I Watched ‘The Social Dilemma’ And Here’s What Worries Me

The Social Dilemma tackles concepts like technology addiction, social engineering, and surveillance capitalism.

6 min read

Video Editor: Sandeep Suman

"The Matrix is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth."

These words by Morpheus in the landmark science fiction film ‘The Matrix’ (1999) has evolved into a maxim in the age of social media.

What started off as a means to simply stay in touch with friends is today accused of inciting genocide in one corner of the world and rigging elections in another. It went from zero to dystopia in less than 20 years.

Netflix’s docudrama ‘The Social Dilemma’ attempts to shed light on how the pernicious influence of social media is a carefully constructed part of the design and not an anomaly.

Directed by Jeff Orlowski, the 93-minute film tackles concepts like technology addiction, social engineering, and surveillance capitalism.

How is one supposed to deal with this avalanche of information and opinions that the film presents. In other words, how does one navigate through the film’s messages in a useful and meaningful manner?

A still from The Matrix (1999)
A still from The Matrix (1999)
(Photo Courtesy: Google)

The Matrix’s Blue Pill-Red Pill ‘Dilemma’

We, as individuals then, are all tiny neurons of the matrix. Like a fish in water, we live in it and hence aren’t aware of its existence.

As Morpheus says, “unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.” ‘The Social Dilemma’ takes upon itself the task of showing it to us.

Now that the people of Silicon Valley who built the Frankenst-AI-n have sounded the alarm bells on the ‘matrix’, what now? As in the 1999 cult hit, there appears to be a blue pill-red pill situation

You take the blue pill – the story ends, you wake up in your bed with a dozen notifications in your phone and believe whatever you want to believe. Or, you take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland and see how deep the rabbit-hole goes.

Regardless of the colour, the pill could be a hard one to swallow in the face of an explosion of information that the film puts before its viewers.

The Quint helps navigate this intimidating burst of information by highlighting the issues to keep in mind.

A scene from The Matrix (1999)
A scene from The Matrix (1999)
(Photo Courtesy: Google)

The Internet

Well, the alarm bells over the social media’s persuasive and manipulative design fed by profit motives isn’t new. What ‘The Social Dilemma’ does is ring the alarm bells louder and harder.

Step one is to look at the rail tracks on which the social media train runs – the internet.

In doing so, the docudrama zooms out of the social media landscape to explore some of the core facets of the internet, of which social media is but a small, yet disproportionately impactful, part.

Over a dozen people, who have closely been involved in building social media, explain how some of the most widely used platforms built on top of the internet infrastructure have reshaped its meaning.

For most users the internet is mostly Google, e-mails, social media that feeds on data generated by us about ourselves to influence our thoughts, behaviours and actions.

How has this been achieved? Algorithms.

A scene from The Social Dilemma
A scene from The Social Dilemma
(Screenshot: via Netflix)

Algorithms: Bias & Discrimination

We live in the age of algorithm. Computer programs, apps, social media are run on algorithms – a sequence of instructions or specified actions to be followed in specific problem-solving tasks.

Cathy O’Neil, in her seminal book ‘Weapons of Math Destruction’ explains how increasingly the decisions that affect our lives – where we go to school, whether we get a car loan, how much we pay for health insurance – are being made not by humans, but by mathematical models. In theory, this should lead to greater fairness: Everyone is judged according to the same rules, and bias is eliminated.

However, the opposite is increasingly revealing itself to be true.

The models being used today are opaque, unregulated, and un-contestable, even when they’re wrong. Most troubling, they reinforce discrimination: If a poor student can’t get a loan because a lending model deems him too risky (by virtue of his zip code), he’s then cut off from the kind of education that could pull him out of poverty, and a vicious spiral ensues.

A still from The Social Dilemma
A still from The Social Dilemma
(Screenshot: via Netflix)

This contradicts the oft quoted argument that data is objective and free of inherent racial, ethnic, gender biases.

However, as AI trained on big datasets have shown in the case of facial recognition technology, all these biases have led to the evolution of inaccurate and discriminatory face recognition softwares used by police and law enforcement agencies across the world.

IBM announced that it is exiting the facial recognition business while Amazon said it would’t sell its software to law enforcement for a year.

These announcements are significant because they also strike at the heart of profiting off algorithms that are essentially making societies more unequal and unjust.

Social Media

When Facebook started in 2006 it did not have the sophisticated models of making money from its platforms. Today it is among the world’s most valuable company that built its billions selling ads by third-party advertisers.

The documentary invokes the aphorism “When something online is free, you’re not the customer, you’re the product.” Essentially, the advertisers are Facebook’s clients who are paying Mark Zuckerberg billions for the data of over a billion people across Facebook and Instagram.

This is where algorithms come into play. Facebook trains its AI on the vast amounts of data on its users to allow companies to advertise their products to those who are most likely to buy it. Similarly, they are deployed to keep users online and engaged for as long as possible.

Subtle features like infinite scrolling and push notifications keep users hooked. Personalised recommendations use data not just to predict but also to influence our actions, turning users into easy prey for advertisers and propagandists.


Age of Surveillance Capitalism

A vital piece of the problem is the motivation that drives Big Tech companies like Facebook, Google, Amazon to design algorithms that manipulates our behaviour.

‘Surveillance capitalism’ is a term popularised by Harvanrd University’s professor emeritus and film subject Shoshana Zuboff in her book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.

It refers to the mass surveillance of our online activity, in ways that we are often unaware, and more importantly, the commodification of this data for further commercial purposes.

The unprecedented scale of the data collected by these online companies and its use to predict and influence our purchases, behaviours, and thoughts has made them the richest in this history of the world.

A still from The Social Dilemma
A still from The Social Dilemma
(Screenshot: via Netflix)

The Social Dilemma

Most of us look at the internet as a relatively young invention. One doesn’t have to look far to an age when life, society and friendships were untouched by the spectre of the internet.

And yet, suddenly we’re informed that we have a new global emergency upon us just like climate change. Social media’s unhinged manipulation has been described as “an existential threat” in the film. Just great (rolls eyes)

What exactly is the social dilemma in 'The Social Dilemma'?

It isn’t about whether one should delete Facebook or not. Simply removing Facebook isn’t going to alter the structures of surveillance capitalism, algorithms that push misinformation, hate speech and ads that we did not ask for.

The essential dilemma is whether to accept that the information ecosystem on the internet is broken while we continue to swim through its choppy waters.

It is to understand that big tech companies are framing the problem as one that they are equipped to solve (with the use of more AI).

However, big tech, driven by profit, does not have any meaningful incentive to change the way things are running at the moment.

Just as Morpheus asks Neo in ‘The Matrix’, "What is real? How do you define real?" the questions to ask to social media is “What is the truth? How do you define objective truth?”

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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