The Social Dilemma Review: Why I feel strongly about the Netflix documentary

Thanks to Tony Robbins at UPW where he recommended it & I watched The Social Dilemma, I have been looking out at the resources to bring information curated to help you understand whether you should watch the documentary or not. I bring to you The Social Dilemma Review.

The Social Dilemma focuses on how big social media companies manipulate users by using algorithms that encourage addiction to their platforms. It also shows, fairly accurately, how platforms harvest personal data to target users with ads – and have so far gone largely unregulated. 

But what are we meant to do about it? While the Netflix feature educates viewers about the problems social networks present to both our privacy and agency, it falls short of providing a tangible solution.

“Never before in history have 50 designers made decisions that would have an impact on two billion people,” says Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google. Anna Lembke, an addiction expert at Stanford University, explains that these companies exploit the brain’s evolutionary need for interpersonal connection. And Roger McNamee, an early investor in Facebook, delivers a chilling allegation: Russia didn’t hack Facebook; it simply used the platform.

Much of this is familiar, but “The Social Dilemma” goes the extra explainer-mile by interspersing the interviews with P.S.A.-style fictional scenes of a suburban family suffering the consequences of social-media addiction. There are silent dinners, a pubescent daughter (Sophia Hammons) with self-image issues and a teenage son (Skyler Gisondo) who’s radicalized by YouTube recommendations promoting a vague ideology.

This fictionalized narrative exemplifies the limitations of the documentary’s sometimes hyperbolic emphasis on the medium at the expense of the message. For instance, the movie’s interlocutors pin an increase in mental illness on social media usage yet don’t acknowledge factors like a rise in economic insecurity. Polarization, riots and protests are presented as particular symptoms of the social-media era without historical context.

Despite their vehement criticisms, the interviewees in “The Social Dilemma” are not all doomsayers; many suggest that with the right changes, we can salvage the good of social media without the bad. But the grab bag of personal and political solutions they present in the film confuses two distinct targets of critique: the technology that causes destructive behaviors and the culture of unchecked capitalism that produces it.

Be Prepared To Feel The Urge To Deactivate Your Social Accounts

There were multiple times while watching The Social Dilemma where I wanted to get rid of all my social media accounts, turn off my phone, and throw it out the window. And while that’s admittedly a little dramatic, the film will more than likely have that same effect on you. When you have tech engineers admitting that their former companies don’t really have a full understanding on the artificial intelligences they have built to run platforms like Facebook and Google, you start to feel like you’re entering The Terminator or something. It’s like we’ve opened Pandora’s box that has been placed behind a floodgate that we can’t seem to close.

OMG! Are we in the Matrix?!

The way the film depicts things, we’re supposed to believe that we’re powerless pawns whose minds are completely controlled by algorithms, that social networks are too big to contain or control, that their insidious tendrils have wormed their way into every corner of human life, and that they have penetrated the depths of the human brain where they manipulate people’s wills with the coercive force of mind-altering drugs.

All of this makes for riveting drama in the mold of sci-fi horror classics like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Terminator, Alien, and Cloverfield. When we watch these films, the overall effect is a thrill-ride experience. Like a roller coaster, it’s something that feels dangerous even though in reality it’s safer than driving your kids to soccer practice. The illusion of danger makes these films entertaining. It makes The Social Dilemma entertaining as well.

There is, of course, a difference. What makes thrilling film experiences possible is an implicit agreement between us and the filmmakers—they agree to present a story that makes our hair stand on end, and we agree to ignore the ways the story skirts reality or fudges facts. The Social Dilemma’s clever twist is that we’re informed of no such agreement. It’s billed as a documentary. It’s supposed to be real. Despite that, the filmmakers use some of the same dramatic techniques as the films mentioned above. Chief among them is the illusion of being powerless.

the social dilemma three guys
A still from The Social Dilemma

Feeling powerless is one of the things that makes horror horrifying. The protagonists are powerless to fight the monsters, and we’re powerless to help them: “Don’t open the door!” “Grab the gun!” “Forget the cat, you fool!” “Run!!!” The temporary feeling of powerlessness is part of what makes horror films fun (if you’re into that kind of thing). When it’s all over, you can breathe a sigh of relief that you’re not really as powerless as you felt.

The illusion of powerlessness depends on two things: stronger-than-life monsters and weaker-than-life protagonists. Seen in this light, it’s clear why the film couldn’t present reasonable, level-headed solutions to the problems that social media poses—it would have burst the dramatic bubble the filmmakers worked so hard to create.

If social media and its close cousins really are such powerful corrupting forces, if Mark Zuckerberg and other tech-industry leaders really are canny digital Darth Vaders, if social media and its ilk really are addictive drugs that hijack the brain, you really can’t finish the story with seven nifty tips for curbing your social media intake. When the monster is so monstrous and the stakes so high, the only appropriate dramatic finish is to call in the fighter jets and missile strikes—or the legislative analogues thereof.

