Review: The Social Dilemma (Netflix, 2020)

The latest issue of Affinity's Social Issues Bulletin is out now. It is free to download, as are all previous editions. One of the articles is a review by Regan King of the recent Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma.

An uncomfortable observation

Toward the beginning of 2020, I remember visiting my local VUE cinema and seeing a commercial starring John Boyega entitled ‘Get Lost in Great Stories’. It portrays a scene in which every person in a household is simultaneously viewing a different screen whilst going about their days; whether televisions, laptops, desktops or mobile phones. The door of the house opens and we enter another scene in the hustle and bustle of a city street, confronted with a picture of everyone walking with poor posture over their phones. A range of emojis and reactions explode over the screen reflecting all that is going on in a relentless stream of data consumption. The commercial, interpreted simply, was indicating that cinema is the best way to watch a film and ‘step away from the outside world’. Nevertheless, the portrayal of everyday life disturbed me, not because it is portraying an imagined dystopia, but because in some ways such a dystopia is already here.

We have become ape-like slaves of the very tools we invented and we are seeing health and cohesion in society suffer for it. The ongoing COVID-19 crisis has made people even more dependent on technology and probably even more addicted to screens as a result of isolation; if this is not swiftly identified as a problem, many will suffer as a result. Netflix’s 2020 documentary film, The Social Dilemma does a very good job of highlighting what is going on behind the scenes of our screens and deserves consideration in developing a healthy pastoral theology of technology.

Technology is changing you

In 2018 I reviewed[1] Tony Reinke’s book 12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You for this Bulletin. Building a strong case based on ever-developing statistics, Reinke’s book remains very apt in its conclusions. Reinke’s “12 Ways”, are:

·       We Are Addicted to Distraction

·       We Ignore Our Flesh and Blood

·       We Crave Immediate Approval

·       We Lose Our Literacy

·       We Feed on the Produced

·       We Become Like What We “Like”

·       We Get Lonely

·       We Get Comfortable in Secret Vices

·       We Lose Meaning

·       We Fear Missing Out

·       We Become Harsh to One Another

·       We Lose Our Place in Time

Of course, it is not our phones, tablets, or laptops themselves that are affecting this change. It is really about what appears on our phones and devices and our increasing inability to practice self-control and tear ourselves away from the constantly updated content. 

The Social Dilemma is not a conspiracy theorist-led expose of ‘Big Tech’. It features high-ranking industry executives, many of whom had leading, managing, and even founding roles in companies such as Twitter, Pinterest, Google and Facebook. Each interviewee has the same message: social media is changing not only you, it is changing society. What is more it is designed to change society – and this is having catastrophic effects.

Many interviewed in The Social Dilemma have left the world of Big Tech specifically due to their voiced ethical concerns went unheard. So what would lead a group of ex-Big Tech executives to join together for an expose on the trillion dollar industry of their former employers?

Social media has the potential for good – but there is also a flip-side

The biggest tools of the internet – think of Gmail, Whatsapp, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Snapchat and Instagram – all have immense potential for good. Ready and easy communication are intrinsic to each. The ability to stay in touch with distant family and friends, to receive both good and bad news in a timely way, and to share parts of one’s life with others for encouragement, edification and prayer are to be valued.

Instant information helps facilitate immediate action when necessary. For example, because of a combination of Whatsapp, Google, Airbnb, and Gmail, when a relative died in Israel, my wife and I were able to hear the news, communicate with each other (I was in another part of the city), book flights and accommodation, get to the airport and board a flight within the space of four hours, allowing us to be at the funeral taking place the next day. Because of Facebook, I was able to hear that my maternal grandmother was on her deathbed and via Google’s call facility was able to speak with her one last time. Thanks to Whatsapp, I can communicate in text, audio and video form with both individuals and groups from a range of life networks scattered across the globe. I can call family and let them see and talk to my young son whom he would otherwise not know.

However, we should not be oblivious to the dangers of these tools. Interviewees for The Social Dilemma acknowledge that they were naive regarding the dark sides of social media. They certainly did not intend any negative consequences when setting out to design and present their products. Yet as with anything positive in this world we, the people, have managed to pervert the good and use it destructively.

1.     Change can be subtle

One should not be surprised that if tech can change an individual for the worse, when enough individuals are using the same tech, it can impact society negatively. Computer scientist Jaron Lainer speaks of ‘the gradual, slight, imperceptible change in your own behaviour and perception that is the product’.

If only any change remained imperceptible! What may at first be slow and unobserved can quickly spiral out of control. It is clear that participants in The Social Dilemma have a significant sense of conscience. They are troubled by Big Tech’s undeniable link to mental health issues – concerns which have grown as Big Tech has grown. They are concerned by the psychological rewiring social media can produce: narcissism, dysmorphia, and entitlement is spawned, fed, and enabled through familiar and seemingly innocuous features as basic as the ‘like’ button.

2.     You are a user – and you are used

The biggest platforms on the Internet may not have been designed to destroy individuals, much less society, they were designed to have your attention and to dominate it. Statistician Edward Tufte observes ‘There are only two industries that call their customers “users”: illegal drugs and software.’ Tristan Harris speaks of how in working for Google on Gmail’s design, they worked deliberately at making it addictive. Why? Because the more attention you give to such key sites, the more they earn.

