Ethics Media Politics Technology

The Social Dilemma – A Film Everyone Needs to See – CT

This weeks Christian Today article – you can read the original here.  I would suggest that that is one of the most important things you will read this year – or rather that this is one of the most important films you will ever see.

The internet giants know everything about us – and that should worry everyone

 

Not to be trusted?(Photo: Unsplash/Paweł Czerwiński)

Every now and then a book or a film comes along that is transformative – both at a personal and societal level. Douglas Murray’s The Madness of Crowds is one such book published this year.

As for films, the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma is perhaps the most important film of the decade. It is a stunning film. I have watched it twice, firstly to see what the fuss is about, and then to take out the personal and societal lessons for myself, which I now share with you.

The film begins with a quote from Sophocles: “Nothing vast enters the life of mortals without a curse.”

It then goes on to discuss the idealism, creation and fall of the big internet and social media giants. Interspersing the confessions of a number of the original creators of Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc, with their impact on a fictional family, The Social Dilemma brilliantly sets out the ethical concerns and dangers within the industry.

The whole film is revealing, not least in the key questions it asks but fails to really answer – what is the problem? And what is the solution?

What is the problem?

I don’t think they really get to the heart of the matter, although they do identify many symptoms or secondary problems: the fact that our screens are devised to make us addicts is one key symptom; that the creators of the internet are now about making money; the monetisation of data; the development of surveillance capitalism; the incredible influence that 50 mainly white guys in California have on the thinking of two billion people.

The expert who most impressed was the dreadlocked Jaron Lanier, author of Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts. One former exec speaks about how after decades of making products, for the best ten years the businesses now sell their users – “If you are not paying for the product then you are the product.”

But Lanier goes further: “It’s the gradual, slight, imperceptible change in your own behaviour that is the product.”

In other words, they are selling the ability to change your behaviour.

There is a fascinating insight into the work of the Stamford persuasive technology lab, whose purpose was to combine what we know about psychology and build that into technology.

Shoshana Zubuff, the author of another influential book, Surveillance Capitalism, points out that the internet companies “sell certainty. That depends on predictions. For that you need a lot of data. This is a marketplace that trades in human futures.”

It is not our data that is being sold but models that predict our actions. Everything people are doing online is being monitored, measured, tracked and carefully recorded. They know when people are lonely, depressed etc. They have more information about us than has ever been imagined in human history.

These companies have been so successful that they are now the richest companies in human history and in some instances more powerful than many governments.

How do they do it? Lanier argues that “manipulation, deceit and sneakiness are at the very centre of our culture” .

Take, for example, tagging photos on our smartphones. The phone is designed to create unconscious habits: you are being programmed at a deeper level. It’s like a slot machine; it’s designed to draw you in: “If you get an email saying your friend had tagged you in a photo, then of course you are going to look at it. But why is the photo not just in the e-mail?”

We have moved from a tools-based technology environment into an addiction and manipulation environment. Social media becomes a drug. We have a basic biological need to directly connect with other people, and when we do, it releases dopamine.

The consequences of this are devastating. Last year, I heard Jonathan Haidt, the American psychologist and author, talk about the large increase in depression, anxiety and suicide among teenage girls in the US – something which he associated with, amongst other things, the ‘like’ button on Facebook.

Another key aspect which the film exposes is the distortion of truth that social media and the internet enables. Fake news on Twitter spreads six times faster than the truth. Why is that? The film suggests that it is because falsehood sells. But that just begs the question, why does falsehood sell? Why do people prefer lies before truth? They have no answer, but the Bible does: “You love evil rather than good, falsehood rather than speaking the truth.” (Psalm 52:3)

The Truman show states: “We accept the reality of the world we have been presented with.”

Indeed. That’s why people are atheists! We are presented with lies by the father of lies and the mastermind of deception and darkness. The film talks about living in a world where no one believes that anything is true, where everything is part of a conspiracy. Indeed. That is the world without the One who is The Truth.

Lies lead to polarisation. It’s not just that people have an opinion and then Google for articles that confirm their bias. It’s that the algorhythms search out the articles, and like-minded people and groups for them. We become so convinced of the truth of our own opinions that we say: “How can those people be so stupid? Look at all this information I am seeing.” But the trouble is that those people are not seeing the same information.

