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Mission? Control!
Four years after the stupefying election victory of a man preposterously ill-suited for the highest calling of the US, a documentary airs on Netflix with a significantly important message for us all. Movies don’t or rarely change people. THE SOCIAL DILEMMA needs to, ventures Camus.
 
  “Our attention can be mined. We are more profitable to a corporation if we're spending time staring at a screen, staring at an ad, than if we're spending that time living our life in a rich way. And so, we're seeing the results of that.”
  Justin Rosenstein, Former Facebook Engineer

 

Note: The review starts after the first three main paragraphs. There’s a long introduction for context. And everything is context…


4,400,000. That’s a big number. Here’s a smaller number; (hoping the sources are accurate) 79,646. There is a correlation between those numbers. Treat them like chalked outlines at a murder scene. We’re going to get on the case and find out why those numbers are so significant. First of all, what’s so important about a ninety-minute talking heads based documentary with a dramatic presentation intercut featuring a family buffeted by social networks? Oh nothing much except perhaps the collapse of western civilisation. Do I exaggerate? Yes and no. If you’ve lived in the west (I simply cannot speak for anywhere else) for a few decades, you’ve probably formed a belief that social stability is a given like the rising of the sun. Except that the sun does not rise. We revolve. And we are devolving, prey to the lizard brain bait we are unceasingly offered by algorithms via social media to rack up the hits and engagement (and outraged attention). There is a wonderful quote that sums up 21st century humankind;

  “We have created a Star Wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and godlike technology.”  
  E.O. Wilson, Biologist  

Drama elements in The Social Dilemma

Stone Age emotions, emanating from bodies evolved to hunt and gather dealing with godlike technology. This is the ape touching the monolith, people and we have no idea how profoundly we are being manipulated. In 2001 A Space Odyssey, that alien influence kick started human evolution that developed over 3.5 million years. As far as social media goes, its benign and malign effects have taken merely 16 years to take hold of our attention and lock it in place. That puts Mark Zuckerberg about 200,000 times more powerful than Stanley’s Regency furniture-providing extra-terrestrials. Hmm, that’s a conspiracy right there. As Roger McNamee, author of the must-read Zucked says “Do you check you mail once you wake up, or before, after or during your pee?” Yes, users a little more informed about how social media can be perverted fall prey to the prescient 2015 tweet of one Adrian Bott (is that really his surname?) namely “'I never thought leopards would eat MY face,' sobs woman who voted for the Leopards Eating People's Faces Party.” Technology, up until a short time ago, was regarded as overwhelmingly positive and a boon to societies and a great advance in time saving on an individual level. What happened? What’s been happening ever since some bright spark created the barter system that led to money – greed. Despite public declarations like ‘Do No Evil’ (from Google) and Mark Zuckerberg’s dream to unite the world via Facebook, greed has pushed most social media platforms into salivating hyperdrive. The problem is not so much that the harvesting of trillions of data points on private citizens creates targeted advertising opportunities undreamt of in the past. It’s more what havoc and social change unscrupulous bad actors (as in agents of chaos, not Steven Seagal) can create using the tools of a digitally interlinked system. Some very bright people saw the heads on the coin and wondered if the tails held any nefarious promise… Overflowing data on millions of people for practically nothing? The coin is in spin… How gullible can some people be? Let’s massage that down a bit. How much effort does the average Facebook user put into fact checking what’s slipped surreptitiously on to their timeline? I would guess it’s a round number, the roundest of all numbers you might say. The data company Cambridge Analytica ran a dress rehearsal for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. They wanted to see if all this data wrangling and persuasive bots and algorithms could actually change the course of our democracy. Despite the Leave Campaign’s law-breaking (crimes that have seen no punishments which still beggars belief) and the architect of said dress rehearsal still hugely influential in the British government, people were expertly persuaded into believing things that simply weren’t true. The full story can be found in whistle blower Christopher Wylie’s terrific book Mindf*ck: Inside Cambridge Analytica’s Plot to Break the World. The name of that dress rehearsal? Brexit. “Boo hoo,” mock the Brexit supporters. “Remoaners needed to lose better.” But it galls when the winner cheats in any endeavour but I guess we are playing by a new rulebook now. We’re in the post-truth world and that can only mean the gradual erosion of almost every aspect of human communication in the public sphere.

So… 4,400,000 and 79,646. The smaller figure is the shift from Democrat to Republican in three key states in the 2016 US election. That’s how close it was, 0.06% of 137 million votes cast. OK, so what about the 4,400,000? Drum roll… That is the number who voted for Obama in 2012 whose vote was supressed and nullified, mostly by explicitly and individually targeted social media campaigns via Cambridge Analytica. Note that these people were not swayed to red or blue but not to vote. The key to Trump’s campaign was low voter turn out. A small group of people who started their employment at the world’s biggest tech companies gradually came to a similar conclusion about the jobs they were doing. Once celebrated, IT was now as dangerous as namesake’s Pennywise and that damn spinning coin had landed firmly and flatly tails up. Countries, and in one horrific case, minorities were negatively influenced and in the case of the Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar… genocide is an emotive word but in this case accurate. With nothing in place to stop the incitement of religious hatred via one of the world’s best information delivery systems, people died en masse. This is what happens when you had four locals policing a platform with 7.3 million users. Facebook admitted that they were “…slow to respond.” Hmm. I am not suggesting that Facebook was actively responsible for the horrors in Myanmar but with every software breakthrough, minds smart enough to create these platforms should also ensure they can not be perverted by bad actors. This argument is raging and at the prow of that ship is The Social Dilemma.

