The central theme of the currently trending documentary drama, The Social Dilemma revolves around a major problem that even though is happening in the tech industry, doesn’t have a name. When the interviewer asks experts from diverse industries whether there’s a problem and if yes, what is the problem, there’s a minute of pause taken by all the experts, probably to find words on how to phrase this problem. The dilemma in The Social Dilemma is that while Social Media along with other numerous benefits, has helped us stay connected socially in the times of physical distancing, it is also the reason for accelerating mental health issues, promoting fake news and conspiracy theories, causing extreme political polarization, and sparking hate and communal unrest.
The facts displayed in The Social Dilemma are quite some revelations to the general public. Although social media apps like Facebook and Instagram appear to be free of cost, in reality, these internet companies are being paid by advertisers who pay them to get our attention, hence, making our attention, the product being sold. It’s surprising to note how the algorithms are made to take into account even the amount of time we spend viewing a particular post. Contrary to popular belief, we are not the consumers but the product itself.
Always interested in Psychology, I was familiar with the term “Positive Intermittent Reinforcement” and how it applies to gambling, but I never fathomed about it, being the mechanism with which social media apps work. Each time we refresh our feed, something new may or may not come, we do not know when something new will come, so the habit of checking all the time is reinforced, thereby, making us enter into a loop of dopamine-hits, and keeping us glued to our devices. The same goes for getting new notifications or updates on social media. Also, it’s obvious that we are going to react to a post we are tagged to because that is something we simply can’t just ignore. It’s more of an obligation than a choice? Letting us know that the other person is typing and recommending emojis to send are some other mechanisms these internet companies use to keep us hooked to their platforms. The actions of a team of 50 people in a leading internet company have a direct impact on 2 billion people across the world. They can affect real-world behavior and emotions without ever triggering the user’s awareness who remains completely clueless. The classic irony is that the professionals of persuasive technology have accepted to be susceptible to the very mechanisms they themselves have created. So simply knowing all this wouldn’t help; this is what you get when you exploit vulnerabilities in human psychology.
As a student of Psychology, I find “The Mind” to be mysterious, complex, and even the most dangerous thing on this planet. An analogy given in the documentary-drama is that in the last century, particularly in the last decade, the software or “the technology” has evolved exponentially while the hardware or “our mind & body” remains more-or-less the same, so the hardware cannot handle the software. Though I get what they are trying to point out (that technology has outmatched our brain), I don’t like this analogy specifically because it is blatantly ignoring the fact that the human mind is actually the one who makes all these developments in technology. If we talk about a computer, the hardware does not update or develop the software, a human does. So, I think on this note, the whole analogy falls.
The Social Dilemma explains how we are moving from a tools-based technology environment to an addiction and manipulation-based environment; from an information age to a disinformation age by distinguishing a bicycle from social media. A bicycle is a tool that genuinely sits there waiting to be used while Social Media is not a tool because it keeps demanding things from us, wants our attention, and has the power of influencing our thoughts and behaviors.
Some instances were too relatable, for example, I would not deny that I actually have questioned (in some circumstances), “How can these people be so stupid? Don’t they see what I see?” The documentary makes it simple to understand that everyone receives different information on social media and therefore, No, they are not seeing what I see. The documentary explained with ease how even two people with the same set of friends on social media can have completely different feeds.
Currently doing a course on Psychological Research, I have tried to put the insights from the documentary in ontological and epistemological perspectives. From an ontological perspective, the documentary-drama focuses primarily on Relativism: Multiple Realities Exist. Firstly, towards the end, former Google employee Tristan Harris describes technology as a “simultaneous utopia and dystopia”. Utopia is an imagined place or state of things in which everything is perfect. Dystopia is an imagined state or society in which there is great suffering or injustice, typically one that is totalitarian or post-apocalyptic. The quote “simultaneous utopia and dystopia” encapsulates the focus of the documentary: It primarily plays up well-worn dystopian narratives surrounding technology (causing deteriorating mental health, election hacking, etc) with a sprinkling of early utopian views (where a car is at your door with a click of a button). Therefore, Utopia and Dystopia can only be simultaneous when there are multiple realities. Secondly, the experts talk about how the algorithms are coded in such a way that every person will have different recommendations on google search, for example, the recommendations of typing “climate change is” in the search box depends on the time and location of typing, and the past searches of the person typing. This has been repeatedly emphasized throughout the documentary-drama that every person receives feed and recommendations unique to them. So what I see in the world as “real” is very different from how others will view it. Therefore, the reality is “relative”. From an epistemological perspective, the relationship between the experts and the phenomenon observed (what all goes behind making technology more persuasive and its various effects on people) does not seem to be dualism but the fusion of horizons because the experts in the documentary-drama are not separate from the phenomenon observed, in fact, they are the ones who are behind the phenomenon happening.
I felt alarmed and personally attacked when they threw statistics regarding mental health issues in Gen Z (to which I belong) and how it is a generation that is “more anxious, fragile, and depressed; less comfortable taking risks; even less likely to get a driver’s license or go on a date.” What I find particularly alarming is when the experts say that the algorithms were not made keeping children in mind. Even if they were not, I think it’s their duty in the first place to tell the customers or as they say “users” that these products/services should not be used by children. Similar warning signs come on substances/services considered harmful for children, for example, sharp things (like knives), fire-related stuff, R/A-rated movies, etc. So it seems like they completely ignored this which is very unethical, and now children are falling prey to algorithms that were not even made for them.
With the simultaneous presentation of a hypothetical story of a family with teenagers, an impressive-yet-scary personification of AI, informative interviews with experts from various backgrounds, Tristan’s animated story, news headlines and clips from across the world, and the surprisingly-shocking quotes against a classy black backdrop, the documentary-drama, the Social Dilemma is a relatable, interesting, and well-presented. It’s a must-watch because it “is not something only the tech industry should know. Everyone should know about this.”