Description of The Social Dilemma – a conversation:
TSR discusses Netflix’s new documentary drama, The Social Dilemma. Come join The Socially Remote!
Summary of The Social Dilemma – a conversation:
In this episode, TSR discusses The Social Dilemma, a new Netflix original docu-drama. We introduce the topic by discussing the history and people behind the film, then we dive into the film’s strengths and weaknesses, some additional detail about how paid advertising works on these mediums, and a Christian response to the film and social media in general.
Introduction to The Social Dilemma – a conversation
On this episode of The Socially Remote, we discuss Netflix’s new documentary drama, The Social Dilemma. As we discuss we’ll attempt to contextualize some of the phrases and characterizations for anyone who has not yet had an opportunity to watch the film. But if you want to watch The Social Dilemma, you can watch it on Netflix.
Sneak Peek of The Social Dilemma – a conversation
The Social Dilemma – cast
The Social Dilemma was released a few weeks ago as original Netflix production billed as a “documentary/drama hybrid exploring the dangerous human impact of social networking, with tech experts sounding the alarm on their own creations.” It is directed by Jeff Orlowski. He’s a 36-year-old Stanford educated (anthropology major) film director who lives in Boulder, CO. He is best known for his environmental films Chasing Ice and Chasing Coral.
The individual who gets the most screen time is Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google and now president of the Center for Humane Technology. The film also includes a number of former mid-to-senior-level technical engineers and managers at Google, Facebook, Twitter. The film also incorporates academics who have researched social media. These individuals share their experiences working at the various social media companies or their academic research into the use of social media.
The Social Dilemma – thesis and background
In the early minutes, film depicts Harris as realizing as a Google design engineer of the societal and personal issues social media was causing and recalls a PowerPoint he drafted while at Google entitled “A Call to Minimize Distraction & Respect User’s Attention.” We are embedding it here:
In case you don’t go through all 141 slides, in the PowerPoint Harris describes the following about social media:
- Weakens our relationships with others
- Destroys our ability to focus
- Plays on human’s vulnerabilities such as intermittent rewards or so called “slot machine” effect that encourages fast thinking rather than slow, reflective thinking
- Encourages impulsive/mindless behavior
Harris circulated the PowerPoint to a few close colleagues at Google, but the film indicates that it took off within the four walls of Google and was widely viewed. Initially people thought it was a wake-up call to change, but then nothing happened.
The Social Dilemma – Surveillance Capitalism
Additionally in the film, Harris notes that a handful of white, 25-35 year old men are largely in charge of creating algorithms on the various social media platforms to curate our online experiences, feed these negative consequences, and maximize profit through “surveillance capitalism.” Surveillance capitalism is an economic system centered around the commodification of personal data for the core purpose of profit making.
Using our data to make money is at the core of the social media business model. The film points out that there are only two industries that call their customers “users.” The drug industry and software. But in the case of social media, we are not actually the customers. We are the product. The customers are advertisers who are paying for our attention.
As an aside, we talked briefly about Amazon/Ring’s new home surveillance drone (the Ring Always Home Cam), and David likened it to Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
The Social Dilemma – the drama
The film highlights a specific family (and one particular individual) who struggles with social media usage, is increasingly checked-out of the world, and distracted. And, when his family asks him to put his phone down for a few days, the film depicts three social media designers / engineers (embodiments of the algorithm presumably living in his phone) who are trying to figure out how to get him back on their platform (through notifications, tagging of photos, etc.).
The Social Dilemma – the conclusion
Finally, the film concludes that the result of these negative consequences is a growing division among our citizenry and the tribalism (my word, not theirs) that ultimately threaten democracy itself.
