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Pattern Matching

Where ‘The Social Dilemma’ Gets Us

The popular new Netflix documentary is a wake-up call with no answer

Image: Netflix

Welcome back to Pattern Matching, OneZero’s weekly newsletter that puts the week’s most compelling tech stories in context.

In the opening scenes of The Social Dilemma, the popular new Netflix docudrama about social media’s dark side, a series of nervous-looking interview subjects appear to stumble over a simple question: “What’s the problem?”

The film and its subjects — former employees of Google, Facebook, and other tech giants, along with a few outside critics such as the Harvard professor and The Age of Surveillance Capitalism author Shoshana Zuboff — spend the next 90 minutes throwing everything they have at that question. By the end, the viewer is left persuaded that there absolutely is a problem, and an urgent one at that, even if it’s a tricky one to pin down in a few words.

Yet, as we’ve seen time and again — most recently, with a former Facebook employee blowing the whistle on the company’s failures to stop election interference and misinformation campaigns around the world — sounding the alarm that social media is broken is easier than fixing it.

The Pattern

The people who helped to build social media now want to save us from it.

  • The problem, in The Social Dilemma’s reckoning, is that the advertising-based, engagement-fueled business model that has come to dominate the internet is fundamentally built on manipulation. Social media apps manipulate our brain’s psychology to keep us checking our devices and refreshing our feeds. The feeds themselves are full of content that in turn manipulates our emotions to maximize engagement and sell us things. And that targeted manipulation, which exploits our fears and biases and vanities, is not only bad for us as individuals, it’s tearing whole societies apart.
  • The film works best as a wake-up call to a mass audience that something is very wrong with the basic structure of social media, and that it’s infecting society at large as a result. It’s the sort of film that people knowledgeable about the tech industry’s workings will criticize, and find frustrating — and, in some cases, recommend to their less-informed friends and relatives anyway. As a polemic, it’s powerful, provided you can get past the LOL-inducing cheesiness of the staged dramatizations, which depict a hapless family haunted by push notifications.
  • But if The Social Dilemma largely succeeds in answering its opening question (“What’s the problem?”), there’s a second, crucial, stage-setting scene that the film seems to forget about as it goes on. It’s when the film’s central real-life figure, the “humane tech” advocate Tristan Harris, recounts how he grew disillusioned with his work as a young designer at Google, and eventually wrote an explosive internal presentation that rocked the company to its core — or so it seemed. The presentation argued that Google’s products had grown addictive and harmful, and that the company had a moral responsibility to address that. It was passed around frantically within the company’s ranks, quickly reached the CEO’s desk, and Harris’ colleagues inundated him with enthusiastic agreement. “And then… nothing,” Haris recalls. Having acknowledged ruefully that their work was hurting people, and promising to do better, Googlers simply went back to their work as cogs in the profit machine. What Harris thought had served as a “call to arms” was really just a call to likes and faves — workplace slacktivism.
  • The lesson seems clear enough: Deep, structural change to the internet industry probably won’t come from within. The companies that have become the richest and most powerful in world history by building a money-minting manipulation machine can’t be counted on to voluntarily chuck it out the window. Oddly, this lesson seems at times to have eluded Harris himself. In a clip from a Senate hearing near the end of the documentary, Harris told a senator that the answer to the problems wrought by social media was “to have the platforms be responsible” — responsible for protecting elections, responsible for the mental health of the kids who use their products. It sounds like a hard-nosed stance until you realize it implies that the platforms should be the source of solutions to the havoc they’ve wrought.
  • Even if they understand the problem on some level, the tech giants face overwhelming incentives to preserve the business model that sustains them. After all, if they don’t build the most engaging platform, some other, perhaps less-scrupulous rival will. And so they downplay the harms, or justify them by pointing to the positives, or shrug them off as regrettable but inevitable, a product of human nature rather than their own design decisions. In other cases, they acknowledge the harms but present them as fixable with various tweaks: hiring more content moderators, partnering with fact-checkers, building A.I. to detect hate speech. And they make the same basic case for smartphone addiction: more user control over push notifications, apps that track your screen time. Some of these tweaks have been adopted at the urging of the advocacy group that Harris co-founded after leaving Google, called the Center for Humane Technology.
  • There’s another unexamined lesson from Harris’ story about trying to change Google from within. It’s that diagnosing the problem isn’t enough to start a “revolution,” as he claimed to want to do. You also have to offer solutions. That’s a hard task, and one The Social Dilemma barely attempts. The film spends 80 minutes convincing the viewer that social media will destroy the world unless we act fast. Only in the final 10 minutes does it take a stab at what that action might look like, in a series of interview clips that come across as an afterthought. Several subjects nod to the importance of “regulation” without ever specifying what sort of regulation they have in mind. That’s frustrating, since the conversation in policy circles has already surpassed the film by moving into the details of what antitrust and privacy legislation should look like.
  • As the closing credits roll, the subjects toss off a litany of #protips for social media use that in most cases are laughably incommensurate with the scope of the problem the film has just described in detail. “Turn off all notifications,” several suggest, as if it’s a radical idea. “Never accept a video recommended to you on YouTube; always choose,” counsels virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier. When one person suggested installing Google Chrome extensions that block recommendations, I was ready to throw my Amazon Fire TV remote through my Netflix screen. You spend a whole film convincing people social media is an existential threat to humanity, and your solution is installing a Google Chrome extension?
  • This brings us to the film’s core problem: The Social Dilemma largely reflects the perspectives of Harris and like-minded techies. Most of them, it has to be said, are white and male. That might help to explain why they devote so much time to problems of smartphone addiction and political polarization — the breakdown of the social order — and so little to how social media works or doesn’t work for the marginalized and vulnerable. Algorithmic discrimination, hate speech, and revenge porn merit only passing mentions. And it might help to explain why their proposed solutions are so half-hearted and unimaginative.
  • As the activist Evan Greer of Fight for the Future points out, the film almost entirely ignores social media’s power to connect marginalized young people, or to build social movements such as Black Lives Matter that challenge the status quo. This omission is important, not because it leaves the documentary “one-sided,” as some have complained, but because understanding social media’s upsides is critical to the project of addressing its failures. (I wrote in an earlier newsletter that the BLM protests should remind us why social media is worth fixing.)
  • To be fair, the film’s decision to most prominently feature former technologists might lend it more credibility when it comes to sounding the alarm to a mass audience. People who have long ignored the warnings from journalists and academics, perhaps writing them off as ill-informed or agenda-driven, might have a harder time ignoring the same warnings when they come from the very people who built the systems.
  • But these technologists’ blinkered outlook was part of the problem in the first place. Asking the same group of idealistic, Stanford-educated, youngish white men to diagnose and address the problem that they and their friends created also risks replicating the mistakes that led us to this point. A couple of the film’s subjects briefly nod to this problem — “We’re allowing the technologists to frame this as a problem that they are equipped to solve,” says the mathematician and author Cathy O’Neil — but the film itself fails to take it to heart. This isn’t just a matter of optics or identity politics: Women, and women of color, in particular, have consistently been ahead of the curve in identifying online platforms’ biases, failures, and injustices. Yet the voices of critics such as Safiya Umoja Noble, Meredith Broussard, and Ruha Benjamin are missing from The Social Dilemma.
  • This point is hammered home in an impassioned takedown by Zachary Loeb’s blog Librarian Shipwreck, which argues that the tech leaders who built this mess should be held accountable for their screw-ups, not elevated to the status of saviors just because they’re now sorry. Loeb, a Ph.D. candidate in the history and sociology of science, points out a revealing moment in which Harris tried to distinguish between social media and other forms of technology by riffing on how “no one got upset when bicycles showed up.” In fact, lots of people got upset when bicycles showed up, as any real student of tech history would know, or at least suspect. “What makes Harris’s point so interesting is not just that he is wrong, but that he is so confident while being so wrong,” Loeb writes.
  • One more critique worth reading comes from Paris Marx, the host of the left-wing Tech Won’t Save Us podcast. Whether or not you share his politics, Marx concisely makes the case that The Social Dilemma misidentifies social media as the primary source of contemporary strife by overlooking “the underlying economic conditions: four decades of neoliberalism, rising inequality, and corruption.” This critique echoes some of the key points in Cory Doctorow’s new online book How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism, which contends that what Zuboff called “surveillance capitalism” is better understood as simply “capitalism.”
  • For all its failings, there’s a case to be made that a mass-market documentary like The Social Dilemma — which was produced and heavily promoted on Netflix, the world’s biggest streaming service — was needed to convey to a wider audience the sense of urgency that social media’s critics, and even many of its former evangelists, already felt. From this standpoint, the fact that film was so light on solutions might be for the best, given that its main subjects aren’t the people we should be relying on for solutions anyway.
  • The biggest risk here is that people come away with the impression that the answer involves deleting Facebook — as some are already doing, per CNBC — or asking it to do better, as the film’s own feeble calls to action suggest. The answer, as the film manages to make plain in a few of its more lucid moments, has to involve dismantling the business incentives that power the entire system. How to do that without ruining what’s worth keeping about social media, or making things even worse, is the real “social dilemma.” The best-case scenario is that some portion of people who watch this film will now be ready for a different film — one that actually takes that dilemma seriously.


