Our Social Dilemma Has Plenty of Names: Notes Towards a New Social(ist) Media

The Social Dilemma, a new documentary from Netflix, is a pretty fascinating watch, not least because it shows how well the tech industry understands what it is doing to us, and even how full of regret it is at its own impact. But, on the whole, this Netflix-hosted self-flagellation makes for a weird and somewhat confused watch.

On the one hand, there is a great deal of honesty from those who have run various social media platforms and who have found themselves getting high on their supply. Even those who have personally implemented various design choices that are intended to support the development of addictive relationships to technology find themselves falling victim to them. It is that realisation from within the tech industry itself that leads to the documentary’s most interesting conclusion: we are not in control of this thing we’ve given life to; it controls us, its creators, as much as it controls you.

On the other hand, there is this strangely decontextualized ignorance that lingers under the surface. This conclusion above, for starters, ends up obscured — even outright ignored and contradicted — by the end. They can’t quite maintain the critical distance they say is necessary. At one point, for instance, someone compares the invention of social media technologies to the bicycle, as a way to point out we’ve moved out of this innocuous “tools-based” stage in our technological development as a civilisation and we are instead in a place that is far more nefarious, where truth is a football for power to bend to its will. The bicycle never hurt anyone! But now our tools hurt people all the time, even when created with good intentions. The analogy serves its purpose but I’m pretty sure the printing press is about 400 years older than the bicycle… Surely there’s no technology more used and abused than that? I realy don’t think we can draw a clear line between innocuous and nefarious based on just the last 200-300 years alone.

What is taken for history, in this context, seems to be limited to the history of industrial capitalism, and it is precisely a compartmentalised analysis of this particular period of history that the documentary struggles with. I was left thinking that, if those the documentary features had a wider perspective, they might understand themselves better. There’s no doubt a further irony to this — I’m sure their limited perspectives are encouraged by their own search engine algorithms too. Indeed, throughout the documentary, we hear familiar lines from Marxist theory regurgitates and generalised for the (dis)information age. Time and again, there is a feeling that these people who implore us to better understand the dynamics of our present moment refuse to consider how these dynamics are the continuation of much of what has been discussed and predicted before — even up to hundred years ago.

Another example: at one point, one of the talking heads references The Truman Show and the fact that, as Ed Harris says in the movie, “”We accept the reality of the world with which we’re presented. It’s as simple as that.” Lukács would call this the problem of immediacy. We might argue that Lukács’s argument against this in response still holds.

If the entire point is that we are being blinkered by the narcissism of social media — in a literal sense rather than a moralising sense; we are captured in reflections of our algorithmic selves that we think are reflections but are instead capitalist dynamics trying to keep us entranced with our touchscreens — then we have to take a step back and see the bigger picture beyond what the tech industry chooses to tell itself about itself.

If we are to stick with the Truman Show analogy, the tech industry is in that frightening and disorientating phase of questioning its very existence and sense of reality. But as far as this documentary is concerned, it shows a tech industry that hasn’t yet sailed to the edges of its world and hit the wall of the dome that it too is contained within — capitalism.

Suffice it to say, all of these things need to be addressed in their proper context, otherwise the argument will just fall back on a moral panic around the dissolution of social institutions.

Because this is what the documentary seems to really care about — the way that social media impacts social life. But not just any kind of social life — a neoliberal society that was, for a brief ideological moment, politically centrist and stable and unchanging. I don’t think that feedback loop is helpful, however. As the documentary makes clear from the start, social media is dangerous because it exacerbates and intensifies those emotions and dopamine hits that we get from our everyday social interactions. It’s not that social media makes social life better or worse, it just heightens it. It exacerbates the best and worse of us, and it does so in a specific context. It exacerbates social competition, for instance, and our own selection mechanisms.

This is something that’s bugging me more and more at the moment regarding how we relate to one another online. Call it “cancel culture” if you want, but isn’t what we’re experiencing more intensely just the implementation of a kind of horizontalism within the attention economy? I’m sure celebrities and those in the public eye would tell you that they’ve been treated in these same ways for much of the last century. Now, truly, everyone can be hated for fifteen minutes.

The segment on the mental health of Gen Z is pretty harrowing in this regard, where it explains that, since the ascendance of social media to social dominance in around 2009, suicides amongst teens and pre-teens has risen by hundreds of percent, but the response is that we need to regulate and reform and restrict. Children shouldn’t see certain types of advertising, they say, rather than questioning how that advertising affects adults in much the same way (but they’re fair game). This is to say that those who are supposedly the most concerned focus on moral panics rather than the flaws endemic to the actual system in which they are operating.

