A few days ago, I made an online friend. I met him on one of these websites that aim at “facilitating” friendships (as if they are engineered and not organic). It matched us based on our interests: he was an actor, and I liked watching films. We discussed movies, and I might have overshared some details about the fights I was having with my family (something I never talk to my offline friends about).
Checking my phone for his text is the first thing I do every morning. I wonder, when did we start expecting more from technology and less from the people around us?
I assumed that during a contagion, reduced face to face interaction would have isolated people from their friends and family. But in fact, the opposite has happened. It’s safe to say that I have been connected with my friends and family in the pandemic more than ever. My cousins and I even managed to squeeze in a video call, even though we hardly used to interact in real life.
Physical Isolation is no more Social Isolation. The use of the word “social” instead of “physical”, when talking about ‘social distancing’ tells us how we still undermine technology’s power to forge connections in daily discourse.
However, the pandemic seems to be changing things. It has crippled (or enabled?) us by making us rely excessively on our phones and laptops. The Social Dilemma, a documentary directed by Jeff Orlowski on Netflix that released on September 9, 2020, probably had the best timing ever. It came out at a time when we replaced all our offline institutions—education, politics, and entertainment with online equivalents.
This documentary traces the different aspects of technology: how it affects identity, polarisation, governance, and advertising. It talks about how we have been underestimating the fact that today, “Virtual is Real”.
This docu-drama has utilized ethos very well, by calling ex techies including the ex-President of Pinterest Tim Kendall, former operations manager at Facebook Justin Rosenstein, the President of ‘Centre for Humane Technology’, Tristan Harris, among others. The essence of the film brings out how social platforms use the innate psychology of the human brain to capture and manipulate our attention for the benefit of their clients, the advertisers. However, this film is not just an expose. There’s more to it.
The Social Dilemma takes on a huge burden on itself—to prove that technology will lead to an existential crisis. Is it successful in proving this hypothesis? Let’s find out.
The takeover of the world by Artificial Intelligence has been a common theme in many Sci-fi movies, including The Terminator, The Matrix, etc. But do we really need to fear an Arnold Schwarzeneggar who can transform into any life form or a Keanu Reeves who travels through parallel universes?
As Aldous Huxley has said, “It’s not the technologies of hate, but the technologies of love that we should be scared of”. Through AI, our devices use algorithms to change our behaviour and influence you to do things with their nudging. By making us addicted to our devices, these technologies we love have become our greatest nemesis. While we wait for AI to exceed human strengths, it is overwhelming human weaknesses right under our noses.
The movie highlights how teenagers coming on social media at an early age might be a leading cause of depression amongst that age group. The constant need for being validated has sparked a rise in social media usage amongst them. Well, seeking validation has been a feature of our life since the day we were called “social animals” by Aristotle (or even before it), but our brain was never trained to seek it from 10,000 people at one time.
The movie, much to my despair, explains to me that my attention is being bought, and I am the product that many of these platforms are trying to sell to different advertisers. The notification bells on WhatsApp, the typing indication on Snapchat and the tagging feature on Instagram are all designed in a way to keep us scrolling.
If technology is excellent at manipulating our minds, imagine how disastrous it would be in the hands of a dictator? Social media has proven to be a threat to democracy. Bolosnaro’s win in the presidential elections of Brazil is said to be a result of the spread of fake news about his rivals on Facebook and WhatsApp, which bolstered his campaign. Numerous studies have also confirmed that a toxic blend of data mismanagement, targeted advertisement and online misinformation influenced the outcomes of the United Kingdom’s Brexit vote.
The movie further proves its claim of technology being an existential threat by tracing our civilisation’s movement from the information age to the disinformation age. According to a statistic given by Tristan Harris, in the movie, fake news spreads six times faster than real news on Twitter. The spread of disinformation, amplified by social media, has led to mob lynching in India, xenophobia in the United States, and the persecution of the Rohingyas in Myanmar (Facebook was heavily criticized for not being able to control the spread of hate speech against the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar).
In an attempt to rationalise these very fears, critics have called the movie “unnecessarily alarmist”. Even though the eerie piano ensemble that plays before each scene might make you feel that way, I don’t agree with the critics on this. The reason why it has drawn this criticism is that it is the first time someone is revealing the deepest darkest secrets of technology in such clear terms. Donald Trump still calls conversations about climate change alarmist and that itself speaks volumes.
The movie has also been accused of “burying substance in sensationalism”. Facebook, defending itself, also claimed that it had put together various control mechanisms to keep a check on fake news. Do I agree with Facebook? I’d say yes, the documentary does sensationalize certain aspects of technology.
To make itself entertaining and palatable to mass audiences, it has added fictionalized dramatic segments. The small play within the movie has a familiar trope: a family scene where the mother constantly coaxes her children to give up their devices. This seems to be beneficial for the documentary to make smooth transitions from one theme to another.
However, it does end up bordering ridiculous when the mother tries to lock her children’s phones in a kitchen safe, and the daughter opens the safe using a baseball bat. Similarly, the fictionalized trio that works towards sending push notifications to Ben’s phone is overbearing and doesn’t sit well with the tone of the movie.
However, some segments of the movie do give a humorous tinge to it. From Tristan checking his phone before beginning the interview to the documentary ending with an urge to follow them on social media—the use of irony has been scripted well. Well, there is also another irony here, and I had almost missed it, had it not been for the Netflix notification on my phone reminding me, “Have you Watched ‘The Social Dilemma’ Yet?”
Why is there no talk about how we are relying on a tool like Netflix—that prey on our attention for every movie and series it screens (including The Social Dilemma)—to understand the demerits of technology? Even though I don’t blame the producers for hopping on to the social media bandwagon to popularise their message (what other choice did they have?), I would say that I am not a huge fan of the “If you can’t beat ’em-join ’em” narrative.
Overall, it was a really informative and interesting watch. This documentary also is one of its kind. It blends fiction with facts. The fictionalized segments try to do justice to the larger theme of the movie, making it a mix of a sombre, but an entertaining documentary.
But was it able to make me delete all my social media accounts? Will I now give up my phone forever?
Well, that’s a little farfetched. But what The Social Dilemma did do for me is that it changed my relationship with technology. From someone who never saw any bad in it, it managed to start conversations about the sociology of it. It made me understand the other side of the technology of love and how it doesn’t take time for it to turn into a technology of hate.
Also, on a side note, I finally had the guts to unfriend my online friend.
Baby steps …
‘Alone Together’ – Sherry Turkle , Published by ‘Basic Books’