The Social Dilemma
What the hell is going on? And what can you do about it?
The Social Dilemma is a documentary/drama film that premiered January 26, 2020, at the Sundance Film Festival and explores social networks’ dangerous impact on humans.
When this film was released on Netflix on September 9, it was one of those things that was everywhere. Everyone was talking about it. And so I opted to wait a bit before watching it. As I was settling into the film, I told my girlfriend I finally decided to watch The Social Dilemma. And she hadn’t even heard of it.
So it’s likely that you haven’t either. And, likely, you won’t watch it.
Isn’t it ironic.
What is the Social Dilemma?
The questions the film seems to ask us to think about are:
- How we connect, and
- How those ways are manipulated for various reasons.
The film opens by asking, “what’s the problem?” And everyone sits in silent contemplation. Scratching heads because no one has a name for what the problem is.
It’s confusing because it’s simultaneous utopia and dystopia.
We have more ways to connect than ever before, but we’re not aware of how we’re increasingly manipulated through the platforms we use.
The film brings up a common saying, “if you’re not paying, you are the product.”
We are the product, our attention is being sold to advertisers.
Jaron Lanier, founding father of Virtual Reality, specifies it:
That’s a little too simplistic. It’s the gradual, slight, imperceptible change in your own behavior and perception that is the product. That is the only possible product.
The film goes on to compare our current state to the Truman Show:
It’s like 2.7 billion Truman shows. Each person has their own reality with their own… facts.
Then quotes the Truman show:
Why do you think that Truman has never come close to discovering the true nature of his world until now? We accept the reality of the world with which we are presented. It’s as simple as that.
More quotes from the Social Dilemma:
Over time, you have the false sense that everyone agrees with you, because everyone in your news feed sounds just like you. And once you’re in that state, it turns out you’re easily manipulated.
And then you look over at the other side. And you start to think, how can those people be so stupid. Look at all of this information that I am constantly seeing. How are they seeing not seeing the same information? The answer is: they’re not seeing that same information.
The Social Dilemma is partly from the failure to cross the opinion barrier.
We’ve lost control of ourselves.
We’ve handed control of ourselves to our hedonic preferences. Our attention and behavior is dragged away from us and we make few attempts to prevent it.
From Aldous Huxley’s A Brave New World:
“We condition them to thrive on heat,” concluded Mr. Foster. “Our colleagues upstairs will teach them to love it.”
“And that,” put in the Director sententiously, “that is the secret of happiness and virtue—liking what you’ve got to do. All conditioning aims at that: making people like their un-escapable social destiny.”
“These may think it a great thing to have everything, as they suppose, their own way—to depend on no one—to have to think of nothing out of sight, to be without the irksomeness of continual acknowledgment, continual prayer, continual reference of what they do to the will of another. But as time goes on, they, as all men, will find that independence was not made for man—that it is an unnatural state—will do for a while, but will not carry us on safely to the end…”
“Yes, we inevitably turn to God; for this religious sentiment is of its nature so pure, so delightful to the soul that experiences it, that it makes up to us for all our other losses.”
“Yes, that’s just like you. Getting rid of everything unpleasant instead of learning to put up with it. Whether ’tis better in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them … But you don’t do either. Neither suffer nor oppose. You just abolish the slings and arrows. It’s too easy.”
“Violent Passion Surrogate. Regularly once a month. We flood the whole system with adrenin. It’s the complete physiological equivalent of fear and rage. All the tonic effects of murdering Desdemona and being murdered by Othello, without any of the inconveniences.”
“But I like the inconveniences.”
“We don’t,” said the Controller. “We prefer to do things comfortably.”
“But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”
“In fact,” said Mustapha Mond, “you’re claiming the right to be unhappy.”
“All right then,” said the Savage defiantly, “I’m claiming the right to be unhappy.”
“Not to mention the right to grow old and ugly and impotent; the right to have syphilis and cancer; the right to have too little to eat; the right to be lousy; the right to live in constant apprehension of what may happen tomorrow; the right to catch typhoid; the right to be tortured by unspeakable pains of every kind.” There was a long silence.
“I claim them all,” said the Savage at last.”