Why the impact is so intense for Gen Z is perhaps demonstrated inadvertently in a little dramatized subplot where a young man bets his Mom that he can go without his phone for a week. We see him in his bedroom, which is almost totally bare except for a display of his collection of sneakers, going bored out of his mind. I thought to myself, whilst watching this, I’d probably just go and read a book or watch a DVD or something but, of course, the platforms that make his phone so central in his life have already begun to monopolise the delivery systems for these kinds of product. Without a phone, I’m sure plenty of kids can’t even engage in other generally wholesome cultural activities. It’s a segment that says, “How sad, this boy can’t keep himself entertained without his phone”, but when your entire life has been streamlined by these companies to revolve around a phone, who can honestly expect a teenager to keep themselves entertained in other ways? Again, this isn’t an issue that children need protecting from — this is a side effect of the changes made to culture by Silicon Valley as a whole. And so, the issue here really isn’t limiting access to phones, but rather addressing the primary driver behind the development of how they are used — not by consumers but by the companies that sell them and sell our attention once it is captured by them.

Again, the documentary gets so very close to addressing the elephant in the room, but it always pulls back. There is another very telling segment that is downright accelerationist, where Tristan Harris mentions how, as a species, we are wholly unprepared to deal with the ever-accelerating consequences of Moore’s law on an increasingly technologised subjectivity. In a confused moment of soft-Landianism, he explains:

Human beings, at a mind and body and sort of physical level, are not going to fundamentally change. We can do genetic engineering and develop new kinds of human beings in the future but, realistically speaking, you’re living inside of hardware — a brain — that was, like, millions of years old, and then there’s this screen, and then on the opposite side of the screen there’s these thousands of engineers and supercomputers that have goals that are different to your goals, and so who’s gonna win in that game? Who’s gonna win?

The thing that warrants questioning — and which this documentary occasionally shines a light on before oddly stopping at or obscuring the seemingly obvious conclusion — is the system underlying it. Capitalism.

For instance, The Social Dilemma repeatedly makes the mistake, I think, of humanising the problem. There are scenes that dramatize the thinking of an AI that is trying to continuously lure in a consumer, demonstrated by three identical dudes stood in front of a data-driven representation of this kid we’re following around in short vignettes, revealing him to be on the verge of radicalisation-by-algorithm as he devours conspiracy theories and the violent responses to them. (Pizzagate is the obvious real-world example pointed out here.) But, as we’ve seen, and as the documentary has told us itself, there aren’t benevolent programmers watching over our every move. They’re victims of it too! The documentary is mistaken to make the algorithm seem nefarious. It’s not — it is simply indifferent about what it is pushing onto us, to capture and then sell our attention. That’s all it cares about — selling.

Clearly, the elephant in the room here is capitalism. Clearly. But it is never discussed. In fact, what is seen as being under threat is a kind of stable neoliberal centrism. As the documentary draws to a close, the repeated point made is that social media is eroding social norms. Joe Toscano, former Experience Design Consultant at Google and author of the book Automating Humanity, at one point says: “You have this [unrest] in Germany, Spain, France, Brazil, Australia. Some of the most ‘developed nations’ in the world are now imploding on each other, and what do they have in common?” The question is rhetorical but the answer is seemingly social media. It’s not — it’s capitalism. It is capitalism that selects for these things. Social media is a by-product of capitalism and runs according to capitalist logics. It’s capitalism capitalism capitalism capitalism.

The documentary repeatedly makes the case for this itself but it just never joins the dots. It starts off by demonstrating that the reason for all of this control and manipulation is that these companies are selling our attention. There’s no other reason for encouraging this kind of behaviour in us other than to make sure we’re looking and then looking at the things it wants us to look at. But then it moves so far away from this point, towards a kind of humanistic moralism, that the primary driver behind this panic — algorithmically-driven capitalism — is let completely off the hook.

That being said, it is a point that comes up in passing multiple times. The best analogy made comes from Jaron Lanier, who says:

One of the ways I try to get people to understand just how wrong feeds from places like Facebook are is to think about Wikipedia. When you go to a page, you’re seeing the same thing as other people. So, it’s one of the few things online that we at least hold in common. Now, just imagine for a second that Wikipedia said, “We’re gonna give each person a different customized definition [of a word or concept], and we’re gonna get paid for that!” So, Wikipedia would be spying on you, Wikipedia would calculate, “What’s the thing I can do to get this person to change a little bit on behalf of some commercial interest?” Right? And then it would change the entry. Can you imagine that? Well, you should be able to, ’cause that’s exactly what’s happening on Facebook.

The irony of this is powerful. When I was at school, Wikipedia was blacklisted not because it was a lazy source to draw on but because it could be changed by anyone and so couldn’t be trusted. How strange to think that, now, it might be one of the few trustworthy sites left. However, that is only if we ignore the influence of social media disinformation on Wikipedia itself. (Anyone with any sense of the vast changes made to the “accelerationism” Wikipedia page over the course of its history will be able to document that process in real time.)

In Lanier’s analogy, capitalism is implicated in all but name. So why is the punch not allowed to land? What is in the way other than the kind of ideological blinkeredness that the whole enterprise is supposed to be critiquing?

Any reader of this blog would no doubt see this capitalist-realist blind spot coming from a mile off. From the very beginning of the documentary, many of those who are initially interviewed begin discussing their discomfort with their own inventions and designs in the world of social media and they make a point that gives the documentary its title. They argue, “We have a problem but we don’t really know what to call it”, as if to say they appreciate that something has gone wrong but they don’t have all the pieces to complete the pictures, so they simply call it our “social dilemma”.

