This is not just entertainment: This is Real
As you might be aware, a new documentary is on the top ten most watched list on Netflix and is getting a lot of attention. The Social Dilemma is a well made documentary, directed by Jeff Orlowski, that aims to reveal the problems, very very big problems that have arisen, mainly in the past decade in the way social media and internet platforms generally, are operating and prospering.
While that may sound harmless at first blush, it’s the sheer scale; trillions of dollars, and the lack of any product or service, other than to advertisers, that begs the question: at what expense to humanity?
This is a big, important subject and is one that is extremely difficult to cram into an “entertaining” documentary. Here, an attempt is made to tackle that difficulty in two main ways.
First there are many on-camera interviews with almost exclusively former and current Silicon Valley insiders, many of whom where partially responsible for the very systems and methods that are being called into question here, and second, the two inter-twined semi-fictional dramatic elements, clearly meant to help viewers that may lose interest in discussions of algorithms, machine learning and corrupt business models.
Choosing insiders is not an oversight but by design
The choice of such a long list of high level tech insiders as interviewees is important and meaningful. The very fact that people, most of whom profited and made careers out of building these systems and platforms, are willing, now, to passionately speak out about them, and agree that they are horrific mistakes that have the potential to destroy not just people’s lives but humanity and the planet itself, speaks volumes.
While there are many other scholars, journalists and witnesses that could, and should, have their ideas and opinions heard, it is the extreme fact that insiders are willing to address these problems so candidly and so passionately, that helps this to be a mind-blowing and impossible to ignore documentary film.
Companies like Google and Facebook are some of the wealthiest and most successful of all time. They have relatively few employees. They just have this giant computer that rakes in money, right? Now, what are they being paid for? That’s a really important question.-Jaron Lanier, founding father of virtual reality, computer scientist
The film must be seen, and the information absorbed, to understand the true importance, but, in a nut-shell, what is becoming more obvious by the minute is that the combination of massive power based on worldwide near-monopoly status, and a business model that has no contribution to make or product to sell, has allowed these platforms to amass trillion dollar fortunes in a lethal mix that must be stopped at all costs.
”The first fifty years of Silicon Valley the industry made products, hardware, software, sold them to customers, nice, simple business. For the last ten years the biggest companies in Silicon Valley have been in the business of selling their users”.-Roger McNamee, Early Facebook investor and Venture Capitalist
Critics fail to see the film’s urgency and instead nitpick it as an imperfect entertainment product
There are layers of irony in the fact that the weaknesses decried by many critical articles written about this film are the same ones that the film is pointing to, and a major force, one that propelled these online platforms to positions of virtually unlimited power in the first place: human weaknesses and short attention spans.
”The classic saying is: “if you’re not paying for the product, then, you are the product”-Classic Silicon Valley truism
The interviews are powerful and the quotes and alternately chilling and illuminating. So much so that it is actually difficult to absorb all at once. Many reviewers chose to simplify this reality by boiling the many serious quotes down to “dystopian” cliché, as if the end of the world is a topic for a cartoon movie review. Others harped on the weakness of the acted-out semi-fictional stories as not being the optimum way to get the real data and facts across.
The two narrative threads portrayed by actors revolve around an imaginary semi-suburban mixed family and their interactions with technology platforms and social media and a fictional visualization of the “back end” of the software systems used by the giant platforms (Facebook, Google, etc).
This back end software is elevated to a “triple-android” character, portrayed by Vincent Kartheiser, of Madmen fame, as sort of automaton-triplets that embody the actions of the software, AI and the integrated instructions, presumably from Zuckerberg himself (or the equivalent at Google or other platforms. (character name is, revealingly, “AI”)
This is a new kind of marketplace now. It’s a marketplace that never existed before. And it’s a marketplace that trades exclusively in “human futures”. Just like there are markets that trade in pork belly futures or oil futures. We now have markets that trade in human futures at scale. And those markets have produced the trillions of dollars that have made the internet companies the richest companies in the history of humanity”-Shoshanna Zuboff PhD., Harvard Business School Professor, emeritus and author of “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism”
While these filmic-devices are not ideal or particularly precise in showing the problems with the entire complex system, they are, nevertheless, a good choice to find a way for the statements of the interviewees to be dramatized. They can help people who are not technical analysts to viscerally grasp the deep and serious problems being discussed. Without these elements the film’s audience would be, almost certainly, far smaller. This fact was not appreciated by many reviewers, however.
