction plaguing the youngest son and daughter. The parents and oldest sister observe their family members dis­appear into the world of clicks, likes, and hashtags. 

According to Jeff Seibert, a former Twitter exec­utive, one of the biggest methods of max­i­mizing inter­action with a screen is through the tagging feature, which the make-believe son of the family in the doc­u­mentary finds impos­sible to resist. This jeop­ar­dizes family rela­tion­ships and even dating pos­si­bil­ities. 

“When Facebook found that feature,” Harris says, “they just dialed the hell out of that.” 

Social media com­panies seduce us with “free” ser­vices?—?paid for with our attention, not our money. Attention, after all, is a social media giant’s greatest asset. Fun­da­men­tally, these com­panies succeed by diverting our attention from the real world, focusing us on a stream of sim­u­lated reality where the only facts shown are the ones that keep us scrolling. 

 To combat dis­sem­i­nation of fake news, con­spiracy the­ories, and extremism, intel­lec­tuals, former exec­u­tives, and psy­chol­o­gists urge these big-tech com­panies to censor more content. To anyone who has been banned from Twitter for “mis­gen­dering” someone, or cen­sored on Instagram for posting pro-Trump content, the idea that more cen­sorship is the way towards an open and civil society seems self-evi­dently wrong. 

But not to the experts in the doc­u­mentary. These com­panies become rich by appealing to an individual’s worst instincts. In fact, according to Renee DiResta, a tech­nical research manager at the Stanford Internet Obser­vatory, they are a “global assault on democracy.” Piz­zagate, Russian election inter­ference, and more con­spiracy the­ories could all be fixed if Big Tech exec­u­tives and designers simply stepped up and cen­sored neg­ative content, those inter­viewed in “The Social Dilemma” seem to argue. 

 No one thought the exper­iment could go this wrong. (Exper­i­menters never do. Just ask Dr. Franken­stein.) Social media became toxic when well-meaning people toying with tech­nology created addictive algo­rithms with minds of their own. Now those same well-meaning people are asked to solve the problem?—?using the same tech­nology that created it. 

They just need one new tool: mass cen­sorship. But cen­sorship used out of an abun­dance of good will is easily misused. It can be exerted exclu­sively against one side and for the other, which jeop­ar­dizes free thought and view­point diversity. In fact, big tech cen­sorship is unlikely to be any more con­ducive to our digital flour­ishing than big tech algo­rithms. But this fact seems to never occur to those cham­pi­oning a solution based on cen­sorship, or at least it doesn’t bother them enough to address it.

 The doc­u­mentary, while raising important ques­tions about how much tech­no­logical progress is too much progress, errs on the side of over­wrought sen­sa­tion­alism, making some of their claims seem unbe­lievable. The son in the film is manip­u­lated by three iden­tical men, all played by Vincent Katheiser of “Mad Men,” behind com­puters set on sucking in the boy’s attention in exchange for a few pennies from an adver­tiser who may or may not have the boy’s best interest in mind. At one point one of the men asks, “Are we sure this is good for Ben?” The other two men scoff at him?—?why should they care? 

The idea that we are being manip­u­lated by senseless robots capable of a dis­as­trous amount of ill-will in an “Inside-Out” style side-show without the laugh lines and bright colorsshould frighten us. And it does, but almost to the point of unbe­liev­ability. 

 “You’re making me feel like a lab rat,” an off-camera inter­viewer tells Sandy Parakalis, former oper­a­tions manager at Facebook, after he explains how Facebook con­ducts exper­i­ments to make “users do what they want them to do.” Parakalis responds, “You are a lab rat, we’re all lab rats.” 

Facebook, Google, Instagram, Pin­terest, Twitter, and other massive tech com­panies can too easily and effec­tively run algo­rithms that predict and influence indi­vidual deci­sions and habits. The oppor­tu­nities for tyranny and exploitation are ripe for the taking and, in some cases, have already been taken. 

 Tristan Harris believes the power of tech­nology poses an exis­tential threat. What’s so exis­tential about a fun device where you can see pic­tures of your baby cousins, watch cat videos, and maybe check on your crush’s rela­tionship status? 

“It’s the technology’s ability to bring out the worst in society, and the worst in society being the exis­tential threat,” Harris says.

 “The Social Dilemma” may resort to sen­sa­tion­alism to make its points, it may ask more ques­tions than it answers, and it may rely too much on the goodwill of social media com­panies wielding the weapon of cen­sorship, but the doc­u­mentary will provoke you to rethink our society’s incessant usage of our mobile phones and social net­working apps. 

Whether upon watching “The Social Dilemma” you are spurred to put time limits on certain apps, switch your phone to grayscale mode, turn off noti­fi­ca­tions (I can per­sonally rec­ommend this one), or delete the apps alto­gether, the film is worth watching. Because if any­thing, our over­sat­u­rated social media land­scape is starving for any argument against incessant and all-con­suming social media usage, not the opposite.


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