It is little wonder the politics has become so polarised – and little wonder that authoritarian governments love Facebook, which may be “the greatest tool of persuasion ever created” and the most effective for controlling populations. We also now live in a world where one country can invade another without doing it physically.

It’s interesting that the whole issue of fake news and truth itself demonstrates the polarisation. It’s always the other side who are being misled by fake news, not ours! People blame the Russians, Chinese etc for Brexit, populism and Trump. And yet the giant internet corporations are invariably ‘progressive’ and supportive of the Left. Perhaps when they get their censorship act together, they will end up controlling the whole of society and technocracy will replace democracy?

The answer to the question of what is wrong with the world, is simple and deep. It is sin, rebellion against God, spiritual deadness. It’s me and you and them.

What is the solution?

Our repentant technocrats struggle to answer.

“We need some shared reality…”

“The answer is not in technology…AI will not know truth. AI cannot solve the problem of fake news. AI doesn’t know what truth is. If we don’t agree on what is truth or if there is such a thing as truth, then we are toast.”

One expert recognises that society cannot heal itself. Another argues that we can. One argues that we are heading for civil war, another that we can step back from the brink of oblivion and create utopia through a ‘humane’ internet. But the truth is that we are trapped by a business model which makes it impossible for these companies to change. The internet is like a giant shopping mall. There has to be something more to it than that?!

The Social Dilemma ends with a few hopeful wishes and some practical advice about how not to be manipulated. It’s striking how many of the creators of social media do not let their children have smartphones! Their comments are good but fairly superficial. Some Christians are ahead of the game here. For example an essential practical book for any Christian thinking about these things is Tony Reinke’s 12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You and this recently published article.

For me the most challenging question is “are we the last generation of people who are going to know what it was like before this illusion took place?” and “how do you wake up from the Matrix if you don’t know you are in the Matrix?”

There is an answer.

It is perhaps best summed up by two of the most profound and radical statements ever made. Statements which shatter the matrix. The first: “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27)

We are not just computer nodes to be manipulated and used. We are made in the image of God, in knowledge, righteousness and holiness. We need that image to be restored and renewed.

The second: “Jesus answered, I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)

We need to know the truth, so that the truth will set us free. We need the light, so that we can overcome the darkness. We need the love so that we can overcome the hatred. We have all of this in Christ. Let’s tell the world the Good News!

Saturday Review 6 – Call the Midwife; 12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You; Downfall; Beethoven’s Pastoral; The Ralia Cafe

Letter from Australia 61 – Can We Preach the Gospel Online?

21 comments

  1. It is an interesting idea to ponder that if you are not buying the product, you are the product. Of course social media could in principle equally be used for good as evil. But yes it is a powerful manipulative tool if used for evil. I suppose going off grid could be one choice in knowing this. But what about what the enemy intends for evil, God uses for good.

    There have been all kinds of concerns that have been made about technology historically. Common wisdom used to have it that you would asphyxiate if you travelled more than 40mph. And it was not uncommon at one point in time to perceive the printing press as being of the devil. Yet the printing press was used to print bibles!

    I hear the concerns you raise David and these are important to consider and be wise about. At the same we are not to be afraid about anything and I would posit that wise choices can be made to keep safe while also being able to engage in social media. And wouldn’t it be interesting if being hated in the world because of Christ came with it a ban from a social media platform?

    Also if it were not for Facebook, there would not have been all that fun with the Scottish Secular Society ;).

  2. Watched it yesterday – a remarkable film and very concerning how AI / machine learning is being used to keep people’s attention on their smartphones so they can be “served” adverts, thus bringing in revenue. These internet companies don’t make anything useful, or provide an essential service, yet they are among the most valuable businesses in the world.

    Worse, they can manipulate democracy, elections and world-views: what is acceptable and what is not in society. They are dangerous.

    I suspended my Facebook account a few months ago and haven’t looked back. I might even go back and delete it one day!

    If you haven’t seen this film, I would recommend it as essential viewing.

