In the summer of 1945, the first atomic bomb was successfully detonated in the high desert of New Mexico. J. Robert Oppenheimer, the director of the team that researched and developed the bomb, famously remarked that the detonation brought to his mind a line from the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
Oppenheimer’s lament has been integrated into the romantic self-image of today’s technologists, making the archetype of the Promethean inventor whose contribution dooms the world every bit as seductive as the one who delivers progress. It’s not surprising then that of all the people who’ve helped create the contemporary social media juggernaut, a few have apostatized, left their jobs at Google, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, and openly reinvented themselves as tech-dystopian Cassandras. Netflix’s documentary The Social Dilemma revolves around the perspectives of these defectors.
Because it’s true that social media has injurious consequences, The Social Dilemma makes some welcome points with ease. It’s at its best when assessing the extent of the psychological damage. Fine-tuned by developers trained in the art of persuasive technology, social media platforms hijack the evolutionary features of the human brain. We’re meant to recognize ourselves in our reflection or by name, but not dozens or hundreds of times a day. We’re meant to care about whether we’re liked and accepted by our clan, but that clan isn’t supposed to be comprised of infinite strangers.
These points are well taken. The documentary stumbles, however, over the matter of politics. Despite frequent reference to the profit motive’s central corrosive impact on the behavior of the industry, a critique that has clear left-wing implications, the filmmakers and subjects view social media’s effect on politics through a stubbornly centrist lens. They may have broken with the giants of the tech industry, but not with political orthodoxy.
The filmmakers chose to illustrate social media’s effect on politics through the example of a fictional political party called the “Extreme Center,” meant to stand in for both the extreme left and extreme right without tripping over any particular political wires. (If you’re active on the Left today, you know that the notion of an extreme center is not exactly hypothetical.) Social media, the documentary warns, has emboldened dangerous forms of thought on both sides, threatening democracy the world over. All of the film’s real-world examples of social media–inspired extremism come from the Right, but The Social Dilemma still uses a politically generic framing.
In this way, The Social Dilemma is useful for understanding how the political center perceives the rise in far-right conspiracy thinking and organized fascism. Centrists in the United States are justifiably concerned about right-wing political phenomena like QAnon and the Proud Boys. But they view the problem as, at base, one of extremism, eliding the specific content of developments on the Right and implicitly discrediting the Left. After all, the Left sometimes is given to intensity of political feeling and is not embraced by the mainstream. Are we, too, extremists?
As I watched The Social Dilemma, I wondered if its creators would hesitate to lump Jacobin in with the myriad online outlets promoting the unhinged QAnon narrative about an elite cabal of satanic pedophiles. I don’t suspect they’d go that far — at least not now, during what appears to be a window of relative liberal tolerance for left-wing radicalism — but this category collapse seems ominously implied by the generic focus on extremism, which suggests excess in both directions and implies that a safe return to the political center is necessary to restore stability to a chaotic, hyperreal world.
To this, I would answer that the politics advanced by the Left are, in fact, the antidote to the alarming developments on the Right, not their mirror image. The Left and the Right are not two sides of the same coin. If they are both experiencing upsurges in the age of social media, it’s only because that age coincides with the collapse of the order the political center built and the erosion of popular consent to neoliberalism, which has delivered its own share of chaos.
On the contrary, it is the denialist center and the conspiracist and reactionary right that are coextensive. By definition, the center insists that rapid large-scale social change is impossible or doomed to failure — that exploitation, unemployment, war, poverty, displacement, homelessness, climate destruction, mass incarceration, widespread addiction, and other injustices must be tolerated to a great extent because there are no viable alternatives to the political and economic structure that undergirds, indeed necessitates, them all. This world, however chaotic and violent or simply miserable, is the only possible world. It can only adjust so much; we must adjust to it.
People, however, instinctively want good lives for themselves. So, to defend its unpopular position, the center frequently denies that the world is bursting apart at the seams, even as wages stagnate, living costs skyrocket, jobs disappear, benefits evaporate, internal economic migration intensifies, gun violence and depression and drug abuse and suicide rates soar, water turns to poison, and pandemics and wildfires tear through the nation. Throughout it all, the centrist political establishment insists that, as Hillary Clinton put it in response to Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan, “America Is Already Great.”
Many of those who don’t buy this kind of artificially optimistic self-appraisal are simply politically demoralized. But a lot of other people — rich and poor, some worried about putting food on the table and others paranoid that someone will break into their gated community — find it convincing when the opportunistic right wing affirms that there is a problem, and suggests that this problem is greedy immigrants, insolent urban minorities, degenerate liberals, seditious leftists, and so on.
A smaller selection of those who are circumspect about what they perceive to be a dishonest centrist political establishment latch on to right-wing conspiracy theories like QAnon, or ultra-reactionary social politics that lead them to martial formations like the Proud Boys. Social media no doubt intensifies these kinds of evolutions — indeed, QAnon is an entirely social media–generated phenomenon, now spilling over into other areas of life — but many of those most susceptible are politically cynical before they start down the road to madness or hate. It is precisely the phenomenon of disillusionment without content, the loss of confidence in the prevailing powers and ideologies without any coherent explanation or positive replacement, that makes many people easy targets for brain-hijacking and emotion-manipulating algorithms that guide them into the darkest regions of Facebook and YouTube.
The obdurate center and the fringe right are a binary star, orbiting the same center of gravity. On the other hand, the politics advanced by the socialist left represents a countervailing force to right-wing conspiracism and reaction, albeit still marginalized and underdeveloped. Unlike centrist politics, socialist politics acknowledges that something actually is wrong and needs to change. But unlike right-wing politics, socialist politics urges reason in our evaluation of and unity in our response to that error.
Socialist politics suggests that society is not “already great,” but that it can be if ordinary people have solidarity in struggle, a struggle which must be undertaken rationally and strategically. This struggle is against the real adversary — not a shadowy sect of elites motivated by sadism, but capitalists motivated for objective structural reasons by profit — whose self-interested activity perpetually unravels the world for everybody else. It is the missing content in the disillusionment-without-content formula that otherwise leads people to fantastical explanations.
To chalk up fringe right-wing phenomena like QAnon and the Proud Boys, as The Social Dilemma does, to a matter of generic social media–inspired extremism, with an implied left-wing corollary, is to misunderstand the relationships between left, right, and center. There is indeed a great deal of menacing right-wing extremism in the world today, much of which is propelled by social media algorithms that encourage conspiracy theories to meld and evolve, and hate to root and flourish. But the choice we face is not centrism or extremism. It is, as ever, socialism or barbarism.