Facebook and Google are collecting vast troves of data on us and using that information not only to sell us ads, but to addict us to their platforms, separate us from our friends and family, and fill our minds with damaging conspiracy theories. At least that’s what a new documentary wants us to believe.
The Social Dilemma was released on Netflix on September 9 and immediately rocketed into its top ten list. The film interviews people who used to work at the big tech companies and have now seen the light, along with researchers in other fields who back the idea that “surveillance capitalism” is an existential threat to our societies.
Yet this techno-deterministic narrative vastly inflates the capabilities of data capture and algorithms, and, in so doing, blames a whole range of problems on technology that have their root in more fundamental social and economic conditions of modern society. It is important to understand what effects these technologies are having on us, both personally and collectively, but failing to recognize the longer history of these problems and the broader structures that contribute to them will lead us to solutions that don’t actually get to the root causes.
Blinded by Technological Determinism
In 1995, Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron outlined what they called the “Californian Ideology.” In Silicon Valley, “the disciplines of market economics and the freedoms of hippie artisanship” were combined with “a nearly universal belief in technological determinism” to create a libertarian ideology which believed that the betterment of humanity would not come through the existing “social, political and legal power structures,” but rather through the free market and the continual development of new technologies.
“Political debate therefore, is a waste of breath,” they explained, and would only hinder technological progress. It was neoliberalism meets technology.
It’s clear that in recent years the popular view about the role of politics in relation to tech is beginning to shift among those in Silicon Valley, especially those not occupying executive positions in the tech monopolies or venture capital firms. But that does not mean that techno-determinism does not still play an important role in shaping how we see technology and its potential effects — in Silicon Valley and beyond.
As the tech industry has grown to become an economic juggernaut, it has pushed its techno-determinist narrative far beyond the Bay Area to the degree that it is frequently repeated by mainstream media organizations and politicians. Every new technological offering is ostensibly supposed to make our lives better, from the smartphone to the smart city, and for a long time critical perspectives on these technologies that went against that narrative were sidelined. That’s only now beginning to change.
In The Social Dilemma techno-determinism is still driving the narrative, but its basic premise has been inverted. Instead of technology making the world better, most of the people in the film are recognizing that negative things are happening in our society, and given the lens through which they see the world, the core problem must also be technology.
This is reinforced by a dramatic storyline, which plays between the interviews, that follows a family whose kids are increasingly addicted to their phones as people in an imagined algorithmic control center curate content and notifications to keep them engaged in order to sell ads.
Evgeny Morozov, author of To Save Everything Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism, explains that this limited way of seeing the world leads to “narrow-minded solutions — the kind of stuff that wows audiences at TED Conferences — to problems that are extremely complex, fluid, and contentious.” Indeed, a TED-like presentation gets featured in the film itself.
We live in a world that faces a lot of social and economic challenges, but reducing them to Facebook and Google, or data and algorithms, is missing the big picture.
Buying the Marketing Claims
In August, Cory Doctorow published How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism, which systematically dismantles the same ideas that are being pushed in The Social Dilemma. Part of the problem with surveillance capitalism is that it makes the error of placing far too great a focus on the surveillance aspect and too little on capitalism itself.
Doctorow unpacks how claims that vast troves of data and the algorithms they power create technological mind-control systems are not based in scientific fact, but on the marketing claims made by companies like Facebook and Google to convince advertisers to spend their money on their platforms.
In Subprime Attention Crisis: Advertising and the Time Bomb at the Heart of the Internet, Tim Hwang explains that despite all the claims about the targeting ability made possible with all this new data, online ads are incredibly ineffective, and part of the reason many people don’t realize that is because there’s so little transparency in digital ad markets. That allows these tech companies to make a bold sales pitch even as, Doctorow argues, they “get away with breathtaking acts of overpromising and underdelivering.”
But the documentary displays an inability to contend with that fact or to take a broader perspective beyond this flawed techno-determinist frame. For example, the tech industry has long been criticized for lacking broader perspectives offered by the social sciences and humanities, especially with how present-day trends fit into historical developments.
