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Checkmate Humanity, Really?: There’s More To ‘The Social Dilemma’ Than We Think

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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.

A still from the Netflix documentary ‘The Social Dilemma’

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.

Checkmate Humanity… Really?

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.

Former Google design ethicist Tristan Harris in a still from The Social Dilemma.

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).

प्रतीकात्मक तस्वीर। फोटो साभार- सोशल मीडिया
Image only for representation. Via Getty

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 …

Sources:

‘Alone Together’ – Sherry Turkle , Published by ‘Basic Books’

https://www.news18.com/news/tech/the-social-dilemma-is-distorted-facebook-issues-7-point-response-to-viral-documentary-2929649.html

https://www.theverge.com/interface/2020/9/16/21437942/social-dilemma-netflix-review-orlowski-sarah-zhang-memo-facebook-buzzfeed

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/oct/30/whatsapp-fake-news-brazil-election-favoured-jair-bolsonaro-analysis-suggests

https://scroll.in/articl/904708/social-media-continues-to-influence-elections-this-time-its-whatsapp-in-brazil

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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