The Social Dilemma is ahistorical horseshit peddled by scaremongerers and Silicon Valley hypocrites…
It took 25 seconds for Netflix’s social media scare story doc, The Social Dilemma, to start pissing me off. 25 SECONDS.
It began with eery instrumental music — not my description but that of Netflix’s own subtitles — and then threw a quote on the screen:
“Nothing vast enters the life of mortals without a curse.” — Sophocles.
Fucking hell. We all listened to Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson as teenagers too but you don’t need to wank on about it in your movie, nor show off that you too own a little book of quotations.
The first person we meet is a beardy tech guy. The second person we meet is a beardless tech guy. Then there’s a tech woman. Then a tonne of other tech guys. Guess what? They’re all white. They’re all American. They’re all rich. And they’re all… guilty.
This is a mea culpa with good lighting, a way of making excuses for the dirty work they did. They built the social media world we live in and now they want to make excuses for what they did. They didn’t do this when they were making the cash. Of course not.
This is a group of people suddenly deciding that the field of ethics exists. They didn’t care about that when they were getting rich but now they do because it’s starting to impinge on their lives. For academics — like my partner and many of my friends — who work in the fields of technology and ethics, this film will be maddening. It’s both scaremongering and ahistorical. It wants viewers to be terrified of technology and to free the individuals involved from their own complicity in the bad aspects of technology while giving them credit for the good things they did.
The documentary makes wild claims about ‘Snapchat dysmorphia’ — there’s very little evidence that this exists at volume — and features weird dramatised sections that imply children instantly become square-eyed addicts if they have access to a smartphone.
My 10-year-old step-daughter is less interested in her smartphone than I am. She does not see it as a novelty but as a tool which connected to her friends during the lockdown. Her mother and I have constant access to her phone and we ensure she doesn't overuse it, but she doesn’t want to use it all the time. She was born three years after the iPhone. A smartphone is a reality of her existence, not a shiny bauble that distracts from it. It's us — the adults — that have the problem. But we don’t want to admit that.
Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google, is set up as the protagonist and hero of The Social Dilemma. He also has a commercial agenda to push. His company is going to ‘fix’ all this. He pronounces his name — Tris-taaan — and loves a throat mic more than Britney Spears in her prime.
Harris talks with the quiet certainty of every TED speaker and makes ahistorical claims such as that there was never any controversy about the bicycle. It’s a claim someone who hasn’t read much history and certainly hasn’t read much women’s history would make. Women were shamed for riding bikes. Women were told it would physically damage them.
The same shaming attitude has been applied to every technology in human history and moral panics have come with every innovation too. That includes… the book. When Gutenberg created his press, the establishment was terrified and there was a common belief that ‘normal’ people could not cope with the hallucinogenic power of reading words from a page.
You will be told by friends, family, and acquaintances that social media and technology are bad for you and that The Social Dilemma is a cri de cœur designed to save you. It’s not. It’s distributed by Netflix, a company that simply wants to ensure it gets more of your attention dedicated to its platform and must, therefore, while exploiting social media itself, fight those competitors.
There are interesting contributors to The Social Dilemma, Jaron Lanier’s work on technology’s surveillance culture is vital and extremely worth reading. But also there are many, many, many women researching and writing on these topics, there are many people of colour working on these topics and… they’re not really represented in The Social Dilemma.
By using emotive music and strongly-phrased statements, The Social Dilemma makes arguments that seem unquestionable. It’s simplistic and heavy-handed. It’s selling you a different kind of lie. That’s all.