The Social Dilemma: Netflix’s Wake Up Call

Picture of By Naramol (Jaja) Pipoppinyo

By Naramol (Jaja) Pipoppinyo

Digital technology has revolutionarily grown in the past decade, the ever-increasing effects are more prevalent than ever. The new Netflix docudrama The Social Dilemma uncovers the all-knowing dark truth of the media. The film invites ex-Silicon Valley employees to tell their stories working for the tech giants. Topics such as data mining and surveillance capitalism are discussed, and as a student studying Communication Science, it is important to be aware of how these features amplify our addiction, deteriorate our mental health, and unknowingly influence our behavior. 

In its first five minutes, the film does a compelling job of setting the tone as ominous and fearful. Ex-Silicon Valley interviewees are noticeably uncomfortable when asked “what is the problem?”, unveiling their hesitation in revealing the truth. Interviewees nervously laugh, stutter, and stare off into space as they struggle to give a single succinct answer while still touching on the many different problems.

This climate of fear further fosters itself in the drama portion of the film. The fictional story acts as an extended metaphor of how users are being exploited and experimented on by the industry. The storyline follows a group of analysts tracking a young teenage boy with one goal: keep him glued to his phone as much as possible. The tactics and strategies that the analysts use evoke fear as it shows how much information the industry actually has from our digital footprint. With that in mind, the film touches upon the three most apparent dilemmas that we should be aware of.

The Dilemmas

Former Design Ethicist at Google and the Co-Founder at the Center for Human Technology Tristan Harris plays a pinnacle role in helping viewers understand the dilemmas. Harris first introduces the Mental Health dilemma, which touches upon the persuasive design techniques that make us addicted to our phones and eventually, affect our mental health. Much like gambling, features such as push notifications use the technique of positive intermittent reinforcement. Harris mentions that  “you don’t know when you’re gonna get it, or if you’re gonna to get something”, activating an unconscious habit for users to pick up their phone. For example push notifications seem like a neutral mediator, informing us when our friends send a message or tag us in a photo. On the contrary, this feature touches upon a deep-seated human personality where we are curious and compelled to see what the message or photo is. Think about that Snapchat notification that tells you when a friend is typing, or when we check the last moment someone was active. All these features are there to keep you on the phone just a little bit longer before you are distracted by another addictive feature. 

Ex-Silicon employees who created these features have trouble staying off their phones themselves, as they fall prey to their own creation. Even knowing what was going on behind the curtains, they weren’t able to control their usage.

The film exemplifies the extreme powers of these techniques by demonstrating the classic irony behind the situation. Ex-Silicon employees who created these features have trouble staying off their phones themselves, as they fall prey to their own creation. Even knowing what was going on behind the curtains, they weren’t able to control their usage. Further along in the storyline, the teenage boy loses interest in his phone which worries the analysts. Using the information and data they have, the analysts send a push notification about his crush. This successfully reels the boy into using his social media app again, resulting in a celebratory cheer by the analysts. 

Secondly, the Democracy dilemma reveals how social media advertising can reach a large number of people, hampering their ability to think freely. Harris explains that  “social media amplifies exponential gossip and exponential hearsay”, making it difficult to know what’s true or not. Disinformation is more common than ever as tech giants and other businesses allow this to happen because of how highly profitable the gambit is. True information is boring whereas false information can be carefully crafted to fuel the users’ desires. The documentary shows this is why current news has headlines such as “cocaine kills coronavirus”. It’s the reason why people believe the world is flat or people believe the coronavirus is a hoax. And it doesn’t help that the algorithm is in the midst of it all, trying to find users the content and information they want to hear. This idea is closely associated with the last dilemma of the film known as the Discrimination dilemma

It implies that different people are informed about different things, fuelling the political division in society.

This Discrimination dilemma considers how algorithms have resulted in polarization that is greater than ever. Algorithms can create highly intricate personalized feeds, weeding out the information we as users don’t want so that we stay on the app more. The more we use it, the smarter the algorithm gets. This creates a problem because users start creating a false perception of the world, thinking that people are more similar than they actually are. When in reality, we are only exposed to like-minded people which creates larger gaps and biases between different groups. Searching the same thing on google will give you a different list of searches depending on the area of the world you live in. It implies that different people are informed about different things, fuelling the political division in society. This creates a problem as Harris explains that “if we can’t agree on what’s true, then we can’t navigate out of any of our problems”.

The Solution 

The beginning of the documentary instills fear in viewers, demonstrating the ill-fated relationship society has with technology. However, the end of the film plants a sliver of hope if we, as users, adopt the three essential solutions to tackle the dilemma. First, it is important that we share the problem by starting a conversation with others. To fight fire-with-fire, posting on social media would target people who need to hear about it the most. Secondly, the film considers that users reboot their technological use by finding ways to lower down screen time and increasing digital privacy and security. This can be as simple as disabling push notifications for unnecessary apps or setting a time limit to when the phone can or cannot be used. Lastly, the film recommends that we as a society rebuild the system such as joining the movement for human technology. Ex-Silicon Valley employees recommend following people on social media that we disagree with to decrease the digital polarization. There is a way to change the digital landscape by making the right choices. We can always undo what we create but the question raised by Harris is that are businesses willing to admit that “those bad outcomes are coming directly out of the product of our work?”.

Cover: geralt


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