Aza Raskin, co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology:
You can imagine these things are sort of like, they tilt the floor of human behavior. They make some behavior harder and some behavior easier. And you’re always free to walk up the hill, but fewer people do. And at society scale, you really are just tilting the floor and changing what billions of people think and do.
So what can you do?
- Reclaim control of your behavior
- Understand how we accept truth
- Understand how bad actors manipulate
- Make active efforts to cross the opinion barrier
Reclaiming Control of your Behavior
Where you spend your attention is where you spend your life. And life happens in your pursuit of things not given to you.
Reclaiming control of your behavior begins by acknowledging that you need to accept feelings of dissatisfaction to make things better.
You need to understand the reasons why we do things against our best interests—if everyone spent all their time being distracted, people would just continue to suffer in the “now.”
From the book Indistractable by Nir Eyal:
“The curse is not that Tantalus spends all eternity reaching for things just out of reach, but rather his obliviousness to the greater folly of his actions. Tantalus’s curse was his blindness to the fact he didn’t need those things in the first place. That’s the real moral of the story.”
“Even when we think we’re seeking pleasure, we’re actually driven by the desire to free ourselves from the pain of wanting.”
Four psychological factors make satisfaction temporary:
- Negativity bias;
- Rumination; and
- Hedonic adaptation.
You need to stop escaping discomfort through distraction and learn to use your dissatisfaction to make things better. Oftentimes, I find real motivation is anger against yourself. You need to seek discomfort. Figure out how you want to be, what you want to stand for, and how you want to relate to the world around you.
Make unwanted behaviors difficult to do, add tangible costs to getting distracted, and pre-commit to a self-image.
What can you remove from your day, from your task list, and from your life to give yourself some space to breathe?
In The Startling Convexity of Expertise, Byrne Hobart talks about how the secret to productivity is to “cultivate an antsiness for progress.”
Start by having arbitrary strong opinions. Expect them to be wrong. But they’ll keep things interesting. Strong opinions, weakly held, are a cheap call option on information.
In an interview with Gaurav Vohra, the Head of Growth at Superhuman, he mentions:
The best way to work is to be in flow as much as possible. And the best way to be in flow is to minimize distractions, and create large blocks of time to do similar tasks all at once — so that you minimize context switching.
Mobile vs desktop devices
Russell Kirsch, inventor of the world’s first internally programmable computer:
With a computer you can make things. You can code, you can make things and create things that have never before existed and do things that have never been done before.
That’s the problem with a lot of people, they don’t try to do stuff that’s never been done before, so they never do anything, but if they try to do it, they find out there’s lots of things they can do that have never been done before.
An odd litmus test I’ve developed for applications is if it’s available on both mobile and desktop devices as an app.
If you have tools that are only available as apps on mobile, then you’re going to be constantly pulled away from your desktop, where work is actually done. (Snapchat, Instagram)
I feel mobile vs non-mobile might be the wrong terminology moving forward. But I find mobile devices tend to keep me in a singular app, while non-mobile devices tend to let me explore across platforms more (browser).
Mobile devices don’t help me “do stuff that’s never been done before,” so I never do anything on them.
Understanding how we accept truth
What makes something true? What makes something a fact? Fiction is another word for fake. But fiction works on us.
If everyone is entitled to their own facts, there’s really no need for compromise, no need for people to come together, in fact there’s really no need for people to interact. We need to have some shared understanding of reality, otherwise we aren’t a country.
People have no idea what’s true and now it’s a matter of life and death.
I’ve just started my foray into Slate Star Codex and I’ve never felt like I’ve known less because of it. The first post explores “charity over absurdity.”
Absurdity is the natural human tendency to dismiss anything you disagree with as so stupid it doesn’t even deserve consideration. In fact, you are virtuous for not considering it, maybe even heroic! You’re refusing to dignify the evil peddlers of bunkum by acknowledging them as legitimate debate partners.
Charity is the ability to override that response. To assume that if you don’t understand how someone could possibly believe something as stupid as they do, that this is more likely a failure of understanding on your part than a failure of reason on theirs.
So, how do we accept truth? I’m not sure. We can’t check everything though, so we have to be willing to believe in others.
If we don’t agree on what is true, or that there is such a thing as truth, we’re toast.
