Confessions From Social Media’s Dr. Frankenstein

On The Social Dilemma and the Endless Struggle to Think Well of Ourselves

Sam Guthrie / 10.19.20

Netflix’s recent documentary, The Social Dilemma, gathers the voices of psychologists, software engineers, and tech innovators in a collective plea for social media reform. The film’s urge for humanity to reconsider social media habits is nothing new, as the last decade or so has been stuffed to the brim with books, TED Talks, and films commentating on the wedge social media has driven between people. 

In many of these social media commentaries, an oft repeated adage or underlying sentiment goes something like this: “Social media is a tool, and we need to be careful how we use it.” But minutes into the film, The Social Dilemma’s most prominent voice, tech ethicist Tristan Harris, blows up this sentiment. He confesses that social media causes harm because it is functioning as designed. Our (failed) attempts at social media moderation are no match for the hardwired algorithms causing us duress. There is a reason that scrolling social media feels like playing a slot machine; it’s created to make you feel that way. 

The film covers a swath of critiques ranging from thought-provoking to heartbreaking, head-scratching to doom-inducing. On the fine line between social media rebuke and reform, Harris and his cohort lean heavily towards rebuke. But what makes the (mostly) resounding rebuke unique is that it comes from many of the pioneers of social media. It isn’t just the psychologists and sociologists weighing in on the woes of social media; those that want to pump the breaks, right the ship, and run in the other direction are CEOs, creators, and venture capitalists who are still scrubbing the guilt of social media expansion from their consciences. Like a community of Dr. Frankensteins, their collective conscience weighs heavily with the guilt of their creation. Director Jeff Orlowski even gives time for them to address their current tech addictions. Like an AA circle, they admit habit after lingering habit that still sticks with them.

The social dilemma certainly raises valid points and concerning realities about social media. I don’t think it is a coincidence that its release falls so close to a presidential election in the hopes of keeping viewers vigilant about what they’re consuming online. But the degree to which the documentary achieves clarity in its argument depends heavily on how clearly it outlines the problem in the first place. Harris & company go on about the many complex issues social media alters: privacy, environment, politics, relationships, family dynamics, and other offshoot schisms are addressed. But when asked what’s at the root of the dilemma of our social unrest, Harris offers little in terms of cohesive hypotheses. It’s hard to tell whether the lack of response is because Harris doesn’t know where to begin or if he still hasn’t found the words to describe the unresolved problem.

What Harris doesn’t answer, data scientist Cathy O’Neil answers only in part. In the film, she says that the building blocks of social media algorithms are never objective. The slot machine design of social media is built by people with motives who desire specific outcomes to achieve specific goals. With O’Neil’s analogy, T. S. Eliot’s words from almost a hundred years ago ring prophetic in this digital age, 

Half the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important. They don’t mean to do harm; but the harm does not interest them. Or they do not see it, or they justify it because they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves.

I’m no software engineer but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Eliot’s diagnosis written into the very code that O’Neil speaks of. The end goal of entrepreneurialism and invention doesn’t have to come from a malicious starting point. Often at the beginning of such projects are sentiments of positive change, meaningful work, and sustainable practices.

Harris’ critique is that social media, by design, takes advantage of our psychology and assumes that our lives are blank slates on which technology can write for good or ill. But he doesn’t voice the possibility that the design of social media may take advantage of the intrinsic desires, of users and creators alike, to think well of themselves. The Social Dilemma will certainly cause some viewers to squirm and laugh off their undisciplined tech habits. There will be others, myself included, who will count themselves among the reasonable and measured. Hovering above the tech hoopla; prudent, sane, and informed on issues of tech use and its downfalls. 

But Eliot’s century-old struggle is not partial to social media orthodoxy. If anything, those who can see their unhealthy habits are better off than those who can’t.

And I think that’s why what was most compelling about The Social Dilemma was that, despite not being able to name what is hiding in plain sight, Harris & company felt the need to make a film that watches like a documentary but sounds like a confession. At the end of the film, Harris speaks to a room full of people that feel the way he does; nervous, troubled, guilty, looking to right their wrongs. In the crowd of strangers you’ll see the faces of the tech innovators and engineers featured throughout the film. It is a room filled with recovering addicts who have played an active and passive role in our social media woes. 

The picture is quick and fleeting and in many ways lacking. But there is a flash of hope that reform begins with recovery. And that if there isn’t a seat for you in the recovery circle for social media, there is most certainly a vacant seat in some other circle for you to admit your weariness and find rest.

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