By Matthew Turk
What happens when there is easy access to the vernacular of the Bible? Cultural critics once said that it would destroy Christian orthodoxy. Even the invention of writing alone was seen by Socrates as diminishing to mental acuity. Still, society has adapted to chug along without ubiquity of information taking it down. However, what happens when we no longer select the information we consume through media?
While I’m not old enough to remember, I would imagine that people used to walk to a store to buy a magazine or newspaper. Headlines were written to catch the reader’s attention, but at the end of the day, everyone was more or less restricted to a finite set of articles. Today, in contrast to ink on a page, even a simple Google Search may differ vastly based on location. Moreover, there is so much information to filter now, and increasingly users are guided by algorithms designed to provoke rather than be a beacon of truth and uniformity.
“The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads,” says Jeff Hammerbacher, co-founder of Cloudera. I thought of Hamerbacher the other day when I finished watching the new documentary “The Social Dilemma.” Through a series of interviews with experts and engineers, including the co-inventor of the “like” button and the inventor of infinite scroll, I got the sense that the documentary urged me to address social media’s role in fast-tracking humanity to dystopia. Over and over, the film underscores three main ideas: technology “addiction” (overlooking the clinical definition), persuasive social engineering and surveillance capitalism. Interspersed between interviews is a dramatization of a modern family, and especially one character named Ben, who eventually falls prey to political propaganda on social media. One particular scene represents the exaggerated depiction well: The family tries to have dinner without technology, and one daughter resorts to hammering her “phone safe” open to respond to a push notification. Do most people actually behave this way?
Directed by Jeff Orlowski ’07, “The Social Dilemma” serves the noble purpose of exposing the issues that exist around social media, even suggesting possible solutions ranging from something as small as turning off notifications all the way to government intervention. However, I still take issue with two of the ways that social media is portrayed. Firstly, Big Tech is not solely responsible for saving us from ourselves. Instead, there ought to be a joint effort between the companies, the government and the users. Just because these companies are following financial incentives, as a reasonable organization does, and using “growth hacking” to exploit the vulnerabilities of human psychology does not mean that people cannot exhibit self-control to an extent. “The Social Dilemma” does an exceptional job of reinforcing the obsessive teenage monolith, painting Ben as someone who forsakes other aspects of his life, such as team sports, to sink deeper into the abyss, when I believe the more realistic case is that teenagers do, in fact, have better things to do with their lives than just stare at a screen. Not to mention, social media in some cases has granted expansive access to educational resources and the ability to stay in touch over vast distances, and we shouldn’t lose sight of that.
By the end of the film, I had the impression that I was supposed to be freaking out over the technological singularity and existential threats to humankind. But wait. Isn’t it a bit ironic that in the process of warning the audience about psychological manipulation, “The Social Dilemma” uses similar tactics of tracking and emotional persuasion? Similarly to the blue checkmark, the documentary uses authority figures to add weight to favorable content, and Netflix’s algorithms are recommending this documentary to users, as well as collecting data to predict what they will watch in the future based on how they like it. Despite the irony, that is just what companies do, and users ought to be aware of their ploys.
It is not reasonable to expect Twitter to cater to your best interests, presumably genuine, clickbait-free connections with others, if, like others, it is a business built on in-feed advertisements that looks to satisfy shareholders. They have no impetus to put users first, only insofar as it maintains the public image. And from what I can tell, Congress is not ready to whip up some legislation that takes into account all the nuances of recent technological advancements. For now, it is important to do follow-up work to distinguish between real and fake news. Scan the terms of service, at least. Understand the implications of “free” software. Consider what your intention is when you pick up your phone. Are you looking for something in particular, or is it a mere impulse to pass the time? Do you use your phone, or does your phone use you?
Tristan Harris — a former Google design ethicist who was featured in “The Social Dilemma” — said, “We’re training and conditioning a whole new generation of people that when we are uncomfortable or lonely or uncertain or afraid, we have a digital pacifier for ourselves.” Does this not atrophy one’s ability to cope with the ups and downs of life head-on? I’m not a parent, but when a baby cries for their pacifier, that is probably because they have not yet learned how to deal when things go wrong. It’s the end of the world for them, but eventually, a baby falls and falls again until falling doesn’t hurt as much. Should we rob ourselves of the fall? Will the pacifier always be there, and even so, should we rely on it? The smartphone should be celebrated as an invention, but at the same time, I think it’s important to be aware of the ways it could lull you into a false sense of security. When smartphones convenience us with information that is readily available, there’s no need to stay on one’s toes mentally, per se. But believe it or not, Google cannot answer all the questions that a person faces over a lifetime. For the sake of one’s own mind and critical thinking, it is not advisable to regularly allow other people to form your opinions for you or spoon-feed solutions to problems. To me, it is for the very same reason that novelists show and don’t tell.
Social media is only the latest facet of a larger trend looming over humanity whose explanation I believe lies in cat videos. You may be surprised to find out that there is an abundance of videos that show people tormenting cats by showing them cucumbers. The cats leap into the air as if their life is in imminent danger. And that is because for a while, anything that resembled a cucumber, such as a snake, did spell life or death for cats’ non-domesticated ancestors. Even with the modern protection of shelter in an owner’s home, these defense mechanisms have not gone away. Likewise, our hunter-gatherer brains are challenged by the phenomenon of “evolutionary lag.” The human limbic system, which evolved over millions of years through a relatively inefficient process, cannot suddenly change to adapt to media overstimulation. As they remark in the documentary, none of us evolved to expect such a high level of social approval in such a short amount of time. Society has advanced far too quickly for the mind to keep up, and in many ways, this gap could widen. Hundreds of years down the line, when we progress to unbelievable heights, we’ll have lots to show for it. But will anybody be happier? I doubt it, unless someone invents some crude method to program happiness into the brain. Still, we are stuck with extremely old “hardware,” and if humanity wishes to keep up with its own pace, the interrogation of our innovations must begin now.
Contact Matthew Turk at mjturk ‘at’ stanford.edu.