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Thursday, October 01, 2020

The Social Dilemma review: Taking the (click)bait

Sufficiently alarmist, The Social Dilemma, streaming on Netflix, is the Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal equivalent of this generation.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Written by Ektaa Malik | September 15, 2020 10:35:46 am
Social DilemmaThe Social Dilemma is available on Netflix. (Photo: Exposure Labs/Netflix)

The Social Dilemma director: Jeff Orlowski
The Social Dilemma rating: Three and a half stars

There are two things that will happen once you finish watching The Social Dilemma, a documentary that is currently streaming on Netflix. One, you might want to smash your phone on the wall, and second, you will shake your head at the sheer helplessness that will permeate every sense of your being. Trust us, you are not alone in these reactions. The documentary, which dropped albeit a bit silently on the streaming service last week, is described as, “This documentary-drama hybrid explores the dangerous human impact of social networking, with tech experts sounding the alarm on their own creations.” The docu is described by Netflix as ‘Provocative’ and ‘Investigative.’ True on both counts, but what The Social Dilemma really does is, it jolts you out from a false sense of complacency and well-being, and throws you straight into stuff that sci-fi nightmares are made of.

We all know that most social media giants mine data, and they monitor what we do, and are hence able to predict our next move — thank you artificial intelligence (AI). We have sort of made our peace with it, because we think we are making a choice, whether to click that button or not, we think that they are able to mine our data because we allow them to. But this is the illusion that The Social Dilemma breaks so wonderfully, and we are finally able to see the man in the mirror, looking at us, and controlling everything, instead of our own reflection. Data is bleh, whatever, we — and by proxy, our attention is the product, being sold to the highest bidder.

The documentary narrates in great detail how technology and algorithms are placed and exploited to predict and influence human behaviour. This is no longer restricted to you buying a pair of shoes you don’t need, but it goes on to you being influenced to vote a certain way, or even to participate in a violent mob. The experts the documentary ropes in are the very people who have helped create this behemoth of a Frankensteinian monster. Tristan Harris, currently the president and a co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology — former design ethicist at Google — is featured prominently in the documentary. Many ‘formers’ make an appearance in the docu including Tim Kendall, former VP Pinterest; Justin Rosenstien, former engineer with Google and Facebook, Sandy Parakilas, former operations manager Facebook and Jaron Lanier, writer of Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, among others. These are people who have collectively changed the way we live our digital lives. They all say the same thing, “it didn’t start out this way.” And yet here we are, where the very creators of this system are now decrying it, and are ringing alarm bells. What I really want to know is, how did these experts manage their ironclad NDAs (Non-disclosure agreements).

The dramatised bits of the documentary show how each and every click, or the one extra second spent on one picture, every single post that pops in our newsfeed, and how we click on the advertisements and buy things which we later describe as ‘ impulse buys’ to assuage our guilt — well none of that is our doing. We are but mere tiny cogs who do the bidding of the algorithm. We have been successfully stripped of our free will, and well, most of us seem to be OK with it. It’s the plot of every sci-fi horror flick, where not robots, but a system fed by our own behaviour has taken over. Steven Spielberg could perhaps copyright this script.

It’s interesting that the documentary comes at a time when Facebook has been in news in India for turning a blind eye at hate speech posts. The documentary makes a parallel example of the Rohingya massacre in neighbouring Myanmar, where social media aided in the fulfilment of a state-sponsored pogrom. It’s not the first time that people have fallen prey to propaganda — TV till the nineties had a similar sway on public consciousness — but yes, this medium does it far too efficiently. The docu also touches on the aspects of mental health and social media usage.

But The Social Dilemma is silent on one very important aspect of this situation. They don’t address the ‘human angle’ enough. True, the big bad tech giants do their bit and bombard humans with things and posts that make us engage with them, resulting in us spending hours with our eyes glued on a screen. But they fail to mention that why humans are so susceptible to this suggestion? We, as a species, have always wanted validation. Popularity and the accompanying social status have been craved by humans since time memorial. It’s just this time the end is not justifying the means. There is a mention of how the evolution of the human brain has not kept up with the evolution of technology, but we can’t ignore the human contribution that led to this mess.

After the death knell that the experts sound with such authority, they do offer some solutions. Switch off your notifications; no matter what don’t click on the ‘recommended for you button’, and have a non-negotiable screen time curfew with your children, and do not take your cellphone into the bedroom. These steps might seem small and insignificant, but they can go a long way in what is a David vs Goliath situation.

Sufficiently alarmist, The Social Dilemma is the Fast Food Nation equivalent of this generation. The book, in the early 2000s, was an expose of the influence of American fast food globally. The Social Dilemma takes it up many notches. The irony is not lost on us, that we heard about this film on a social media platform. In all likelihood, you will be reading this from one as well. Till then, keep scrolling. Or not.

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