Netflix’s documentary-drama hybrid The Social Dilemma is a dive into the sobering repercussions of a life lived within a web of social media and algorithms. Its distinguishing feature from similar-themed releases is this one features whistleblowers from tech giants divulging why they turned their backs on the platforms they innovated.
Pinterest’s former CEO said that free time that could have been spent with his kids was instead put into mindlessly checking his phone. Aza Raskin, the mind behind the infinite scroll, had to even write a software to stop himself from using Reddit and Twitter. It’s troubling when these very people admit that they, too, have become victims of the features they created.
It’s funny to think of how Facebook started; a seemingly harmless way to help connect people in a college setting. But as it grows exponentially larger by the day with more opportunities handed to its users, the more data it collects from us — and willingly...
Jeff Orlowski’s documentary isn’t breaking news, but it clearly emphasizes this: we have become the products of an industry that thrives on intentional manipulation and addiction. And for it to liken us, the users, to those who feed the illegal drug industry — I’m sure you can see the dilemma is apparent.
It’s funny to think of how Facebook started; a seemingly harmless way to help connect people in a college setting. But as it grows exponentially larger by the day with more opportunities handed to its users, the more data it collects from us — and willingly, I may add. Armed with an interface perfectly engineered to predict human behavior and notifications to produce clicks and, ultimately, bring more profit to them –– it was made to be addictive. Yet, while most of us are aware of this already, once they start turning the dials to hook us back in, we freely give in to the force.
It takes awareness and forced reluctance to tamp down your impulses enough to be able to get out of the loop. Sure, Instagram allows me to know how much time I’ve been spending scrolling through people’s lives, or if I’m more dedicated, I can install app blockers to minimize the time spent on them. There’s no shortage of routines customized to limit our social media habits. It didn’t matter anyway, because there was always a way around it, and for a generation that grew up (and relies, for that matter) on the internet — let’s face it, logging off is never permanent. So, right back in again to the digital world we’ve sworn off more than once.
When TikTok rose in popularity during this quarantine, boasting of being a source of short-form entertainment, it felt like a reminder of the novelty that was Vine. So, I said sign me up. But did I consider the fact that my personal data could be harvested once I’ve installed it? Well, yes. I’d even read articles by tech experts explaining how it disguises itself as entertainment but is actually a data-mining app, but eventually dismissed it as “Is that new information?” The thought that it’s not just my data that’s being collected pacifies me, but my curiosity and need for belonging also plays a part in making it hard to resist. It’s weird: when you’ve been accustomed to your data being freely taken by advertisers from the platforms you signed up for, I’m not sure we even recognize when it starts to cross the line.
I don’t even remember how many times I’ve felt my phone was spying on my real-life conversations. Either through adverts that I was certain I only talked about with a friend or my phone notifying me that an app is turning on my mic in the background. It’s online surveillance that’s intrusive but also shrugged off eventually, and it’s our constant exposure to this kind of pervasive tracking that has normalized it.
With every new website we visit, app we install, it feels like surrendering a right to allow them to target or manipulate you. Rarely do people find themselves poring over paragraphs of data privacy acts, lest we find an article summarizing why we shouldn’t agree on it. So, we willingly subject ourselves to the rabbit hole of targeted ads to get a taste of the entertainment within. Sometimes, it’s convenient to an average user, but more often than not, it just drives us deeper into consumerism.
The quarantine didn’t make resisting easier. With limited options to explore the world outside social media, most of us have started to turn to online shopping as a coping mechanism. I figured it stems from our need for something new from our monotonous days, and our purchases serving as a reminder of our identities before the new normal. Then, add to this the power of our aggregated data that knows and reports our exact desires, so we give in, repeatedly. It’s surveillance capitalism that cajoles people to prioritize consumption over other values.
In a world that lives off the system of capitalism, and with our current economy dependent on the cycle of demand for production and employment, there’s no definite and easy exit point from all this. The proliferation of targeted ads won’t stop in an instant. Social media won’t disappear just because an individual refuses to give in to the triggers they’ve built. But this should serve as a harrowing reminder that these platforms have been treating our personal data and private online experiences as commodities.
The documentary continues to echo calls for us to be more intentional of how we spend our time in the digital sphere, and to proactively create ways to be more present offline. But this doesn’t discount the fact that even if we mindfully carve out time for ourselves without social media, their right to extract our data for their own gain will continue to have real-life consequences. Whether it be conditioning our behaviors or threatening our very own autonomy and democracy, all we can do is mitigate the effects on our own lives and those from our circle. But the large majority will still be susceptible to it. Impactful adjustments shouldn’t just come from us. Regulations and boundaries must be put in place to address these structures that foster online surveillance. Ultimately, we mustn’t stop clamoring for a pivot on real and actual privacy in our digital networks because the further we allow this system to exist, the more it takes from us.