by Daniel Wang, Staff Writer, October 2020

How many hours do you spend on your phone every day? On a sunny August morning, I asked myself this very question. After fumbling through my Settings options, I tapped ‘Screen Time’, eager to confirm that I rarely used my phone. To my shock, I had spent an average of four hours (not forty minutes) a day staring at my portable LCD screen. How was this possible? Had I forgotten to turn my phone off? Did the built-in screen time calculator encounter a glitch? Was my mind being subconsciously controlled by a team of software engineers eagerly manipulating my attention span for corporate profit? These inquiries take center stage in Jeff Orlowski’s most recent documentary: “The Social Dilemma”.

In “The Social Dilemma,” Orlowski features a medley of ‘talking head’ interviews with famous figures in the tech industry to explore the line between technology and ethics in our digital world. With the help of clever editing, the comments of his various interlocutors blend seamlessly together, creating a provocative call to action against social media. 

The film begins with an overview of how algorithms use vast quantities of data to simulate human behavior. Software companies use these data-driven models to configure the optimal advertisements for each user. Google, Facebook, and other tech giants earn most of their revenue through the speculative capacity of their software. As Dr. Shoshana Zuboff—Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School—elaborates, “We now have markets that trade in human features, at scale, and those markets have produced the trillions of dollars that have made the internet companies the richest companies in the history of humanity.” In other words: advertisers are the real consumers, and users are their unwitting product. This profit model is commonly known as “surveillance capitalism”. 

Even more alarmingly, social media corporations use persuasive technology to manipulate our decision making processes. Take, for example, the intentional design of the notification. Although it would be much more efficient if messages themselves appeared on our lock screens, by forcing users to unlock their phones and check each application individually, software engineers ingrain a sense of risk and reward into such mundane events as reading an email or tweet. Overtime, the vibration of our phones has become an instinctive signal to unlock our devices. This design is dangerous for the same reason that it is effective; the user is entirely oblivious to the fact that they are being psychologically conditioned like a twenty-first century Pavlov’s dog. As one interviewee, Jason Lanier — considered the father of virtual reality — summarizes: “We’ve put deceit and sneakiness at the absolute center of everything that we do.”

The combination of surveillance capitalism and persuasive technology creates dangerous echo chambers that confirm and support our deep-seated biases. This is because search engines and social media platforms use individual preferences to optimize personal feeds, giving each user a personalized perspective. According to Asana co-founder Justin Rosenstein, “When you go to Google and type in ‘climate change is’, you are going to receive different results depending on where you live.” As a result, every social media user unconsciously curates and inhabits their own version of reality, worsening the political polarization of the modern world. This trend, according to Orlowski, will ultimately dismantle the very fibers of democracy which bind our society together. As Travis Harris — a former design ethicist at Google and one of the co-founders of the Center for Humane Technology — states, “This is checkmate humanity.” 

Although “The Social Dilemma” successfully conveys the numerous problems associated with modern digital technology, the documentary fails to provide any tenable solutions to prevent the existential threat of social media. Many of the experts optimistically provide that the financial incentives of mining user data will ultimately cave under significant public pressure. However, given that the tech sector earns trillions of dollars each year in revenue, the prospect of a swift and simple business model transformation does not seem likely. 

Moreover, Orlowski fails to distinguish between problems inherently associated with and problems rooted in exploitative capitalism. For example, at the end of the film, the audience is bombarded with tips to reduce their screen time and social media usage. But would this actually solve any problems? As mentioned in the film, the tech corporations themselves are not user-driven but profit-driven; the number of active social media accounts doesn’t necessarily matter so long as advertisements are effective at captivating their audiences. Hence, decreasing technology usage does nothing to address the broader, systemic issues concerning how tech companies manipulate their software for profit. 

Finally, in a roundabout way, “The Social Dilemma” — a Netflix original production — profits from the very technology which it critiques. I only became aware of the documentary because my Netflix account alerted me that it matched my viewing preferences by 98% (whatever that means). How did the streaming site know that I would feel profoundly shaped by the film? You guessed it — computational algorithms. Why isn’t Netflix’s preference system detailed in “The  Social Dilemma”? Are we supposed to finish the apocalyptic film feeling that Netflix is an exception because their products are catered to users? I certainly do not feel that way after wasting hours of my weekends binge watching “Ugly Delicious” or “Mr. Iglesias.” So many questions. So few answers. Oh, did someone just send me an email?