For the Counselors
David had seen a fair amount of this information before. But the idea that we are competing with a supercomputer whose sole purpose is to cater specific content in order to keep you engaged with the platform is sobering. And it’s not a fair fight, because the average person doesn’t know what is happening behind the scenes. Indeed, it is quite disturbing that many of the engineers can’t even fully describe what is happening anymore. And one of the academics said that algorithms aren’t neutral or objective. They are opinion written in code. There Tristan had a slide where he outlined that our general conception of AI is when that intelligence overcomes human strength (think Terminator). Instead, the true point of our defeat is when they overcome human weakness. AI exploits our vulnerabilities.
There’s a scene in the drama where the mom puts cell phones in a locked container, and I was amused when the daughter jail broke her phone. As an aside, I remember Andy Crouch talking about this idea (putting screens away during family time) in The Tech Wise Family, and I thought it was a really great one.
Matt recalled Episodes 3 and 4 of The Socially Remote, when we discussed the societal impact of social media. He felt validated and justified about his specific point regarding social media leading us to be incapable of interacting with one another without a 3rd party mediator. And one of the individuals they interviewed (Jaron Lanier), made this point almost exactly. The only way people can connect online is through, as he says, “A sneaky third party, it is actively trying to manipulate these people. The result is a global generation where the very meaning of connection and culture is manipulation.”
Deep Dive on The Social Dilemma – a conversation
Strengths and Weaknesses of the The Social Dilemma
The ethos of the film was very strong. The fact that they brought in folks who worked for these companies (Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Google, etc.). And they didn’t seem to have an axe to grind was a huge success. The individuals were very believable. The drama seemed a bit of a stretch, but there were still helpful portions of it.
There was also little bit of “conspiracy theory” feel to the film. And that was likely due to not having an opposing viewpoint. In fact, since we recorded this episode, Facebook has released an official response to The Social Dilemma. However, the ethos of the speakers really made up for this weakness (i.e. they acknowledged the good of the platforms and weren’t just trying to bring down social media).
Additionally there were some weaknesses from a Christian point-of-view (particularly from a solutions standpoint), which we address further on.
Pulling Back the Curtain
Steven discussed the reality of what is going on from the perspective of his days doing marketing. The amount of data that his company had access to even five or six years ago was staggering. They could analyze the data in much the same way that the film dramatizes the algorithms in the phone. They knew what words people were searching to land on their websites; how long people stayed on individual pages; what parts of those pages they staid on; age-range; roughly what area of the country they were from; and they could even change the phone number on the website to match specific keywords, so they would know which search words were actually resulting in phone calls (or emails, or contact in some other way).
One of the disconnects of the film that Steven helped explain was the idea of “impressions.” In the drama the three guys in the phone that were personifying A.I. would from time-to-time hit a “SOLD” button, and it was usually for something inconsequential, like 3.4 cents. Steven explained that depending on the popularity of the ad word his company was vying for mind-share on, they would set a budget with Google and would pay each time that ad word generated a click from a search. With billions of people searching, it was not difficult to burn through $100 for a particular word in a month.
Ultimately, Steven’s company walked away from this sort of advertising, because it didn’t make a significant difference to the bottom line. However, now that A.I. is doing a lot of this analysis and making these small edits on the fly to increase impressions and views, it may be more valuable. Indeed, what these tech companies are selling is the ability to change minds and if they can move the dial on two billion people by 1% (particularly for business-to-consumer enterprises), the value of that is staggering.
One final point of clarification that Steven made was the difference between “paid” and “organic” search engine optimization (SEO). Websites can gain that mindshare organically, meaning that they are the first impressions on search engines based solely on content. But the company you are using for searching (be it Google, Facebook, or whatever) still controls the algorithms that determine what constitutes “good content” for their users. And many are providing notification when there is a “sponsored” (i.e. paid) result.
The Christian Response to the Social Dilemma
Our Value and Self-Worth
The fix to the problems identified in the film is not “making social media better.” If you notice the slides from Tristan above, slides 26-29 allude to sin. He got so close without actually coming out and saying it. But sin and our brokenness is the real problem here. We think that there are other things that can fill our hearts and fill our lives and make us happy. It is really the all-sufficiency of the Gospel that matters.
