Although pointing to many of the problems gripping society, the Netflix film doesn’t provide an accurate understanding of the modern digital economy.
In his latest film, The Social Dilemma, writer and director Jeff Orlowski attempts to shine a light on many of the by-products of the internet age. Surveillance, misinformation, political polarisation, and mental health crises all feature as prominent themes throughout the show, with the documentary frequently returning to a dramatised family experiencing the fallout from an increasingly online life.
Whilst viewers may recoil in horror at the mechanisms by which social media clings onto your behavioural data, the film fails to articulate a coherent criticism of the modern digital economy. By selecting a poor range of guest interviewees and presenting a techno-deterministic view of the world, The Social Dilemma tells the story that many Silicon Valley members want you to hear.
The Attention Merchants
The docu-film certainly identifies many key features of the ‘attention economy’ well. For example, the concept of data colonialism; a predatory extracting model that relies on the aggregation of further data to increase profits, is parsed out excellently. This helps to understand the disturbing mechanisms by which we are often becoming inseparable from our screens.
Orlowski’s project brings together a series of former Big Tech executives, investors, and other activists to paint a picture of the modern digital economy. The eclectic mix (well, not in terms of gender or ethnicity) of software engineers describe how their creations span out of control.
We hear from Justin Rosenstein, the co-creator of Facebook’s infamous ‘Like Button’, who viewed it as a tool of positivity. But like much of the architecture constituting these companies, the feature purely drove engagement, leading to problems of addiction and polarisation down the line.
Ideas will be introduced, then played out in a fictionalised family, whose two youngest children are addicted to their smartphones. In these scenes, we see engineers (played by Mad Men’s Vincent Kartheiser) in the phone of the middle child, attempting to provide behavioural nudges and appropriate adverts to keep him hooked. A great line that summarised the addictive nature of these tools was stated in the show: that only ‘drug dealers and technology companies call their customers “users”’.
Selection Biases and the Solutionist Lens of Capitalism
One of the key problems with the show was the selection of guests. Firstly, the interviewees were mostly white men. Whilst this is clearly a problem of the industry itself, Orlowski shouldn’t be speaking with just people from the Valley. It also takes one hour to reach an interview with a woman of colour. The exclusion of such communities demonstrates an insufficient analysis of how bias plays a role in the algorithmic production of knowledge.
Furthermore, most interviewees could be described as ‘technological solutionists’. This worldview posits that complex social problems can be fixed by a form of algorithmic optimisation. Just a tweak of the code here or there will get us to the preferred state of affairs.
This approach to understanding social phenomena can often be highly deterministic. It assumes that technology is the all-encompassing factor that has thrown up the problems we see today. Of course, many of these instruments are seriously influential platforms of power, but it ignores the historical conditions that came before the silicon revolution.
By claiming that technology is the solution, and all we need to do is fix the problem is recode the technology, the solutionist lens articulates a narrow account of modern political problems. In the eyes of the guests, there was no crisis in liberal democratic states prior to the explosion in social media power, and therefore reshaping platform technologies is the quick-fix to discontent.
As a result, this provides a very particular agenda when framing the show. The lack of piercing criticism beyond the Silicon Valley sphere was very telling, and means that the show fails to imagine a world beyond the likes of Facebook and Google. Why weren’t tech intellectuals such as Evgeny Morozov or Safiya Noble invited to take part?. Their proposals for how to change things simply wouldn’t be in line with the perspective of the main ‘protagonists’ in the film.