The Social Dilemma is good drama, but good drama can trigger bad decisions. The reality of social media and its challenges is much more mundane than the film depicts. We are not powerless, social media is not a drug, and we are not pawns—unless we want to be.

No, you’re not in the Matrix

If my research has led me to any conclusions about technology, habits, and a balanced use of social media, it’s this: you are far from powerless. In reality, you can do a lot short of killing your LinkedIn account and nuking your Instagram handle. You can learn, as dieters do, that all things in moderation can actually work better than going cold turkey, that the mean between extremes is the path of progress.

Today, there are countless ways to reclaim your time and attention and find the right balance of social-media use, including a cottage industry of tools, like apps that cleverly limit the time spent on certain websites, and movements to disconnect for periods of time. Creative technologists and designers have built products to limit tracking, defeat the temptation of watching the next video on YouTube, and even block Facebook’s Newsfeed altogether. These tools work, and there’s nothing big bad tech companies can do to reach into your device and uninstall them. We can all take action and take steps to limit distraction and the bad aspects of social media, starting right now.

Why would we wait for politicians or the tech companies to fix this for us? If you hold your breath, you’re going to suffocate.

Our ability to take action to change our circumstances gives us hope and ultimately improves our lives. But freedom is precisely what we agree to check at the cinema door when we watch a horror flick. It’s also what we’re expected to disregard when we watch The Social Dilemma whose dramatic elements cleave too closely to the horror genre to ignore.

Films like this have to entertain and grab viewers, and perhaps the best way to do that is to fudge facts and go whole hog presenting a single point of view. You can quibble with that, but you can also understand the impulse—there’s a lot of great stuff on Netflix, and if you’re competing for attention with The Last Dance and The Crown, you’ve got to sell the sizzle and the steak. It’s a tough streaming world out there.

Acknowledging all that, viewer discretion is advised! If you decide to check your ability to make decisions at the door, don’t forget to pick it up again on the way out! Don’t forget that you are a powerful individual.

In a recent interview on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, Tristan Harris, the main character in The Social Dilemma, restated a theme from the film saying, “We are all, three billion of us, forced to use technology platforms that are not aligned with the public or social good.”

Again, this is good drama, but it’s a bad description of reality. In reality, we are not “forced” to use social media. Even if we acknowledge that these services are valuable—even essential—for accomplishing various tasks, no one is forcing us to use them in excess or even in the way social-media executives intend.

The film is right that there are tech companies (including Netflix) that want to influence what you think, how you feel, and what you do. Ironically, they relish the metaphor that some people are “addicted to technology” the way others are addicted to drugs, and would love for you to buy into the illusion that you’re powerless to resist their content. Why? Because they know that when people think there’s nothing they can do about a problem, they stop trying to fix it. In psychology, this principle is called “learned helplessness.”

If you’re convinced you’re powerless to combat a sinister technology seeking to colonize your life, you’ll stay plugged in, waiting in vain for your senator to fix the problem. In reality, you could be fixing the problem yourself much more quickly and effectively. You could be taking steps to moderate your social-media use and teaching your children to do the same.

Is it effortless? No. It’s hard to hear your kids whining for more time online and it’s not always easy to stop scrolling sometimes. I get it. I’ve been there too. But like many good things in life, it’s worth the work. We can do this if we try. The trouble is, brainwashed by the disempowering message in The Social Dilemma, many people won’t even take the first step. “Why bother if it’s hopeless?,” they think.

Hacking Back Against Big Tech

If social media companies are indeed trying to “hack” our attention, who says we can’t hack back? Nothing prevents us from taking action right now to curb our social-media use except our own willingness to do nothing.

My hope is that viewers who finish the film and who are concerned about the effects of social networks explore real solutions.

One answer—the one that’s worked for me and I shared in detail with the filmmakers—is becoming indistractable. I call this the skill of the century, because it empowers you to take control of your attention and your life without having to beg for mercy from the tech giants. I embarked on my research and developed this method to solve my own problems with distraction, and you can use what I’ve learned to take action in your own life.

First realize that you’re more powerful than you think. Specifically, you’re more powerful than the technology you’re using.

How do I know? Because I literally wrote the book on how social media gets you hooked. Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products was published in 2014, and it reveals the psychology behind Silicon Valley’s most sticky products. I know all their tricks, and I can tell you with assurance, these tactics are good, but they’re not THAT good.

Rather than The Matrix, a better film analog might be Indiana Jones. Think of the scene where Indiana is confronted by his sword-wielding nemesis. The swordsman’s skills and tricks are intimidating. But rather than getting overwhelmed with fear, all our hero has to do is remember he’s not powerless, take out his revolver, and shoot. Bang! Problem solved.

Like Indiana Jones, we’re far more powerful than the tech companies, despite their persuasive tricks.

Here are a few of the powers you have:

The power to master internal triggers

The power to make time for what really matters

The power to remove external triggers

The power to make pacts that reduce distraction

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