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skyler-gundason-social-dilemma.pngIt's meant, I think, to be a horror movie. Unfortunately, Jeff Orlowski's The Social Dilemma comes across as too impressed with itself to scare as thoroughly as it would like.

The plot, such as it is: a group of Silicon Valley techies who have worked on Google, Facebook, Instagram, Palm (!), and so on present mea culpas. "I was co-inventor...of the Like button," Tristan Harris says by way of introduction. It seems such a small thing to include. I'm sure it wasn't that easy, but Slashdot was upvoting messages when Mark Zuckerberg was 14. The techies' thoughts are interspersed with those of outside critics. Intermittently, the film inserts illustrative scenarios using actors, a technique better handled in The Big Short. In these, Vincent Kartheiser plays a multiplicity of evil algorithmic masterminds doing their best to exploit their target, a fictional teenage boy (Skyler Gisondo) who has accepted the challenge of giving up his phone for a week with the predictable results of an addiction film. As he becomes paler and sweatier, you expect him to crash out in a grotty public toilet, like Julia Ormond's character in Traffik. Instead, he face-plants when the police arrest him at Charlottesville.

The first half of the movie is predominantly a compilation of favorite social media nightmares: teens are increasingly suffering from depression and other mental health issues; phone addiction is a serious problem; we are losing human connection; and so on. As so often, causality is unclear. The fact that these Silicon Valley types consciously sought to build addictive personal tracking and data crunching systems and change the world does not automatically tie every social problem to their products.

I say this because so much of this has a long history the movie needs for context. The too-much-screen-time of my childhood was TV, though my (older) parents worried far more about the intelligence-drainage perpetrated by comic books. Girls who now seek cosmetic surgery in order to look more like filter-enhanced Instagram images were preceded by girls who starved themselves to look like air-brushed, perfect models in teen magazines. Today's depressed girls could have been those profiled in Mary Pipher's 1994 Reviving Ophelia, and she, too, had forerunners. Claims about Internet addiction go back more than 20 years, and until very recently were focused on gaming. Finally, though data does show that teens are going out less, less interested in learning to drive, and are having less sex and using less drugs, is social media the cause or the compensation for a coincidental overall loss of physical freedom? Even pre-covid they were growing up into a precarious job market and a badly damaged planet; depression might just be the sane response.

In the second half the film moves on to consider social media divisions as assault on democracy. Here, it's on firmer ground, but really only because the much better film The Great Hack has already exposed how Facebook (in particular) was used to spark violence and sway elections even before 2016. And then it wraps up: people are trapped, the companies have no incentive to change, and (says Jaron Lanier) the planet will die. As solutions, the film's many spokespeople suggest familiar ideas: regulation, taxation, withdrawal. Shoshana Zuboff is the most radical: outlaw them. (Please don't take Twitter! I learn so much from Twitter!)

"We are allowing technologists to frame this as a problem that they are equipped to solve," says data scientist Cathy O'Neil. "That's a lie." She goes on to say that AI can't distinguish truth. Even if it could, truth is not part of the owners' business model.

Fair enough, but remove Facebook and YouTube, and you still have Fox News, OANN, and the Daily Mail inciting anger and division with expertise honed over a century of journalistic training - and amoral world leaders. This week, a study published this week from Cornell University found that Donald Trump is implicated in 38% of the coronavirus misinformation circulating on online and traditional media. Knock out a few social media sites...and that still won't change because his pulpit is too powerful.

Most of the film's speakers eventually close by recommending we delete our social media accounts. It seems a weak response, in part because the movie does a poor job of disentangling the dangers of algorithmic manipulation from the myriad different reasons why people use phones and social media: they listen to music, watch TV, connect with their friends, play games, take pictures, and navigate unfamiliar locations. It's absurd to ask them to give that up without suggesting alternatives for fulfilling those functions.

A better answer may be that offered this week by the 25-odd experts who have formed an independent Facebook oversight board (the actual oversight board Facebook announced months ago is still being set up and won't begin meeting until after the US presidential election). The expertise assembled is truly impressive, and I hope that, like the Independent SAGE group of scientists who have been pressuring the UK government into doing a better job on coronavirus, they will have a mind-focusing effect on our Facebook overlords, perhaps later to be copied for other sites. The problem - an aspect also omitted from The Social Dilemma - is that under the company's shareholder structure Zuckerberg is under no requirement to listen.

Illustrations: Skyler Gisondo as Ben, in The Social Dilemma.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.


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