Our Social Dilemma: What Big Tech Doesn’t Want You to Know This Holiday Season
- by: Hank Berkowitz
- November 17, 2020
With Covid cases spiking and freezing weather descending on the Northeast, my wife and I decided to test out our self-quarantining skills last weekend. Bottom line: we won’t be making a habit of self-imposed hibernation, but at least we caught up on yard work and all the shows we’ve been planning to watch.
Most of the shows are crap, but we did uncover 90 minutes’ worth of docudrama gold in the form of The Social Dilemma on Netflix.
With Holiday festivities and family gatherings likely to be dialed back this year, more people than ever are likely to seek solace and human engagement on their devices. That’s a downer for most folks, but the tech industry will be laughing all the way to the bank. As they say in Silicon Valley: “If you aren’t paying for the product then you ARE the product.”
The Social Dilemma is based on interviews with dozens of former Silicon Valley developers, product managers and business managers. It deftly exposes the hard truths about things like “surveillance capitalism” and “positive intermittent reinforcement” and explains them in a non-wonky way.
Director Jeff Orlowski (Chasing Ice and Chasing Coral) takes us inside the digital manipulation of human behavior for profit: Infinite scrolling and push notifications that keep users constantly engaged. Personalized recommendations use data not just to predict, but also to influence our actions, turning users into “easy prey for advertisers and propagandists.”
Think about how the tobacco industry targeted teens and tweens a generation ago and now multiply that by 1,000. As a parent of two Gen Z kids, I knew all the devices, apps and platforms were addictive–I just didn’t know how intentional the tech companies were about manipulating young peoples’ need for digital dopamine 24/7. A great line from the film asks viewers which other industries besides tech refer to their customers as “users”? Answer: Only one–drug dealers.
In one chilling graphic we see how an enormous spike in teen suicide and self-mutilation closely mirrors the rapid adoption rate of the iPhone first introduced in 2007. “What many people don’t realize is that these companies have entire teams of highly paid engineers whose job it is to use your psychology against you and use it for their profit,” related Tristan Harris, a former design “ethicist” at Google.
And that’s what is perhaps so disturbing in this era of “truth decay.” Our tech addiction has had a dangerous distortion of reality on everything from middle school popularity to Presidential elections.
During the film, Silicon Valley VC, Roger McNamee, an early investor in Facebook, delivers a chilling allegation: Russia didn’t hack Facebook; it simply used the platform.
The Social Dilemma is a cautionary tale for anyone who’s thinking about giving a tech gift this year or who’s thinking about hunkering around down with their devices to help them get through a long, dark, socially isolated winter. Just know that your streaming, clicking and swiping habits will be fed instantly into Netflix’s massive data-based algorithm.
What’s your take? I’d love to hear from you.
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