It is telling that this dilemma as a multitude of names, offered up by many critics of contemporary capitalism. Jodi Dean called it “communicative capitalism”, for instance; Mark Fisher had about half a dozen names for the intersecting problems that give communicative capitalism its seemingly amorphous form — “touchscreen capture”, “libidinal engineering”, “semioblitz”, et al.

For each and every one, capitalism is central to the discussion at hand. But not here. When our attention is turned to Russia’s interference in the 2016 US election, one talking head makes the point that Russia didn’t hack Facebook, it simply used the tools provided by it for its own aims. But this talking head makes the point that this is immoral in a weird sort of way — those tools were put in place for “legitimate advertisers and legitimate users”, he says. What does that even mean? Isn’t it precisely that kind of arrogance that leads to these other nations to so easily humiliate the West? The arrogance that what is “legitimate” is a Western (and increasingly American) brand of communicative capitalism and it is a given that this should be the only game in town. The results of this naivety have been catastrophic, but you’d hope it had been at least a usefully Copernican humiliation: you (the tech industry and the US) are not the centre of the system you have built. It seems it hasn’t quite hit that button for some of these old tech bros. The lesson they demonstrate but can’t see is that their continued cultural imperialism creates new vectors for your enemies to get inside your head. (It brings to mind a version of Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia, updated for the social media age — instead of the petropolitics of oil, try the libidinal engineering of Facebook.)

I think the most telling image in the whole documentary in this regard comes not long after this shamelessly blinkered comment. We see news footage, supposedly filmed from a helicopter, showing protestors and counter-protestors in what I think is Berkeley, aimlessly pushing around a big wheelie bin. The documentary might be making a similar sort of visual point here — social media has left us fighting impotently over our own deeply-polarised trash — but the documentary itself is just another victim of its own critique. It’s not looking at the issue from far enough out.

As was discussed earlier today, capitalism works by breaking itself down. If you want to fix things, you have to get to the root of the problem, not stay lingering on the level of the social, which is precisely where we are presently at our most impotent and vulnerable.

But, instead, the documentary concludes that we must reform capitalism. We need to redirect the “financial incentives” that have driven us towards this “like” culture of conspiracy theory proliferation. A tree or a whale is worth more dead than alive, someone argues, and so too are we worth more mental unwell and addicted to our devices. If we want to save the world and our own sanity, we need to bend capitalism to the will of our positive humanisms or environmentalisms or technologisms. It is a pipe dream. This is always how capitalism has worked. Capitalism and capitalists have never cared about the wellbeing of the “proletariat”, working in factories. Not really. Reforms might be made to improve safety and incentivise work and absorb critiques into the system itself but that is because capitalism has always been an attention economy, shifting from one that disciplines to one that controls.

Suggesting we need to reform the attention economy within the bounds of capitalism is a ridiculous utopian variant on capitalist realism. This is how capitalism operates and always has. But that’s not to say what is being argued for isn’t worth pursuing. We just need to update the language we are comfortable with using to make explicit that it is that we say we want. For instance, what these tech folks are really arguing for, I’d argue, although I’m sure they’d never admit it to themselves, is a kind of socialist media: a social media that is decentralised and not shaped by corporations and is instead shaped by the people who use it, as the internet arguably was in its initial moment of emergence. There is a glimmer of that argument here but it is repeatedly ignored. At some point you just have to say the obvious:

Whether online or offline, the choice is socialism or extinction.

Update #1: Shouts to @YNGLegionnaire for sharing the following thread, which confronts “the fake genuflecting that techbros and ‘surveillance capitalists’ are hiding behind” in The Social Dilemma:

NB: I was going to save this post for tomorrow, but my earlier post from today set off a load of the usual whining suspects, either upset about apparently disrespecting Daddy Land or being too philosophical.

The former is to be expected at this point — the only reason I can imagine half the old right-accelerationist crowd can’t wait for heat death is to put them out of their own pathetic misery — whilst the latter shows the myopia of the other side. When Marx said we had to change the world instead of just interpreting it, he wasn’t advocating for some kind of anti-intellectualism. All your politics, no matter how “material”, are based on someone’s hard-to-parse prose. Dumbing shit down for a working class you assume can’t read it is the worst take. The goal should be to offer everyone the chance to educate themselves about issues that affect them, as well as the histories of those issues. Prose isn’t the problem, it’s access to education.

Anyway, if the shot hit you a little too hard, here’s a chaser without delay. This post works as a stand-alone glorified review of a new Netflix documentary but I think it is worth highlighting how today’s earlier philosophizing is directly relevant to this confused critique of social media.

This post indirectly demonstrates the “crisis of negation” (and of praxis) at the heart of accelerationism in 2020. Silicon Valley isn’t driving acceleration, it’s stunting it, because it — like most — can’t see the woods for the trees.


Leave a Reply