What are the consequences of our growing dependence on social media? Do these platforms help us to stay informed and connected? Or are they the lucrative tools of manipulative technology companies - companies that are in the business of selling their users?
To varying degrees, I think we all know the answer to this question. Concerns about privacy and the use of personal data are far from new. What we have lacked, perhaps, is a call to action.
Enter The Social Dilemma. Jeff Orlowski’s documentary takes us on a disturbing journey through the evolution of social media. We learn how these platforms were developed, monetised and, after years of exponential and largely unchecked growth, how they now pose a significant threat to human civilisation.
Make no mistake, The Social Dilemma does not tread lightly. While the documentary acknowledges social media's “tremendous” advantages, it exists to present a powerful case against screen-based technology's attention extraction model.
Of course, Orlowski knows that humans have developed a deep attachment to tech platforms such as Google, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Who better, then, to grab our attention than the social media industry's original developers?
Among (many) others, we meet Jaron Lanier, a computer scientist who is described as a founding father of virtual reality, Jeff Seibert, former senior director of product at Twitter, and Shoshana Zuboff, professor emeritus at Harvard Business School and author of The Age Of Surveillance Capitalism.
We also hear from Dr Anna Lembke, medical director of addiction medicine at Stanford University School Of Medicine and Tim Kendall, the former president of Pinterest, the former director of advertising at Facebook and the chief executive of Moment, an app that helps people to reduce their mobile phone usage.
Like Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park, the film’s contributors acknowledge that the engineers of social media technology were so preoccupied with whether or not they could develop these platforms, that they didn't stop to think if they should.
Our main guide through The Social Dilemma is Tristan Harris. Called the closet thing the tech industry has to a conscience, Harris was a design ethicist at Google. While working for the tech giant, he became increasingly worried about the wider impact of Google’s developments. However, despite informing the company about his concerns, no action was taken.
Harris is now the co-founder and president of the Centre For Humane Technology. He is an engaging figure who, like Orlowski, understands the power of a well-timed soundbite. After all, a wake up call needs to feel alarming.
The Social Dilemma is at its most unsettling when it explores how social media became monetised - how our attention became a commodity to be bought and sold. “The classic saying is, if you are not paying for the product, then you are the product,” says Harris.
If this wasn't bad enough, Lanier goes even further. In one of the documentary’s most chilling moments he states that the product is actually “the gradual, slight, imperceptible change in your own behaviour and perception.”
There is, of course, vast amounts of money to be made in persuading people that they need a particular product or service. As a result, technology companies have ploughed their resources into data - into the science of making predictions. “This is a marketplace that trades exclusively in human futures,” Shoshana Zuboff explains.
The psychology behind the computer models that have been developed to predict our actions is as fascinating as it is disturbing. What encourages us to click a link? What drives us to make a purchase? Social media, we discover, has been designed to ensure our addiction.
“What I want people to know is that everything they are doing online is being watched, is being tracked and is being measured,” warns Jeff Seibert. Our psychology has been (and is being) hacked.
Orlowski uses a fictionalised family to examine just how this surveillance works. While jarring at first, these scenes soon earn their place. The fictionalised family humanises the argument against social media. They make The Social Dilemma feel more accessible - particularly when the film explores the devastating impact of social media on children.
It may not be subtle but it is undeniably powerful... and, quite frankly, terrifying.
After exploring the dangers of social media on a human level, The Social Dilemma goes on to examine the threats to human civilisation. If this sounds like an exaggerated step too far, just watch the documentary - it is disturbing to say the least.
Social media seeks to expose us to more of what it thinks we like. If we seem interested in a certain brand of shoes, the technology will show us more and more information about those shoes (even after we have made a purchase).
Now swap shoes for political parties.
The more we access our news and information via social media platforms, the more those platforms will show us the news and information that we have liked in the past. The end result is that we no longer see a broad range of complex opinions and we risk losing our ability to be objective. As a result, society becomes increasingly polarised.
There are, of course, many “bad actors” around the world who view this situation as a welcome opportunity to weaponize social media. They use these platforms to manipulate people (hello fake news) and, in some cases, they incite hatred and violence.
Renee Diresta, research manager at Stanford Internet Observatory and former head of policy at Data For Democracy, explains that we are witnessing a global assault on democracy. “Democracy is for sale,” she warns. “Do we want that?”
So, what’s the answer? How should we use technology? Lanier hopes that people will delete their social media apps. However, even he admits that our reliance on these platforms is too entrenched. They are here to stay... for the foreseeable future at least.
Thankfully, the final moments of The Social Dilemma offer us hope. It will not be quick or easy but collective will is a powerful thing. We can, for example, insist on more regulation of technology companies, restrictions of their use of our data and far greater transparency.
Now is the time, before it is too late, to demand that social media platforms move away from their toxic model of attention extraction towards something more humane.
If you enjoyed The Social Dilemma, I would also recommend these two other documentaries by director, Jeff Orlowski.