”Many people call this ‘surveillance capitalism’. Capitalism profiting off of the infinite tracking of everywhere everyone goes, by large technology companies whose business model is to make sure that advertisers are as successful as possible”-Tristan Harris, Google’s former design ethicist and co-founder of The Center for Humane Technology
One reviewer even mistook the fictional anthropomorphic portrayal of software algorithms and artificial intelligence, all three by the same actor, as a real “unnamed” social platform and that these characters were supposed to be employees of the “unnamed” platform!
All of this confusion is directly related and lies at the heart of the eponymous dilemma being addressed. If the interview subjects, many of whom have become extremely rich from their contributions, are terrified of the evil power of these systems and platforms, what can be done to stop them from getting even bigger and more powerful and eventually destroying us all?
What chance of understanding and solving the problem to the rest of us have?
”How much of your life can we get you to give to us? We often talked about, at Facebook, this idea, of being able to just “dial that” as needed. And we talked about, you know, Mark (Zuckerberg) have those dials… “let’s dial up the ads a little bit”, dial up the monetization, just slightly… At all these companies there’s that level of precision”-Tim Kendall, Facebook / former director of monetization, Pinterest / former president, CEO / Moment
Such a question sounds almost like a joke to anyone who has not followed and investigated the rise of these behemoths and the “legal” and yet criminal behaviors they perpetrate on a global scale, amplified by computing and financial powers that would have been unimaginable even 2 decades ago.
Therein lies the rub.
The beginning of the end of malignant big tech structures or of us?
The only criticism that stands out to this reviewer is that the message of doom was portrayed as an open question with not much in the way of suggestions for solution, or ways forward other than “delete your social media accounts”.
”there are times when there is a national interest, there are times when the interests of people, of users, is actually more important than the profits of somebody who is already a billionaire”-Roger McNamee, Early Facebook investor and Venture Capitalist
While that, in and of itself, is a start, the reality is that governments around the world, particularly in Europe and Australia have convicted the giants of criminal behavior on multiple occasions and there are many pending anti-trust actions, not to mention grass roots support for radical change to laws and regulations as a response to the truly destructive nature of these platforms.
“These markets undermine democracy and they undermine freedom and they should be outlawed. This is not a radical proposal. There are other markets that we outlaw. We outlaw markets in human organs. We outlaw markets in human slaves. Because they have inevitable destructive consequences.”-Shoshanna Zuboff PhD., Harvard Business School Professor, emeritus and author of “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism”
In an odd way the truth of even the most hyperbolic statements is what makes it so hard to keep people engaged. If these platforms and, in particular the dangerous and destructive business models that they are allowed to operate under, are not replaced or at least broken up, this could represent an even larger threat to humanity than climate change or nuclear war, so where do we start to dismantle them?
”We could tax data collection and processing. The same way that you, for example, pay your water bill, by monitoring the amount of water that you use. You tax these companies on the data assets that they have. It gives them a fiscal reason to not acquire every piece of data on the planet.”-Joe Toscano, Google / Former experience design consultant and author of “Automating Humanity”
This is where interviewing and asking some very distinguished people who were, in part, responsible for building these systems, falls apart. Why should they be expected to have a solution for a problem that they, admittedly, were a part of creating?
”What I see are a bunch of people who are trapped, by a business model, and economic incentive and shareholder pressure that makes it almost impossible to do something else.-Tristan Harris, Google’s former design ethicist and co-founder of The Center for Humane Technology
The answer is, of course, that they should not be expected to be the ones with the solutions – though their support of finding solutions and tackling the problems is very valuable, indeed. This is why this film deserves not criticism as an imperfect entertainment vehicle, but rather support and recommendation, as an important beginning in recognizing the threat posed by these business models; to mental health, economic prosperity and political stability of all nations.
”Whether it is to be utopia or oblivion will be a touch-and-go relay race right up to the final moment…”-R. Buckminster Fuller, Inventor, Author, Futurist
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