In my column last week, I made the comment that social media is a positive new alternative to 24-hour news. That young people getting their news from somewhere other than the mainstream outlets is a good thing. But I may have been wrong. There is a flipside to that coin. A flipside that’s expertly dissected in Netflix’s new documentary, “The Social Dilemma”.
Sure, 24-hour news is biased but for the most part, that bias is obvious. Most viewers watching Fox know they’re getting right-wing filtered content and the same is true with left-wing outlets like CNN and MSNBC. The dilemma with digital news is that it isn’t always clear what’s biased and unbiased, what’s true and isn’t.
“The Social Dilemma” explores how big tech companies use collected data to sway users to keep clicking, swiping and posting. The documentary is primarily narrated by Tristan Harris, a former “design ethicist” at Google. Harris points to how these networking apps are designed like casinos, to keep users pulling the slots as long as possible. Consider how the layout only shows you one post or photo at a time. How you have to continually swipe to see more content. This is intentional design.
“There are only two industries on the planet that refer to their customers as users. Drug manufacturers and tech-companies.” Harris makes the point that these “free” apps aren’t free. Someone is paying for the service and that someone is advertisers.
“If you can’t recognize what the product is, you are the product.” The primary aim of these tech companies is to keep users on their platform for as long as possible. They achieve this by installing complex algorithms that develop personality blueprints of people and use those blueprints to keep people addicted. The algorithm will go as far as recommending “conspiracy theory rabbit holes” to people who are likely to believe in that kind of thing and to connect them with others who share their sentiments.
“It’s easy to look over at the other side and think, how can these people be that stupid? Look at all of this information that I’m constantly seeing. How are they not seeing that same information? And the answer is, they’re not seeing that same information. If you type ‘climate change is …’ into Google, the results differ depending on what region of the county you’re in.”
The documentary asks the question, how do you unplug from the Matrix when you don’t know you’re in the Matrix? Most people will admit to being on their phone too much but wouldn’t go so far as to call it an addiction. To those people I ask, over the past week what’s the longest amount of time you’ve gone without checking your phone? How many hours a day do you spend on it? Could you go a week without it?
It’s not as simple as quitting cold turkey. The phone is a part of us, like our right arm or kidney. We’re reliant on it for staying connected, for paying our bills, getting around, looking up directions or celebrity gossip. Artificial Intelligence already controls our lives. We’re cyborgs. Skynet won and we didn’t even notice.
So, what’s the result of this widespread addiction? For a start: polarization and division, isolation, insecurity, increased-anxiety, increased-depression and a detachment from reality. When it comes to young people, fewer kids are going on dates and making meaningful connections, suicide-rates are climbing, body dysmorphia disorders are going up and the list goes on.
This may sound bleak but it’s a bleak situation. The genie’s been let out of the bottle and there’s no putting it back. With that said, all is not lost. Harris and other members of the tech community are lobbying congress for increased regulations that will hopefully limit how social platforms can influence users. Harris has even suggested taxing the companies for data collection to discourage them from collecting every possible bit of information they can. There’s still a long road ahead and this isn’t the easiest issue to lobby for. There’s no clear bad guy, there’s no clear wrongdoing. It’s hard to gain support for a movement that’s so hard to pin down. The documentary ends with a quote by Buckminster Fuller.
“Whether it is to be utopia or oblivion will be a touch-and-go relay race right up to the final moment.”
The internet is humanity’s blessing and curse. It has improved our quality of life, made things more efficient and convenient and in many ways, brought us closer together. But like an untrimmed vine, it has quickly grown out of control.
It may feel like all of this is out of your control but there actually is a simple step you can take. Pull up your notification settings and turn off any non-essential apps. Believe it or not, this easy action will go a long way towards limiting your time on social media.
Griffin Hicks is a staff writer for the Reporter. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.