Under-the-radar trends, stories, and random anecdotes worth your time

  • The Trump administration’s latest step to crack down on TikTok and WeChat might be its most misguided yet. As of this writing, the administration was planning to ban the apps from U.S. companies’ App Stores, effective Sept. 21, but allow them to continue operating until Nov. 12. As people with a basic understanding of cybersecurity were quick to point out, that means that users will be unable to download any updates that might be needed to patch security flaws in that time frame. “Trump Protects TikTok Users’ Security By Cutting Them Off From Security Updates,” as Motherboard put it.
  • Somewhat overshadowed by its perpetual scandals, Facebook is pursuing a wildly ambitious vision of augmented reality. Project Aria, announced at its Facebook Connect developer conference this week, involves using smart glasses to map the world around you, and using that contextual data to mediate your digital life. “Imagine a digital assistant smart enough to detect road hazards, offer up stats during a business meeting, or even help you hear better in a noisy environment,” Facebook mused in its press release. “This is a world where the device itself disappears entirely into the ebb and flow of everyday life.” My OneZero colleague Dave Gershgorn called the concept “Google Maps for your entire life.” In Slate, privacy attorney Joseph Jerome notes that building a digital duplicate of our physical world would be a step toward a “total surveillance state,” and calls for regulations to serve as “a new rulebook for how the digital world can be mapped and annotated.”

Threads of the Week

— “This electrical transmission tower has a little problem. Can you spot it?” So begins a surprisingly gripping thread by @tubetimeus on what a worn-out C-hook tells us about PG&E’s maintenance failures, which along with climate change have contributed to California’s ever-more-devastating wildfire seasons.

How Uber used its autonomous vehicles’ human safety drivers as “moral crumple zones.” This brief thread by the Guardian’s Alex Hern draws on a concept introduced in 2016 by Madeleine Clare Elish of the Data & Society Research Institute.

Thanks for reading Pattern Matching. Reach me with tips and feedback by responding to this post on the web, via Twitter direct message at @WillOremus, or by email at

Senior Writer, OneZero, at Medium

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