The internet is an inescapable aspect of our lives now. We Google our questions, Instagram what we do and tweet our thoughts. Our phones are with us at all times, constantly altering us to their presence and needs.
And it is their needs that are prioritized over our own.
"The Social Dilemma" is a new documentary-drama on Netflix. It explores a concept with dire warnings from former social media executives. The film also follows the fictional story of a family and their experiences with social media and the internet.
Overall, the problem investigated is how this technology exploits our neurology to demand our attention consistently and constantly, profiting these tech giants. They rely on advertisers for revenue, who have your data and use algorithms to better drag us to internet rabbit holes.
Google, Facebook, Pinterest and the others created these persuasive techniques as part of their business model from the very beginning. Now, the AI is advanced enough so even the developers don’t fully understand it.
The documentary also discusses the negative effect of social media and the Internet on children and the ease of spreading misinformation and lies, exacerbated with politics and COVID-19. The issues of adolescent angst and development and national divide have always been present but are aggravated by the ease of communication and tailoring reality.
The many tech experts who give their thoughts, research, and advice are all very eloquent and well-spoken, and I found myself struggling to write down everything they said fast enough. (I have 15 pages of notes). In the beginning, watching them all unable to fully define the problem was especially troubling.
Tristan Harris, who worked at Google, in particular was one of the main sources and both very authentic and understanding of the common human. He knows the science behind the addiction yet still can’t stop checking his notifications, which is both comforting and terrifying.
Stunning visuals depict the harsh realities the tech experts describe and emphasize the prevalence of the internet with the family. The film focuses specifically on Ben (Skyler Gisondo), a high school boy with emojis and notifications constantly popping up around him.
The drama aspect was also enthralling, as it applied what the experts discussed in real life. Tears fell from 11-year-old Isla’s (Sophia Hammon) eyes as she covered her ears with her hair after a hurtful comment on social media, while the increased rates of self-harm hospital trips and suicide for young girls were explained.
A simulation of the internet’s attention extraction model with Ben excellently depicted this phenomenon. Three AI characters (Vincent Kartheiser), Engagement, Advertising and Growth worked at a control panel to draw Ben’s attention from reality and into the virtual with a vast range of tools.
Eventually, in an imagined ideal future, the vague avatar representing Ben became him until he was free with a single AI ready to guide and support his internet explorations.
The relevancy of this documentary was the most powerful element. This information does not exist in a void, and with news clips, references to culture like "The Matrix", "The Truman Show" and "Pizzagate" and explicitly mentioning politics today and COVID-19, it was more accessible, compelling, and understanding than simply presenting the facts.
I also appreciated the film’s acknowledgement that the internet is not simply and completely evil, but instead it is a utopia and dystopia simultaneously. The problem isn’t the freedom or ease of the internet, but rather how these are twisted for less than noble purposes.
The experts don’t have an immediate solution and recognize that this is a decision that isn’t completely theirs, as the creation of this technology was. Now is the time to decide on what truth is, to decide on regulation for tech giants and to attempt protect our vulnerable brains.
If not now, then never. This is our social dilemma.