To serve man: The Social Dilemma (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 10, 2020)

“You know, one thing I learned from my patients… they all hate the phone company. It’s interesting; even the stockholders of the phone company hate the phone company!”

― from the 1967 social satire The President’s Analyst

“It’s not about the technology being the existential threat. It’s the technology’s ability to bring out the worst in society…and the worst in society being the existential threat.”

― from the 2020 documentary The Social Dilemma

“You have created a monster, and it will destroy you!”

― from the 1931 horror classic Frankenstein

Just in: From the nanosecond you log in to a social media platform, you are being tracked. Not only are you being tracked, but you are being filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, and numbered (YOU are Number 6). In short: you are being bought and sold. That smart phone, laptop, or tablet in your hands is not the “product”. YOU are.

So like, wake UP, sheeple!

As I see you are currently busy checking Twitter notifications on your cell, I’ll cut to the chase. I recently observed a number of my friends on (wait for it) Facebook buzzing about the (relatively) new Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma, so I thought I’d check it out.

“All through my life I’ve had this strange unaccountable feeling that something was going on in the world, something big, even sinister, and no one would tell me what it was.” “No,” said the old man, “that’s just perfectly normal paranoia. Everyone in the Universe has that.”

― from the The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams

Never before have a handful of tech designers had such control over the way billions of us think, act, and live our lives.

― the “dilemma”, as posited on the official website for the film The Social Dilemma

Directed by Jeff Orlowski (Chasing Ice) the film operates from the premise that (with all due respect to the late great Douglas Adams) the “strange unaccountable feeling” you may have “that something was going on in the world, something big, even sinister” is in fact not “just perfectly normal paranoia.” This is not a dream…this is really happening.

Sinister terms like “data mining” and “surveillance capitalism” may elicit yawns or shrugs from a generation that assumes laptops, cell phones and the internet are immutable elements of human existence, but Orlowski offers a twist by having the architects of social media utter dire warnings you’d normally only expect to hear coming from the lips of members of the anti-Big Tech conspiracy fringe.

These are not minor players; people like VR guru Jaron Lanier, former head of Pinterest Tim Kendall, Center for Humane Technology co-founders Aza Raskin and Tristan Harris, Facebook “like” button co-creator Justin Rosenstein, Orlowski also enlists academics, like Harvard University professor/social psychologist Shoshana Zuboff and Stanford Addiction Medicine Dual Diagnosis Clinic Chief/psychiatrist Anna Lembke.

It is not just a cliché that we are “addicted” to our cell phones, to Facebook, to Twitter, to email; scrolling away hours, days, weeks, months of our lives as we circle down the rabbit hole (“There are only two industries that call their customers ‘users’: illegal drugs and software,” observes one talking head in the film). How do we escape this time-sucking alternate reality? Ironically, Virtual Reality pioneer Jaron Lanier offers the most pragmatic advice-in essence saying “Just unplug yourself, stupid.” Easier said than done, grasshopper.

Even some of the people who have helped create “virtual” addiction admit they can’t stop getting high on their own supply. Again, these are the very smart, self-aware men and women “behind the curtain” who have basically distilled all the trickery and mind games that magicians, con artists, used car salesmen and revival tent evangelists have perfected over the centuries into algorithms.

OK…Orlowski’s film is somewhat depressing, especially if you expect light at the end of the tunnel. But it is timely, considering that the November 3rd election looms. You know how people say, “our country has never been more divided”? According to some of the interviewees, the reality may be our country has never been more manipulated. One says:

The manipulation by third parties is not a ‘hack’. The Russians [in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election] didn’t ‘hack’ Facebook. What they did was they used the tools that Facebook created for legitimate advertisers and for legitimate users. And they applied it to a nefarious purpose.

So what he is saying (if I read him correctly) is that the Russians were merely using the tools of capitalism to do exactly what they are designed to do: reap a profit (in this case, they would gain political capital, one assumes). This is a profound observation, the more I think about it. And it reminds me of this evergreen monologue (delivered by Ned Beatty) from the 1976 film Network (directed by Sidney Lumet and written by Paddy Chayefsky). To wit:

There is no America. There is no democracy. There is only IBM, and ITT, and AT&T, and DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide, and Exxon. Those are the nations of the world today. What do you think the Russians talk about in their councils of state, Karl Marx? They get out their linear programming charts, statistical decision theories, Minimax solutions, and compute the price-cost probabilities of their transactions and investments, just like we do. We no longer live in a world of nations and ideologies, Mr. Beale. The world is a college of corporations, inexorably determined by the immutable bylaws of business. The world is a business, Mr. Beale. It has been since man crawled out of the slime.

Plus ca change.

The Social Dilemma also touches on what has become the greatest bane of social media: fake news. One of the tech insiders offers this less-than-comforting thought:

Algorithms and politicians are becoming so expert at how to trigger us …getting so good at creating fake news that we absorb it as if it were reality and confusing us into believing those lies. It’s as if we have less and less control over who we are and what we believe.

I guess I’ll leave you with that happy thought, because I must go check my email.

(The Social Dilemma is currently streaming on Netflix)

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