Thursday, December 10, 2020

The Social Dilemma

Just watched the documentary The Social Dilemma on Netflix, which takes a critical look at some of the tech giants that dominate our world today (although not Netflix itself, for some reason), largely from the perspective of some former employees who helped them achieve this dominance and are now having second thoughts. One of the most prominent members of this group is Tristan Harris, formerly with Google, now the president of an organization called the Center for Humane Technology. He and others have been airing these concerns for several years already - see for example Noah Kulwin's 2018 article (link below).

The documentary opens by asking the contributors to state the problem, and shows them all initially hesitating. By the end of the documentary, however, they are mostly making large statements about the morality of encouraging addictive behaviour, the propagation of truth and lies, the threat to democracy, the ease with which these platforms can be used by authoritarian rulers and other bad actors, and the need for regulation.

Quantity becomes quality. To some extent, the phenomena and affordances of social media can be regarded as merely scaled-up versions of previous social tools, including advertising and television: the maxim If you aren't paying, you are the product derives from a 1973 video about the power of commercial television. However, several of the contributors to the documentary observed that the power of the modern platforms and the wealth of the businesses that control these platforms is unprecedented, while noting that social media is far less regulated than other mass communication enterprises, including television and telecommunications.

Contributors doubted whether we could expect these enterprises, or the technology sector generally, to fix these problems on their own - especially given the focus on profit, growth and shareholder value that drives all enterprises within the capitalist system. Is it fair to ask them to reform capitalism? (Many years ago, the architect J.P. Eberhard noted a tendency to escalate even small problems to the point where the entire capitalist system comes into question, and argued that We Ought To Know The Difference.) So is regulation the answer?

Surprisingly enough, Facebook doesn't think so. In its response to the documentary, it complains

The film’s creators do not include insights from those currently working at the companies or any experts that take a different view to the narrative put forward by the film.

As Pranav Malhotra notes, it's not hard to find experts who would offer a different perspective, in many cases offering far more fundamental and far-reaching criticisms of Facebook and its peers. Hey Facebook, careful what you wish for!

Last year, Tristan Harris appeared to call for a new interdisciplinary field of research, focused on exploring the interaction between technology and society. Several people including @ruchowdh pointed out that such a field was already well-established. (In response he said he already knew this, and apologized for his poor choice of words, blaming the Twitter character limit.)

So there is already an abundance of deep and interesting work that can help challenge the simplistic thinking of Silicon Valley in a number of areas including

  • Truth and Objectivity
  • Technological Determinism
  • Custodianship of Technology (for example Latour's idea that we should Love Our Monsters - see also article by Adam Briggle)

These probably deserve a separate post each, if I can find time to write them. 

The Social Dilemma (dir Jeff Orlowski, Netflix 2020)

Wikipedia: The Social Dilemma, Television Delivers People

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Ethics of Artificial Intelligence and Robotics, Phenomenological Approaches to Ethics and Information Technology, Philosophy of Technology


Adam Briggle, What can be done about our modern-day Frankensteins? (The Conversation, 26 December 2017)

Robert L. Carneiro, The transition from quantity to quality: A neglected causal mechanism in accounting for social evolution  (PNAS 97:23, 7 November 2000)

Rumman Chowdhury, To Really 'Disrupt,' Tech Needs to Listen to Actual Researchers (Wired, 26 June 2019)

Facebook, What the Social Dilemma Gets Wrong (2020)

Tristan Harris, “How Technology Is Hijacking Your Mind—from a Magician and Google Design Ethicist”, Thrive Global, 18 May 2016

Noah Kulwin, The Internet Apologizes (New York Magazine, 16 April 2018)

John Lanchester, You Are The Product (London Review of Books, Vol. 39 No. 16, 17 August 2017)

Bruno Latour, Love Your Monsters: Why we must care for our technologies as we do our children (Breakthrough, 14 February 2012) 

Pranav Malhotra, The Social Dilemma Fails to Tackle the Real Issues in Tech (Slate, 18 September 2020)

Richard Serra and Carlota Fay Schoolman, Television Delivers People (1973) 

Zadie Smith, Generation Why? (New York Review of Books, 25 November 2010)

Siva Vaidhyanathan, Making Sense of the Facebook Menace (The New Republic, 11 January 2021)

Related posts: The Perils of Facebook (February 2009), We Ought to Know the Difference (April 2013), Rhyme or Reason: The Logic of Netflix (June 2017), On the Nature of Platforms (July 2017), Ethical Communication in a Digital Age (November 2018), Shoshana Zuboff on Surveillance Capitalism (February 2019)

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