“Nothing vast enters the life of mortals without a curse” Sophocles
How many of us like to be manipulated? I imagine, none of us. My generation has grown up not knowing a world without the internet or social media and we are used to hearing adults telling us that it can be bad for our health. So I watched The Social Dilemma documentary/drama on Netflix, thinking that perhaps I had heard all of this before. But I was shocked. For the first time I was listening to tech experts raising the alarm on some of the products they have created.
The Social Dilemma focuses on the ethical concerns that former Top Tech and Social Media employees have voiced in and out of their companies. They all agree that the tools have created great things in the world but they have also given rise to an unintentional darker and sinister side.
The main speaker is Tristan Harris former Design Ethicist at Google and Co-Founder of the Center for Humane Technology. Harris feels uneasy that a small number of executives in Silicon Valley can make decisions that affect over 2 billion people. All the speakers agree that there are so many issues all happening at the same time that it is difficult to unpick them. However, the main concerns were highlighted as:
- Mental health and social media use
- Fake news with devastating consequences
- Snapchat dysmorphia – with young people wanting to look more like their snapchat filters
- Stolen data
Tim Kendall, Facebook Former Executive and Pinterest Former President sees the reluctance to change is driven by the advertising model to make money.
What is the product?
Every tech platform has the aim to keep people engaged on screen. These services are not free. Harris comments that “If you’re not paying for the product, then you are the product. Shoshana Zuboff from Harvard Business School refers to “surveillance capitalism” where everything we do on line is being tracked and measured, even what images we look at and for how long. This generates data about our behaviour that is traded with advertisers who want to sell products to us and our connections. This makes internet companies the richest companies in the history of our planet. Companies build models that can predict our actions and emotions so that three goals can be met:
- Engagement – to keep us scrolling
- Growth – to share and invite our friends and family
- Advertising – to sell us products based on our actions and emotions
Without us ever being aware of it, there is a level of precision used by all tech companies to nudge us to keep scrolling.
I found this part of the documentary disturbing. The speakers referred to “growth hacking” techniques where tech companies train their employees in psychology to modify people’s behaviour, about habits that become design techniques. Sean Parker, Facebook’s – Former President sees this as “exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology” and that the tech companies understand this – but do it anyway.
“There are only two industries that call their customers “users”: illegal drugs and software” Edward Tufte
Anna Lembke from Stanford University refers to social media as an addictive drug that releases dopamine. It can affect our self-worth, identity, causing confusion of value and truth. The increase in the levels of depression, anxiety, self-harm and suicides amongst US girls correlates with social media availability on mobile devices. Lembke refers to a whole generation that is more anxious, depressed, fragile and risk adverse because they are comparing themselves to unrealistic standards of perfection and beauty. Harris comments that tech companies are training and conditioning young people with “a digital pacifier” so when they are feeling lonely or sad they reach for their devices and start scrolling. The concept of the ‘like’ button on Facebook was created to spread positivity, but for some young people it generates depression and can even lead to suicide.
Did you know that your Facebook newsfeed depends on where you live and what your searched interests are? This may seem harmless until you realise that this is the perfect example of manipulation. Harris comments that “fake news on Twitter spreads six times faster than real news” and the reason for this is that false information makes more money. We are constantly bombarded with rumours and it’s becoming difficult to unpick what is real and what is fake. Ironically, the information age has morphed into the “disinformation age.” All the speakers agreed that this was an unexpected negative consequence. Facebook has become the perfect tool of persuasion and is a gift for tyrannical leaders who want to control a population.
How do we change?
If all this sounds depressing, it’s not meant to be. Technology has been a life saver for most people during the pandemic with home schooling, Zoom meetings and keeping us all connected. Harris ends the documentary by pointing to technology being “confusingly utopian and dystopian simultaneously,” in that it has the ability to bring out the best and worst in our society. While there appears to be no financial incentive for tech companies to change as their mantra is profit at all costs, all the speakers agreed that the tech companies must change. Until that happens we need to be mindful of social media products that are trying to get us hooked on sharing our information and look out for addictive techniques these apps use. I would highly recommend you watching this programme for yourself.