The Social Dilemma, or How to Lose at Life

The 2020 Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma, directed by Jeff Orlowski, peels back the shiny surface of social media to reveal the gurgling pits of despair it stashes away behind our unsuspecting eyes. Much like Black Mirror (2011), the horror of the reality it presents is just that – the actual, believable reality. By focusing on the “alienating” truth, the documentary is apparently achieving exactly what is set out to do – making people rethink their marriages to their phones.

The documentary raises ethical issues that forced the people who designed the networks and platforms that govern our lives to resign from their high-status positions at companies such as Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram. And why? Because they realized that the reality they were responsible for shaping lacks a vital conscience. Without it, we are left dealing with an insane erosion of the societal system we once dreamed for ourselves.

This bubbling problem within the tech company is oozing into our lives, implanting thoughts we never intended to have, and manipulating our beliefs to the point where our entire identities depend on the whims of algorithms, detached and emotionless by nature. Worse still, they are only getting smarter. With fake news traveling faster than real news, as the researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology discovered, it’s no wonder we are left quaking in the face of the zealous supporters of such conspiracy theories as “Pizzagate”, “The Reptilian Elite”, the faking of the Moon landings, and many more.

But how is it that our minds are so easily moulded? The reasons are endless, with one being more chilling than the next. Social media is known to be the prime weapon of cognitive warfare and remote-control warfare with its attention-extraction model that monitors and feeds on our responses. Gaining our undivided attention is the end goal. But why? To feed us ads, which generate income for the people behind the platforms that are so skilled at forcing time to slip through our hands.

Tech companies have gone from selling software, like Microsoft and Apple, to selling users. As the documentary points out, it’s not just data that’s being squeezed between grabby hands. The initial shock came in the form of the 2018 Cambridge Analytica scandal, but it would by no means be the last. Perhaps this is the very essence of humanity; taking something that should be pristine and good, and deforming it by turning in into a money-making machine with no room for ethical reflection. Regardless, we have become products in a marketplace that trades exclusively in human futures, as Shoshana Zuboff points out.

The power of cognitive warfare lies in its subliminal ability to change its victims’ behaviour and perception, mostly by slyly utilizing the fundamentals of psychology and thereby tapping into human nature – with its curiosity, primal need to connect with others and live in communities. By exploiting our vulnerabilities, they have the power to influence everything about us. We are changed. We are manipulated. This is all thanks to a modernized representation of George Orwell’s idea of the dystopian and ferocious Big Brother, forever watching and recording us. Everything that is typed into your search engine is being watched. Every image’s influence on your emotions is being noted. Worse still, there is truly no escape from it. The society we have built is a puppet that comes to life only when its strings are yanked by greed.

As Tristan Harris points out, we were not evolved to experience social approval every few minutes. And yet, that is what Gen-Z has been shaped to expect. They are the first generation to have experienced the daunting side of social media in as early as middle school, when the still-forming brain is most susceptible to unquestioned consumption.

The most alarming usage of social media is perhaps for one’s political gains. In Myanmar, the military used Facebook to incite murderous rage and subsequent genocide. In the United States, the recommendation engine algorithm’s manipulation over the users’ perceived reality has led to increased polarization in society. After all, we can only see views contingent with our own, which robs us of impartiality.

The most prominent example of the merging of social media and absolute political power comes in the form of the news released on September 14th 2020, stating that TikTok’s operations were acquired by Oracle, which was founded by Larry Ellison – a strong supporter of president Donald Trump. This information is unveiled in the midst of an ongoing conflict between TikTok and the Trump Administration.

What we need to remember is that technology is based on the actions of the human beings who design it. We cannot keep picturing AI as the cartoonish, evil force we saw in The Terminator (1984). It’s already running the world. But how it evolves and what it’s used for cannot be blamed on robots. We are the ones responsible for shifting our short-term thinking from operating solely on financial gains, to prioritizing our own good. As Tristan Harris observes: “How do you wake up from the Matrix if you don’t know you’re in it?”

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