At one point, Tristan Harris, a former Google design ethicist who becomes the central character of the documentary, makes an argument about how tools-based technologies didn’t cause the same kind of anger as those based around addiction and manipulation. He uses the example of bicycles, and argues “no one got upset” or said “we’ve just ruined society” when they became popular — except that’s not true. When bicycles emerged in the nineteenth century, there was a backlash because of the freedom they gave to women.
Similarly, the documentary pushes the quite common idea that social media is creating social division and political partisanship, and treats it as a novel development. Social media is certainly having an effect, with its filter bubbles and Facebook’s privileging of right-wing content, but it’s not the determining factor shaping politics and society.
It’s Bigger Than Tech
The Social Dilemma does not just ignore the past, it presents a distorted view of the present. If the thesis of the film is correct, then the negative effects in society should only be emerging from platforms that use the model of data-capture and algorithmic curation, but that’s not the case.
In Brazil and India, for example, WhatsApp receives a lot of blame for spreading fake news and right-wing narratives, yet as Adi Robertson explains, “WhatsApp works almost nothing like Facebook. It’s a highly private, encrypted messaging service with no algorithmic interference, and it’s still fertile ground for false narratives.” She also outlines how many of the most notable far-right attackers in recent years are not the product of Facebook or YouTube, but were radicalized on smaller platforms without the same algorithmic curation or even profit motives like 4chan, 8chan, Gab, and Stormfront.
What all of this tells us is that reducing growing social problems to new technologies is simply not accurate. Framing the problem in that way makes it seem as though if we create better platforms, our problems will be solved — but if the platforms are responding to the economic incentives of the capitalist system, maybe that should get more scrutiny.
Are we to believe that social polarization is the product of Facebook, and not the fact that income inequality has returned to pre–Great Depression levels (and is likely much worse due to the pandemic)?
Are we to believe that a distrust of elites and politicians is the result of Google’s search results, and not the fact that the political system is unresponsive to the needs of the vast majority of the population, while the government lets industry regulate itself, leading to tragedies like the Boeing 737 MAX?
Are we to believe that the breakdown in community and personal relationships is the result of clever algorithms, and not the fact that capitalism has commercialized most aspects of our lives, decimated public spaces, and ensured our communities are built in a way that separates most people into auto-oriented suburbs?
I think you know the answer.
Capitalism Is the Problem
Facebook and Google are not benevolent actors. Between their monopoly power and how they manage their platforms, they are having negative impacts on our societies. But to attribute so many of our social and economic problems to technology — and not the capitalist economic system — is missing the big picture.
Near the end of The Social Dilemma, former Google product manager Justin Rosenstein makes a critical argument about capitalism, but after over an hour of having the narrative that data and algorithms are the problem hammered into people’s minds, it fails to break through the larger narrative. Some of the other supposed experts suggest regulation and for people to delete social media accounts — but these are tweaks and individual responses to a much deeper problem.
Bailey Richardson, one of Instagram’s original employees, explains that the internet used to be more weird and creative, but now feels like a giant mall. And while the film frames these changes as the result of decisions by engineers that they now have the responsibility to fix, the standardization of the web is a direct result of its commercialization. Creating these massive platforms is how major companies derive massive profits from them — and the best way to change it is to take on that more fundamental structure.
Ultimately, a better internet is not just about having more competition or reining in data capture and surveillance. We need to recognize that the internet was the product of public funding and research, and maybe improving it requires returning to a more non-commercial structure where public companies own key infrastructural pieces, cooperatives operate a range of platforms with far different incentives given the lack of profit motive, and average people can collaborate on new digital tools without a commercial imperative. But that will also require changes to broader political and economic structures.
The Social Dilemma comes across as the liberal techno-deterministic propaganda of a group of people who’ve been made fabulously wealthy by working for these tech companies and are now building new careers pointing out what they perceive as its flaws. But their framing of the problem continues to ascribe to tech a kind of powerful magical force that distracts us from the deeper social and economic problems gripping our societies.