The Social Dilemma likens users to lab rats. Everything we do online is watched and monitored; through tracking cookies, Big Tech’s algorithms detect your mood and calculate your personality to the point of being able to accurately predict what you are interested in, what you might buy, and what you want to do.

Have you ever thought, ‘That’s funny, I was just thinking about that earlier’ when an advertisement for a particular product or service pops up on screen? Have you ever said, ‘That’s odd, I was talking with someone about a potential holiday and now an advertisement for that very thing has shown up’? All of this is how social media is programmed. You are not the sole beneficiary – the platform itself is benefiting from you, whether you are conscious of it or not. Algorithms are designed to exploit human vulnerabilities and do so in a conscious way, monopolising our time, reducing our meaningful personal connections in community as we do so. This has paved the way for a world where online engagement is the priority with an entire generation that has no recollection of a world without constant online data exposure.

3.     Trust is fractured and ‘truth’ is cheap

The Social Dilemma points to signs of dystopian levels both of trust in what should not be trusted and distrust of what should be trusted. On a personal level, social media can distort one’s perception of self as well as the perception of others. The consequences are harmful and even fatal in some cases.

I first joined Facebook in 2010. This came after a university programme I took saw me make many friends with people whom I would likely never have contact with again if it weren’t for this outlet. I did not bother to get a smart phone until 2013 when I had a job that required me to be easily reachable by email even when out and about. Since 2009, a year before I joined Facebook and around the time I joined Twitter, The Social Dilemma reports that cases of non-fatal self-harm have gone up 183% in girls between the ages of 10 and 14 and 62% in girls between 15 and 19. Cases of suicide in the latter age bracket have gone up 70%.

The illusion of connectivity and the utopian ideas of a global society created by social media are well known, but it is clear that something is seriously amiss. The Social Dilemma interviewees explain the harrowing statistics surrounding social media and mental health by pointing to how the technology behind social media platforms brings out the worst in society.

So we see mass chaos, outrage, instability, and growing distrust in authorities and each other abounding.  What is ‘fake news’ and what is truth? Constantly updating news, the need to feed a 24-hour cycle of information and opinion, the fear of missing out, and the desire for status create a toxic soup of anger, hate, division, and thinking the worst of one another. Time management and personal productivity diminish. In some societies, social unrest, even civil war seem like genuine possibilities in the near future as result of divisions becoming ever more acrimonious.

What is the fix?

The Social Dilemma makes the case that social media platforms are reforming the world into their image. There are some practical pointers that The Social Dilemma makes that are helpful and common-sensical from an individual perspective:

Turn off all notifications (I did this sometime ago – it is indeed liberating!)
Uninstall time-wasting social media, news and other apps
Be careful before you share on social media. Is it good, right and true? Is it helpful?
Don’t follow clickbait
Don’t live in an echo chamber – be acquainted with various viewpoints
Limit kids’ screen time
Don’t bring devices into the bedroom
If individuals do these things – or even come off of social media all together – improvements might be seen. And yet, the presenters of The Social Dilemma recognise this is a big ‘if’. According to them it seems that society is totally unable to heal itself. Indeed, they are right, and this is where our pastoral application must come in.

1.     Realise that good things can always be perverted

To some degree, negative consequences to social media are inevitable. Yes, you can share videos and photos of your children for grandparents and distant friends to see. In the same way paedophiles will use the same tools to plan and carry out their perversion. You can share good news and seek to inspire others to love God and love your neighbour. ISIS, Boko Haram, AntiFa, and Proud Boys can use the same tools to inspire others to follow their messages of hate, division and destruction. As with sex, drugs, food and drink addiction and abuse are possible – that is a fact of the fallen world we live in. And this is why positive, meaningful, redemptive engagement that shows the right and responsible way for interaction is so important.

2.     Consider whether or not social media is actually good for you

There are some people for who, try as they might, find themselves unable to use social media rightly or responsibly. Each of us must ask the question: is social media actually good for me or not? The answer may result in you find other ways of meaningful engagement offline that you previously would not have thought possible!

3.     Recognise Jesus is the only ‘fix’ for a broken world

The Social Dilemma is right: society is incapable of healing itself. Christians should recognise and proclaim this every day! Only Christ can heal our broken world. Only he can enable us to love God and one another in the right way. This is why, for now, I think Christians can and should make appropriate and responsible use of technology to shine the light of the gospel into a dark place. Christians should set a standard of what healthy communication looks like and, when we see one another failing, should hold one another accountable.

The Social Dilemma asks good questions. But at the same time as presenting some important warnings and offering some practical fixes, it lacks the fundamental spiritual component that is so desperately needed. Without the Holy Spirit’s transforming truth and power, all the practical tips for solving the dilemma of big tech will only serve to provide a small plaster for a gaping wound.

Regan King pastors The Angel Church in Islington, London, is author of #TBH: Basic Challenges to Millennials Who Can’t Even, and leads Pregnancy Crisis Helpline.

(This article was originally published in the Affinity Social Issues Bulletin for February 2021. The whole edition can be found at www.affinity.org.uk)


[1] http://www.affinity.org.uk/downloads/The%20Bulletin/issue-35/5)-twelve-ways-your-phone-is-changing-you.pdf


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