Myanmar protests against killings

Several prominent social media employees and qualified authors and academics illustrate with metaphor and real concern what effects social media are having on our societies. Interwoven are some classy animations and a family drama where the tech companies’ coding is personified by three Vincent Kartheisers (of Mad Men fame) at a vast control centre tweaking here and tweaking there to control the attention of the teen in question. The avatar metaphor is a good one and the film does a very good job of explaining in terms almost everyone can understand just how absolute the algorithms’ hold on all of us actually is. Facebook’s ‘photo tagging’ is mentioned, the idea of adding a name to a face in a photograph. Have you ever had an alert that someone has tagged you in a photo? It’s impossible not to click on that link, right? Well, if Facebook wanted to be even more helpful, why not just email the photo? You only come to these ‘D’uh!’ conclusions because of the good men and women in this terribly important film who are taking a very hard look at the man behind the curtain. When you go on line Google/Facebook etc. are noting every click, every video you watch or visit, every photo you view, for how long, every purchase you make and those products you viewed but didn’t buy, everything you chose or think you are choosing online. This data then makes up a digital avatar for which incremental detail is added every time you go on line. It doesn’t take long to amass hundreds of thousands of data points on you. My wife said “What do I care if some algorithm is making a note of my online behaviour? I have nothing to hide.” It’s a fair statement but one with a missing piece of the nefarious jigsaw. The more data these companies have, the more accurate their prediction engines are. So your own data (innocent and useless it may be to you) goes to add to that vast ball of digital soap, slivers here, slivers there, until you have predictive technology that can destabilise the entire democratic process. And it’s done flagrantly and with seeming impunity. Have you ever texted or What’s App’ed and received the flashing ellipsis telling you your correspondent is replying as you wait? How many times has there been no reply? The code plays the odds, works out if you’ve asked a question and keeps you staring at the screen in hope of a reply that may never come. Attention. That’s the goal. You must have had to complete a ‘Captcha’ grid to get on to a web site. Received wisdom tells us that it’s to tell human beings apart from malicious bots and algorithms. Well, if you have a nine-picture grid and are asked to click on each square showing a bus, you are not proving you are human. Google already knows you’re human from the movement of your mouse or track pad. You are teaching Google’s software how to drive driverless cars. That one sent my jaw south.

The film is predictably heavy on pieces to camera but as every participant has something extremely important to say and is uniquely qualified to say it, you never tire of them. They are shot with that same modern disregard for what’s being shot or not so we have some pre-interview prep edited in which tells you a little more about the interviewee than they perhaps would be willing to divulge in the actual interview. I’m not talking about personal secrets here but while the mic is being clipped on you assume the camera’s not rolling… Documentary filmmakers have tried for decades to present a talking head in a more dynamic light. This is just one of those ways that take the inherent dullness of the visual into interesting areas. The animation is classy. Simple and effective, pastel shaded and a nice colourful break from the heads and shoulders. Friendly, personable and a whiz at close quarter magic, Tristan Harris is the film’s and Silicon Valley’s conscience. He brought up the idea of building in ethics into the code and algorithms at Google. Everyone read his article on the subject, agreed with the direction Harris was pointing towards and then… nothing. His idea was way too threatening to the industry. Ethics? But that means safeguards would have to be put in place. There’s just too much revenue to be made. These tech giants are not merely cash cows. They are a series of taps all wedged in to the bottom of a barrel the size of the moon and it’s full of advertisers’ money, a liquid source to be milked whenever the tech bosses decide to dial up the attention traps. I have no problem with companies making money. I do have a problem with billionaires making obscene amounts of money and not ploughing anything back into the system that rewards them so handsomely. It would be good if the engine that led to so much profit weren’t enabling bad actors to take down our democracies at the same time.

I’m not sure we can do anything about Brexit. The wind has gone from those sails despite the unpunished illegality. Johnson and his unimpressive cabinet continue to play with the lives and fortunes of the UK over Corona and Europe. Now we are divided into tiers (for Christ’s sake) and it seems an even bet that we will crash out of Europe with no deal which will make coping with the virus all that more isolating. The future ain’t bright right now but dear Lord, let the future not be orange. Wish America well for the 4th November…

The Social Dilemma poster
The Social Dilemma

USA 2020
94 mins
directed by
Jeff Orlowski
produced by
Larissa Rhodes
written by
Davis Coombe
Vickie Curtis
Jeff Orlowski
cinematography
John Behrens
Jonathan Pope
editing
Davis Coombe
music
Mark A. Crawford
production design
Adam Wheatley
starring
Tristan Harris
Jeff Seibert
Bailey Richardson
Joe Toscano
Sandy Parakilas
Guillaume Chaslot
Lynn Fox

distributor
Netflix
release date
9 September 2020
review posted
15 October 2020

See all of Camus' reviews