Tristan at one point says that these platforms take over our sense of self-worth and identity and become the places where we draw those things from. The platform itself is not evil, but there are manipulative processes going on behind the scenes that we are largely unaware of. So it’s not a completely neutral medium. Despite that, you can’t blame the platform. Our sense of self-worth and value and identity should come from Christ. It should come from being an image-bearer of God created to worship him. Not from what a thousand acquaintances think of us.
The film called social media a digital pacifier. And, at one point, the film makes mention that we tend to go to these platforms when we’re feeling lonely or bored or anxious or depressed. Unfortunately, these platforms often just exacerbate these feelings in the long-run. We go to them for distraction from these feelings. As Neil Postman titled his 1985 book, we are Amusing Ourselves to Death.
As believers we should be going to Christ with these feelings.
Redeem the time. We can waste time in all sorts of ways, even if we’re not on social media. But our screens are the most prevalent waste of time in our society today. Everyone is looking at a screen nearly everywhere you go. Anytime there is a down moment we look at our screens. Life is a vapor (James 4:14). And what is our life except for time. And too many of us are giving our lives to social media. There are actually safeguards you can put in place (apps, extensions, etc.).
One of the solutions offered in the film was through additional regulations and policy. Check out The Center for Humane Technology for some of their initiatives. There are legislative initiatives that are already being crafted. Unfortunately, these are only small adjustments to a much larger problem, because, ultimately big tech is too big. Secondarily, David’s wife shared another podcast with us that discusses with the Barna group how social media is actually discipling our kids.
On a personal note, Steven indicated that social media plays to his ego. So that is another aspect of social media that needs to be guarded against (but which is ultimately linked to self worth). Additionally, there are ways to do ministry on social media. There are good things about social media. So it’s about your heart. We operate within culture, so to simply unplug can cause us to lose ministry opportunities. It can be a tool, but you have to guard against letting that tool rule you.
At the end of the film, they asked these former employees for some practical solutions. Some of the most useful to me were: turn off notifications (unless it is timely and important to me right now), don’t click the first website on searches, don’t click the auto-populated items (i.e. throw off the algorithms a bit).
Finally, changing gears a bit, the statistics about hospitalization and suicide rates among teen and pre-teen girls was chilling:
Since the three of us all have girls, these statistics should be a wake-up call to everyone. Pursuant to that, the three of us also have boys. So this stat made us wonder how social media is effecting boys too (which the film didn’t address). So Steven’s final parting shot is to be intentional (which he acknowledges being terrible about). He recommended The Tech-Wise Family as a good resource for minimizing the impact of digital life on your life.
What a great episode!
Just a tease of what’s coming up on The Socially Remote:
- Episode 15 – The Christian and Politics
- Episodes 16 and 17 – Conversation with Dr. Carl Trueman about his upcoming book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self
- Episode 18 – Season Finale – The Socially Remote Recap
If you have something to share for our season finale (what did you like, what didn’t you like, what do you want to see next season, etc.), please shoot us a message to our email address.
If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to rate and review us on whatever platform you listen. And I guess, based on this episode, don’t share us on the socials? (unless you want to have an impact for good.)
Please tune in for our next episode where we’ll talk about The Christian and Politics
Until next time, we are The Socially Remote!
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About The Socially Remote
Does it ever seem like the longer you adult, the less social you become? The responsibilities of being a spouse, a parent, and an employee often leave us with little time for meaningful interaction outside our home and office. As a result, many of us aren’t even remotely social. We try to fill the void with outlets like Facebook and Twitter, but we soon discover social media isn’t as social as it sounds. And the effort we put into soliciting likes and comments doesn’t produce stronger relationships with other people like we’d hoped.
This podcast is an attempt by a pastor, a lawyer, and a generalist to combat the growing culture of social isolation by making time for meaningful conversations about life, theology, and the church. We want to create space in our lives to engage in regular discussion and debate with those around us, and we hope this podcast will encourage you to do the same.
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