Like everyone else, I watched The Social Dilemma recently. I felt disturbed as well, but more so by the documentary’s framing of the issues than by the dystopian state of the world it so comprehensively portrays. I’m concerned that it presents a limited view that could adversely shape our perceptions and behavior in a lasting way, especially given the enormous impact it is having.
The documentary highlights the many ways in which social media is detrimental to society — affecting our mental health, hurting our sense of connection, fueling our base desires for external validation, to name a few. As such, it is a timely and valuable contribution that is expanding our understanding of very real issues and catalyzing collective transformation.
The most alarming consequence of these technologies in the near term, according to the executives featured in the documentary, is the tribalism and divisiveness these platforms engender and amplify. Roger McNamee (Silicon Valley investor) called it a “national interest” and Tim Kendall (former head of monetization at Facebook) is concerned it may be pushing us to the brink of civil war.
It is ironic therefore, that the documentary itself presents a divisive and disempowering narrative, honorable though its intentions are.
It does so by casting the problem in economic terms alone, pointing to a “religion of profit at all costs” based on short-term thinking, as exemplified by the following quote by Justin Rosenstein, a key former employee of Facebook:
For as long as our economy works that way and corporations go unregulated, they’re going to continue to destroy trees, to kill whales, to mine the Earth and to continue to pull oil out of the ground. … This is short-term thinking based on this religion of profit at all costs as if somehow magically each corporation acting in its own self-interest is going to produce the best result. … What’s frightening and what’s hopefully the last straw that will make us wake up as a civilization to how flawed this theory has been in the first place, is to see that now we’re the tree, we’re the whale, our attention can be mined, we are more profitable to a corporation if we’re spending time staring at a screen, staring at an ad, instead of living our life in a rich way. We’re seeing corporations using powerful AI outsmart us…
The documentary makes it a point of repeatedly blaming wealthy founders and their corporations, hoping that by building awareness of the hazards of capitalism, we might all wake up as a civilization.
This fails to recognize the problem for what it really is — a religion of achievement at all costs. It’s not as sexy as bashing corporations, partly because it means we have to look around and examine what else has been affected by the religion of achievement at all costs. (Everything.)
Blaming corporations alone is not going to help us wake up as a civilization. It may, however, emphasize a feeling of us-vs-them.
It may also make some of us feel like victims and others like saviors, neither party able to see things as they really are, while staying stuck in these roles (and thus in the matrix). Ironically, then, the framing offered by the documentary places us in a disempowering Karpman drama triangle scenario, one in which we are no more than hapless victims of algorithms and unsavory corporations, powerless to take personal responsibility.
While the problem of filter bubbles is real, and exacerbated by the size and reach of social media companies, I’m worried that the blame game will only take us away from the self-awareness that’s needed to bring about real and lasting change.
In these emotionally-charged times it will be only natural for many of us to unconsciously look for a scapegoat, to point at something or someone as the criminal while continuing to spew out divisive vitriol, no matter how subtly.
Supported by the perspectives of this documentary (and other media like it), we will have found a culprit in the form of Facebook instead of facing our own selves. We might stay stuck in a game of finger-pointing, unable to see just how much we are each ruled by our beliefs and identities, unable to see that it is the division in our hearts that is merely being reflected in our use of technology and dividing us further.
The real social dilemma then is that most of us are simply unaware that even the tiniest of divisive posts is fortifying the walls of separation and is nothing short of collaborating with the madness itself, a giving away of our energy and power at an individual level.
The real social dilemma is how to share information and move the dialogue forward using the tools we have (that will likely stick around) in a balanced and objective way, without letting our own woes and wounds get in the way.
For now, we can reclaim some of our power by focusing on our own well-being. We can choose to limit our time using these products. We can start practicing fierce self-care that helps us soothe our nervous systems. We can start to make even more conscious choices about how we lead our lives, including where we invest our talents and whether we are living in alignment with our values.
Who else is going to stand up, if not us? If you can’t you can’t, but if you can you must.
I’m grateful that many are pushing for the transformation of technologies and economic systems that are damaging the very fabric of human society, such as at the Center for Humane Technology. This is urgent and necessary work.
However, it is a top-down approach to fixing the problem and it needs its bottoms-up counterpart.
The success of a documentary hinges on fine storytelling and every good story has to have a villain. In this case social media companies and their wealthy founders played that role.
My plea is that we reclaim our power as individuals as well and not lose sight of the bigger picture. We simply can’t afford not to.