I checked my phone three times while watching The Social Dilemma. The documentary is about an hour and a half long, meaning I averaged a pick up every thirty minutes or so. It’s only fair to tell you that I resisted the temptation to pick it up another six or seven times because I’m painfully self-aware. Scrolling while half-listening to a twenty-something tell me my mind is being penetrated, data harvested and my psyche transformed is too satirical, even for a woman of my tastes.
Now I really don’t want to pick my phone up at all.
Described in the blurb as ‘documentary-drama hybrid explor[ing] the dangerous human impact of social networking’, The Social Dilemma hired former Facebook, Instagram & Twitter designer/programmers to describe to us how we’re at least partially complicit in an impending crisis that threatens our existence. We’re not entirely responsible – a relief of sorts – but that too loses the power to soothe when the architects of the very technology we’re discussing stare disconsolately into the camera when asked how we can avoid our fate.
It’s beautifully put together. The interviews are conducted in elegant, open plan offices spaces, (most of) the contributors have smart haircuts and wear the uniform of the Silicon Valley hipster; crisp white shirts, expensive understated fabrics and short trousers revealing the beautifully turned tan ankles of those who never played sport in college. Lint rollers and nervous, guilty faces emerge before filming proper begins.
This in itself is bothersome. Terrible news should cut the screen on your back door and slither into your home under cover of darkness, hunchbacked and covered in pustules. We recognise it then. The physiological symptoms of fight or flight are somewhat disarmed if the threat arrives at the front door in broad daylight looking like Brad Pitt and proffering a tray of homemade cookies, still warm to the touch.
And those aren’t just handy metaphors. We’ve accepted social media into our lives as though it’s a long lost family member. We actively choose to spend time with our social accounts over our relatives and they do the same. We half-watch things on TV, ignore our flesh friends in favour of cyphers and obtain legitimate hits of dopamine every time a stranger responds to a crap joke with a tears of joy emoji. What harm does it do?
I’ll leave the technical details to the documentary. Specifically, the bits about machines under the sea watching your eyes flick between channels, measuring your engagement in microseconds and learning what you like so they can give you more of it. You still have control over what you choose to look at and when, don’t you? If you’re reading this you’re probably not a teenager, so your personality, moral code and drives were formed way before social media started isolating kids and foisting impossible standards upon them every day of their lives. You’re in control.
You’re not. The days when agency informed your choices are gone, replaced by AI so efficient it knows what you want, when you’ll want it and how. Again, not necessarily problematic, until you’re informed by the people that conceived, built and refined these programs, that the machines can’t tell the difference between truth and lies. If it’s popular, the artificial brain assumes you’ll be interested.
Have you been watching the world lately? Wondering why everyone else is so enraged? Why we’re seeing polarisation of classes, races, religions and communities? How all of a sudden mad conspiracy theories like ‘the world is flat’ are attracting thousands of followers whose casual discontent has been weaponised by a righteous belief in their truth?
The Social Dilemma uses facts, graphs, statistics and drama to articulate its points. I’m generally repelled by dramatic reenactments of real-life situations. They’re usually irritating and the actors look as though they accepted the work because it was that or waitressing, but in this case, they’re utilised perfectly. They run contemporaneously to the narration, serving the articulate how these incredibly complex processes manifest in our lives.
The documentary dismantled my scepticism brick by brick, the urge to pick up my phone withering under the glare of exposure. I’m thinking about how I can minimise my time online given it’s my job. I’ve turned off my notifications. You might say I’m weak-minded. I’m used to that. Perhaps you think I’m easily led, and that it’s somewhat ironic that I’m succumbing to the kind of propaganda I’m simultaneously warning you about.
Just watch it. You might not care. Maybe you don’t believe it. AI can’t probe our deepest darkest thoughts and for many, admitting that as a species we’ve been irrevocably manipulated and altered by tech is too difficult to process effectively. Best not to try. Perhaps you’re too strong-minded for this to have happened to you. We get warnings about mutually assured destruction all the time and nothing much happens, so why is this any different? The experts imply that it’s too late to drag us back from the brink anyway, so is it worth trying? Is COVID-19 even real?
What’s to say this, like everything else on the internet these days, is true? It could be fake news. Claiming Pete Campbell from Mad Men is in charge of the machines that now rule our lives is a bit of a stretch, after all.
Just bear in mind it’s 2020, though. Anything is possible.
Further Reading: Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now by Jaron Lanier.