Here’s a quality video on believing in experts: https://youtu.be/LRNkDZy30xU
I will say, the greater the impact on other ideas, the greater the power and influence involved, the more criticism is discouraged, the more a belief dehumanizes, the more there is a need for criticism.
The foolish confine themselves within limits they set. You only know where the line is once you’ve crossed it.
An inverse question worth exploring, Why do we use violence?
In Myanmar, phones come pre-loaded with Facebook. When people get their phone, the first thing they open, and the only thing they know how to open is Facebook.
The film is part documentary and part drama. It has a side-story of how your average teen can become addicted to social media and begin to lose out on the “normal joys of life.” He quits sports, falls into depression, stops showing up to school, and becomes increasingly radicalized by bad actors until he is eventually arrested at a rally alongside his sister, who was trying to protect him.
Facebook gave the military and other bad actors a new way to manipulate public opinion and to help incite violence against the rohingya muslims. That included mass killings, burning entire villages, mass rape, and other serious crimes against humanity that have led to 700,000 rohingya muslims having to flee the country.
Imagine a world where no one believes anything that’s true. Everyone believes the government is lying to them, everything is a conspiracy theory, you shouldn’t trust anyone, hate the other side. That’s where all this is heading.
This is a global problem. And this manipulation is not new.
Let’s go back to 1929.
A time where all men were smoking, yet it was seen as corrupt and inappropriate for women. Cigarettes were thought to dirty women into prostitution.
Edward Bernays, “the father of public relations” and the nephew of Sigmund Freud, was hired to encourage women to smoke in public and eliminate the social taboo of women smoking in public.
Bernays hired women to march in the Easter Sunday Parade of 1929. They were to join the march saying, “Women! Light another torch of freedom! Fight another sex taboo!” And then light up their cigarettes, their “torches of freedom.”
He hired photographers make sure to get pictures of the events and then published them around the world. The ensuing targeting of women in tobacco advertising led to higher rates of smoking among women.
While in 1923 only 5% of cigarettes where sold to women, in 1929 that percentage increased to 12%, in 1935 to 18.1%, peaking in 1965 at 33.3%, and remained there until 1977.
Bernays established cigarettes as a way for women to challenge social norms and fight for equal rights. Eventually for women the cigarette came to symbolize “rebellious independence, glamour, seduction and sexual allure for both feminists and flappers.”
Bernays went on to help a CIA-orchestrated overthrow of the Guatemalan government in 1954 through the United Fruit Company. Effectively heading a misinformation campaign portraying the company as a victim of a communist Guatemalan government and convincing lawmakers and the American public that the Guatemalan government needed to be overthrown.
Now we see this power of rallying the public being transferred to anyone, anywhere.
We in the tech industry have created the tools to destabilize and erode the fabric of society in every country, all at once, everywhere.
Some of the most developed nations in the world are now imploding on each other. And what do they have in common?
The fabric of a healthy society depends on us getting off this gross business model. We can demand that these product be designed humanely. We can demand to not be treated as an extractable resource. The intention could be: how can we make the world better?
How I inform myself
I won’t tell you how to consume. But I will share with you how I consume information.
I use NetNewsWire, a free and open source RSS reader for Mac and iOS to subscribe to various RSS feeds.
I subscribe to numerous newsletters, a short list can be found on my knowledge page.
I have also recently subscribed to MailBrew, a platform to roll feeds, writers, and newsletters in a single email digest, and a beautiful web app.
A simple filter I have for consumption is this: If it’s vehement, I don’t engage.
Further Reading and Watching
In Search of a Flat Earth: a documentary essay by Dan Olson about the people who believe the Earth is flat and why it’s so difficult to convince them otherwise.
The Rise of Magical Thinking: A video that attempts to explain the rise of QAnon, conspiracy theories, and magical thinking in America.
Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior: A video series by Destin Sandlin, an American engineer and science communicator about manipulating the YouTube algorithm, the Twitter bot battle, and who is manipulating Facebook.
A Brave New World: A book by Aldeus Huxley
The Story of Us: A Wait But Why series that covers approximately everything. Turns out “Us” is a big topic.
Logic: a video how to take apart an argument and figure out what it’s saying.
Effectiviology: a website to help you understand the world better, so you can think and act more effectively.