Why The Social Dilemma is a horror story for our times

Why The Social Dilemma is a horror story for our times

We tweet, we like, and we share— but what are the consequences of our growing dependence on social media? At some point, we’ve all had our doubts about whether or not we’re addicted to social media.

The Social Dilemma, a recent docudrama release on Netflix, more or less, confirms this suspicion. However, that’s not really the mind-blowing part of the film. The documentary-drama hybrid reveals how social media is reprogramming civilisation with tech experts sounding the alarm on their own creations.

The Social Dilemma features the voices of technologists, researchers and activists working to align technology with the interests of humanity.

Its easy to see the ubiquitous technology that is attached to our hands as something we control and social media as a haven for friend requests and puppy videos. But what we don’t stop to think about is the billion dollar corporations behind social media, their intentions and the insidious ways that social media can slowly change the social fabric.

The documentary is narrated by a chorus of tech experts who developed — and were at the ground level — of some of the technology that is now driving behaviour, and if you believe the press, installing governments. Technology that is unchecked and unregulated and its users monetised as part of what the documentary calls “surveillance capitalism”. Through scientific and psychological persuasion and the reinforcement of unconscious habits there are many ways the corporations running social media trade in “human futures” and the address the changing nature of social behaviour.

We live in a world in which a tree and a whale is worth more financially dead than alive. For as long as corporations act in this way and are unregulated, these corporations are going to continue to destroy trees, to mine the earth… Now humans are the trees and whales. We are more profitable while we are spending time staring at a screen and consuming advertising and providing data to these big unregulated companies like Facebook, Google and the like.

Justin Rosenstein – Co-Founder of Asana and One Project; Former engineering lead at Facebook; Former product manager at Google

Sounds ominous, right? Well, when you have the person who developed Twitter telling you that he doesn’t let his children use any form of social media, alarm bells sound. There is a reason why Gen Z – a generation bought up on social media – have the largest growing mental health problems and what amounts to a drug addiction to their phones. The artificial intelligence behind social media activates the same pleasure centres of the brain as gambling.

The technology behind the way social media can make addicts out of us all plays on our most basic of human flaws, that we are relational beings who hunger for connection. Technology’s promise to keep us connected has given rise to a host of unintended consequences that are catching up with us. If we can’t address our broken information ecosystem, we’ll never be able to address the challenges that plague humanity.

There is also something even more insidious than the addicting behaviour and it’s the attitudinal changes. It’s no surprise that fake news outstrips truth by four to one. And that extreme ideas and theories can take hold. Algorithms promote content that sparks outrage, hate, and amplifies biases living within the data that we feed it.

Persuasive design techniques like push notifications and the endless scroll of your newsfeed have created a feedback loop that keeps us glued to our devices. There is no doubt that our attention is literally being mined for its net worth to big corporations.

But we do have the power to overcome the AI and algorithms that are running our lives. Here’s ten ways:

Turn off notifications

Turning off social media notifications. In 2020, they’re Big Tech’s way of keeping us glued to our phones. In The Social Dilemma, they explain how notifications have become a tool to increase activity and keep you unnecessarily engaged.

Declutter your device

The Social Dilemma makes an excellent point about how much excess information is out there. It explains that, while the information available might have increased in the past couple of decades, our brain’s capacity to process the same has not. Do I need to follow all these influencers and content creators on social media? Do I need to absorb Facebook life updates from people I met once three years ago? One important word is declutter.

Give your brain a rest

The Social Dilemma explains the downside of infinite scrolling or ‘doomscrolling’, in that we end up spending hours just scrolling on various social media apps. With thousands of friends on Facebook and content creators on Instagram, there’s no natural way for content to get exhausted, right? Yes, there is. Give you brain a rest and stop ‘doomscrolling’.

It’s not about the data, its your attention

Data leak scandals like the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica one have been a part of mainstream discussion, making it easier to assume that Big Tech is all about our personal data and preferences. The Social Dilemma says that more than data, these companies are vying for our attention – which is limited. At the end of the day, your attention is the product being sold to advertisers. It’s called ‘surveillance capitalism’ – social media platforms sell your attention to the highest bidder. All in the name of collecting more information on your habits.

There’s a reason you’re called a user

How many people pick up the phone before getting out of bed? Do you take your phone to the toilet with you? If you are guilty of this, you are social media’s premium addict. This is why tech owners don’t let their children on social media. It’s like using drugs. Take a sabbatical from your phone and see how your body reacts. You will be surprised at the results. Surprised and alarmed.

Don’t consume. Choose.

That might sound weird. But every time you let YouTube suggest a video for you, you are teaching its AI more about your behaviour. Scary right? But this is how AI learns to predict what you want, when you want it.

The terrifying reality of today is that the algorithms that run these social platforms have evolved into a mind of their own and they monitor our activity very closely. So, in order to avoid getting sucked into that echo chamber, we need to start manually searching for what we want, instead of letting the algorithms dictate our opinions and thoughts.

Try to get a hobby that’s not on your phone

This is hard. Especially during COVID-19 because our phone screen is literally all we have right now. Well that and family members, but they’re all on their phones too. If your phone is currently your work, social life and down time, you need to start doing a 1000 piece puzzle, or go for a bushwalk. Literally anything but staring at that small screen. Literally anything but phone activity is good for the soul.

Fact check. Repeat. Fact check.

We all know fake news is rampant. And The Social Dilemma scratches the surface of how these algorithms aid the spread of misinformation (hint: the more you click on it the more it circulates around social media). The film doesn’t deep dive into fake news as a modern-day commodity because it’s not about that. The Social Dilemma is simply a reminder (or an eye-opener, depending on how you see it) that it’s important to fact check the things we see on the internet. Just because it’s on the internet, doesn’t mean it’s true.

Get people around me to watch it

If you don’t watch any other documentary this year, you really need to watch The Social Dilemma. And watch it with family members. Eyes open. Minds blown.

Moderation. Unplug. Unwind.

The Social Dilemma can be a terrifying watch if you’ve never before come across these ideas. Like the interviewees in the film, it’s important to remind ourselves that social media isn’t all evil. It didn’t start out as a weapon of mass destruction. It’s the business models behind Big Tech that make it so damaging. So clearly, deleting apps is not the solution. Deleting social media isn’t necessarily the solution. But moderation and regular sabbaticals from it is a good idea. And having a family plan for its use, how much time we will spend on it, and keeping each other accountable for this behaviour.

The Social Dilemma is streaming now on Netflix.


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