I don’t remember when it began. Was it five – or six, seven, eight, maybe more – years ago? I don’t remember why it began, either. Was it the restlessness, intellectual curiosity, or plain old dopamine hit?
I don’t remember my last uninterrupted sleep.
No matter when I hit the bed, a few hours later, half-asleep, I reach out for my phone and check for, well, something: Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp – a like on a post, a re-tweet, a message, anything. The entire ritual doesn’t last long, say half-a-minute or so, but it’s still there: most, if not each, night.
I don’t remember when, as that was the whole point. Because if I could differentiate between persuasion and manipulation, consumption and addiction, I would be neither manipulated nor addicted. Today, I’m both and, most likely, so are you – in fact, the chances are high that you found this piece via one of your social media accounts.
A new Netflix docudrama, The Social Dilemma, examines this crucial phase of our lives. This handwringing may seem excessive to some; after all, we can always ignore, delete, or deactivate. What’s the big deal? But that assumption rests on a condition: that we have a choice – but we don’t. We’re all inmates in the jail of social media, and many don’t even know they’re locked.
A good mix of performers and commentators
Directed by Jeff Orlowski, The Social Dilemma unveils an impressive list of interviewees, comprising of prominent Silicon Valley nerds – the coders and designers behind Gmail, GChat, Google Drive, Facebook’s ‘like’ button, Facebook pages – largely responsible for shaping our digital lives. It features former senior executives from the major tech companies: Google, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest. Then there are Harvard and New York University professors, the scholars who have studied drug addiction and the spread of malign narratives on social media and the founder of virtual reality.
It’s a good mix of performers and commentators – people who contemplate (sometimes regret) their inventions and those who explain the consequences of such actions. And then there’s us – the documentary’s audience, the social networks’ users – who clicked, uploaded, tagged, shared, re-tweeted, and favourited. The “lab rats” who were sold for ads, the “zombies” who wrote their own destruction.
The film’s central concern – of users becoming products – isn’t particularly new. That is how the media business has historically worked. The cost of producing an English daily, for example, far exceeds the price we pay for it. But the difference here is of extent and type, for the social media makes us pay in all the ways possible: financial, psychological, moral. Such an expense, affecting 2.7 billion users, has been unprecedented in human history – and so have been the earnings of tech giants, in “trillions of dollars”. The Social Dilemma is preoccupied with a simple line of inquiry: “How bad has it become?” The answer is straightforward and terrifying: “The genie is out of the bottle.”
The social media platforms, say the interviewees, change the way we think, who we are. None of this was by accident; we were controlled by design. These websites have become so personalised and so specific – constantly bombarding us with a barrage of options: the videos to watch, the people to follow, the pages to like – that they’re creating an ever-expanding bubble for each one of us. We, as a result, are trapped in “2.7 billion realities” with “2.7 billion facts”. Humankind was meant to be a relay race, but now there is no baton to pass. Even though we’re running all the time – running more than ever – we can no longer reach each other. Instead, confined in our capsules, our feet beat the treadmill. The very thing supposed to make us connected has alienated us further. The lyrical irony of this experiment was evident right from the start, but more than a decade later, it has devolved into an existential threat.
Raising the stakes
The Social Dilemma does an impressive job of raising the stakes. In two unsettling charts, for instance, it shows the exponential rise in suicides among teens and pre-teens after 2009, when social media came on our phones. Then fake news entered the picture, and we’re still recovering from that onslaught. Fake news, a study found, spreads six times faster than a regular piece of information; it, too, then became a part of the algorithm: a data point, a bait for the jaundiced, a pitch for the advertisers.
Given that the documentary is centred on technology, which can get inaccessible and boring, the filmmaker constantly hunts for our attention. So, the talking heads often segue into animation, graphics, a short film even. The last bit may feel like a stretch – especially as it’s filled with the stereotypical characters (a naïve protagonist and cunning villains) – but, by the end, it ties the documentary well, details the key concepts, and puts the human element at the centre of the story.
The sordid effects of social media, as we all know, extend far beyond the corruption of information. Over the last several years, it has contributed to toxic polarisation, lynching, and a “global assault on democracy”. Probing every aspect in depth would have made this feature a series (which wouldn’t have been a bad idea), but Orlowski at least touches upon them, giving this piece a sense of wholeness.
How did we reach here though? Was it because we were always lonely, with many unaware of their loneliness? Was our need to connect and belong so profound and so desperate that we settled for anything, even a misleading proxy for companionship? Or was this purported social cohesiveness a smokescreen all along: that in the garb of watching others, all we wanted was to see our (carefully curated) selves? We only have questions and questions. But despite their abundance, one thing is unambiguously clear. The age of social media is the age of rear-view mirror: the objects in it are closer than they appear.