  3. Social media is merely an extention of ”ordinary advertising” … ”If you don’t smoke/drive this car/use this washing powder you aren’t cool like these guys.”

    What social media will accelerate is the inevitable rejection of supernatural belief systems.
    And while I fully acknowledge that countries such as China are very likely experiencing a religious ”boom”, it will be eventually overtaken by technology that demonstrates the fallacious nature of such beliefs.

    It is already happeningh in the US for example, where ”Nones” now outnumber Catholics, apparently.

    As this comment is of a religioius nature I doubt it will see the light of day; canpt have you ”followers” being exposed to things that might them upset, right?
    But you will read it and know the truth of the matter, as you probably already do.

    1. The point of the film is to show that social media is NOT just an extension of ordinary advertising – but rather a means of behaviour modification. The rest of your post is hilarious….you think that a system which is based on lies and deceit will get rid of truth? You also seem to think that China is backward and does not have technology. Normally I don’t post posts that say ‘you won’t post this’ – because I don’t want to disappoint the poster – but in this instance this was so funny that it just had to be shared!

    2. @Arkenaten

      “… technology that demonstrates the fallacious nature of such beliefs”

      What is this that technology can detect fallacies that human logic cannot?

      1. Hello John.
        I am referring to the huge amount of previously unavailable, largely inaccessible information that one can access at the click of a mouse.

        As an example: The fallacious nature of the Exodus tale was primarily the domain of those who worked direcrtly in the field, primarily archaeologists, some of whom are oin record stating that the facts are generally not brought to the general public’s attention. Hence, the lie, or missconception that there is veracity to this tale is maintained.

        I am sure we could have an extended discussion on the veracity or lack thereof regarding numerous aspects of religion, but I presume David would not allow such a free and open converstsation on his blog.

        If you feel like opening such a thread on your blog then we can discuss it in a more open environment?

    3. Ark,
      It’s sad and somewhat troubling to see you have truly lost the plot, with a mono – railed mind to the buffers.

    4. Where’s your evidence for the claim you make of “supernatural belief systems” having “fallacious nature”? Of course you do realise the logical fallacy of representing a claim as if it were fact which makes your claim hypocritical.

      1. So, Adam, I presumne then that you have evidence to support at least one supernatiural claim of your relgion?
        Fascinating. Please feel free to present such evidence and we can, with David’s permission of course, evaluate such evidence.

        Regards

        Ark.

    1. Joyce – this is not about the Internet spying on us – it is about the influence that it has over us. I suspect neither you nor I are immune to that. I also think that there are many things which you would not be happy for people to see. That is certainly true for me…

  4. “That’s why people are atheists! We are presented with lies by the father of lies and the mastermind of deception and darkness.”

    The mythical figure of Lucifer is responsible for turning people into atheists who don’t believe in Him, anyway?

    “That’s gold, Jerry! Gold!”

      1. Yes, I hear that quoted frequently. Maybe it means people aren’t really thinking for themselves?

        I could equally contend the greatest trick the Church ever pulled was convincing people Lucifer does exist. And I’d be closer to the ‘truth’, because the Church is yet to evince any real evidence for their assertion about Lucifer.

        Still, He’s part of the overall mythology, I suppose…

    1. Chris S.
      Read the Bible, you’ ll find Satan there from the garden. But you’ve already bought into the unthinking myth that scripture is myth and all myth.
      Then again look to Jesus, God incarnate, who reveals the father of lies, all opposed to God and imbibe and peddle lies about him, nature and character.
      As it ever was. On the wrong side of history and eternity. And stuck in a finite closed material world system. A one way, dead- end street.
      You should enjoy “The Screwtape letters”, by CS Lewis.
      Maybe you are not as thinking as Lewis and it all mere Christianity to you. He who knew and studied myth was clear about all myth and the polar opposite, the truth of God in Christ and Christianity, as he was “Surprised by Joy” and brought out and through his grounding in atheism and philosophy.
      So please cease your trite comments, a modern atheist computer generated algorithm.
      ,

  5. I read that Lawrence Fox is/has deleted his tweets more than 3 months old as he starts a new political party.

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