The Social Dilemma makes some important points about the way that social media works, and the insiders interviewed in the film bring a noteworthy perspective. Yet beyond the sad eyes, disturbing animations, and ominous music The Social Dilemma is a piece of manipulative filmmaking on par with the social media platforms it critiques. While presenting itself as a clear-eyed expose of Silicon Valley, the film is ultimately a redemption tour for a gaggle of supposedly reformed techies wrapped in an account that is so desperate to appeal to “both sides” that it is unwilling to speak hard truths.
Although the documentary wants viewers to be concerned, this is only to build back trust that it can all be worked out.
If, after watching The Social Dilemma, you feel concerned about what “surveillance capitalism” has done to social media (and you feel prepared to make some tweaks in your social media use) but ultimately trust that Silicon Valley insiders are on the case—then the film has succeeded in its mission.
Rather than providing a step-by-step breakdown, the review focuses on three parts: the treatment of history, avoidance of politics and place of criticism.
In the documentary, Tristan Harris compares social media with the invention of bicycles. Although Librarianshipwreck points out that this is wrong, what is more concerning is his confidence in it.
You know how you could have known that technologies often have unforeseen consequences? Study the history of technology. You know how you could have known that new media technologies have jarring political implications? Read some scholarship from media studies.
In regards to politics, there is an unwillingness to take sides as if they are both eqivilant.
The Social Dilemma clearly wants to avoid taking sides. And in so doing demonstrates the ways in which Silicon Valley has taken sides. After all, to focus so heavily on polarization and the extremism of “both sides” just serves to create a false equivalency where none exists. But, the view that “the Trump administration has mismanaged the pandemic” and the view that “the pandemic is a hoax” – are not equivalent. The view that “climate change is real” and “climate change is a hoax” – are not equivalent.
At the heart of the redemption is the effort to rebrand people like Harris as critic.
They are willing to be critical of Silicon Valley, they are willing to be critical of the tools they created, but when it comes to their own culpability they are desperate to hide behind a shield of “I meant well.”
While at the same time staying silent about the sacred cows, such as Mark Zuckerberg.
On the one hand it’s remarkable that no one in the film really goes after Mark Zuckerberg, but many of these insiders can’t go after Zuckerberg—because any vitriol they direct at him could just as easily be directed at them as well.
The most frustrating part to it all are those critics whose work is left silent.
There are many phenomenal critics speaking out about technology these days. To name only a few: Safiya Noble has written at length about the ways that the algorithms built by companies like Google and Facebook reinforce racism and sexism; Virginia Eubanks has exposed the ways in which high-tech tools of surveillance and control are first deployed against society’s most vulnerable members; Wendy Hui Kyong Chun has explored how our usage of social media becomes habitual; Jen Schradie has shown the ways in which, despite the hype to the contrary, online activism tends to favor right-wing activists and causes; Sarah Roberts has pulled back the screen on content moderation to show how much of the work supposedly being done by AI is really being done by overworked and under-supported laborers; Ruha Benjamin has made clear the ways in which discriminatory designs get embedded in and reified by technical systems; Christina Dunbar-Hester has investigated the ways in which communities oriented around technology fail to overcome issues of inequality; Sasha Costanza-Chock has highlighted the need for an approach to design that treats challenging structural inequalities as the core objective, not an afterthought; Morgan Ames expounds upon the “charisma” that develops around certain technologies; and Meredith Broussard has brilliantly inveighed against the sort of “technochauvinist” thinking—the belief that technology is the solution to every problem—that is so clearly visible in The Social Dilemma. To be clear, this list of critics is far from all-inclusive. There are numerous other scholars who certainly could have had their names added here, and there are many past critics who deserve to be named for their disturbing prescience.
Overall, I think that The Social Dilemma has been useful in generating wider conversation. See for example Shoshana Wodinsky and Pranav Malhotra. I also like Librarianshipwreck’s suggestion about breaking up the film into five minute segments and assigning these to different academics and activists. The question as always though is what is next. For me, being critical is important, but we also need to be willing to consider all options and that is often easier said than done.