Swing and a Miss: "The Social Dilemma" Didn't Get It

Failing to address the root causes of technological toxicity, the video essay amounts to no more than a missed opportunity.

Earlier this month, The Social Dilemma, a video essay focused on the pernicious psychological and social effects of ubiquitous technology, was released on Netflix. It’s well made overall, featuring interviews with intelligent people who give thoughtful answers to the questions asked. The essay falls short of its potential, however, because of the questions it should have asked, but did not. Rather, it seems to have deliberately avoided confrontation with, let alone refutation of, the economic system of global corporate capitalism (neoliberalism) that is the root cause of the miseries discussed.

The Social Dilemma seems to have its heart in the right place. It gets a few things right, for sure. If you’re completely unfamiliar with social-media technology— how it works, why it’s built the way it is, its real-world ramifications— it’s not the worst thing one could watch. It’s a better than half-decent first half of the intro class. It fails to deliver the second half, in large part because it seems unable to see beyond neoliberalism.

I make this charge based on a number of factors, but one of them is this: spliced in with other content is a just-so story about an upper-middle-class family “ruined” by social media. The middle child is a boy who gets yanked into a nefarious political movement called “The Extreme Center” (because “both sides”). In the real world, it is far-right movements and hate groups who have gained a disturbing effectiveness at recruitment on the internet. However, The Social Dilemma indulges in a neoliberal ruse by which being extreme is the sin, equating the far-left with the far-right. Rather than mention the actual alt-right, let alone indict the fascist monster that is actually rising in our society, The Social Dilemma presents the malefactor as merely extreme, because that’s enough. The moral problem is that (despite its literal meaning) "extreme”, in political discourse, functions as a relative term. In the ratfucked-right Overton Window of the contemporary U.S., Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (a well-spoken, intelligent moderate socialist) is as much “extreme left” as Richard Spencer is “extreme right”, but they are not in any way comparable.

A more harmless— but amusing— display of The Social Dilemma’s assumed upper-middle-class neoliberalism occurs at the splice-story’s end. The boy and his older sister, though they commit no crimes, are arrested at a protest. What follows are emotional close-up shots with melodramatic music, as if we were watching Othello’s final kiss of Desdemona. (Their lives are over! There’s no way they’re getting into Ivies now!) In the real world, because they’re upper-middle-class white kids who broke no laws, the consequences of this will be minor. Still… I guess the moral of the story is: throw out your kid’s phone, because Mad Men’s Pete Campbell might be on the other side.

Here’s just one of the many issues here. Far-right populist movements (or “Extreme Centers”, because we don’t want to offend any Republicans in the audience) don’t swell up because of technology. Forty years of economic devastation wrought by global corporate capitalism did this to society— not phones. Technological capitalism is dystopian not because it is technological but because it is capitalism.

The Social Dilemma goes so far as to argue that there are no villains. I will grant that everyday engineers at Google and Facebook are no less conscientious than the average citizen. That said, it’s historically inaccurate to argue that no one who built the infrastructure of technological capitalism had malignant intentions— that these undesirable effects (addiction, radicalization) “just happened”. I’ve designed lotteries. I’ve worked on ad-exchange code. I’ve built machine learning engines in C. I’ve been a software engineer, a data “scientist”, a product designer, and a manager. There are companies out there that deliberately seek addiction in their users. A few of my friends worked for “casual” gaming companies in the 2010s; the business model there focused on finding and retaining the “whales” who would spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on in-game purchases. Addiction was the point.

All of that said, the public-facing technology companies are some of the least-evil corporations in the venture-funded tech space. Targeted advertising has its issues, but compared to the “performance” surveillance inflicted upon cashiers, janitors, and truck drivers— less visible, but far more toxic— I feel like it’s at best a minor issue and at worst a diversion. If you want to see data used for evil, look into health insurers and employers— not online merchants.

Are tech bosses evil? The unsatisfying answer is the obvious one: Some are, and some are not. I know Silicon Valley’s players, at all levels, pretty well, and the attitude that seems to prevail is that we’re in the primitive stages of Something Better, and that the turbulent first decades of the 21st century are no more than a bump, a period of difficulty en route to the Singularity, at which point mundane human problems such as scarcity and mortality will be solved. Given the stakes, do the “petty” moral matters of today even matter?

The tech industry, at all levels, is full of people who believe with cult-like devotion that technological progress will deliver, within our natural lifetimes, this Singularity. There’s a lot of willful deception here: if young people can be convinced (per Singularity) that they might be literally immortal, they will be less averse to sacrificing years of their lives for someone else’s behalf. But also, there’s a lot of self-deception, as people inflate the importance of their work. Neither the bosses nor workers desire to understand that they exist under the well-studied exploitative matrix of standard capitalism.

Silicon Valley is not a bastion of cosmic evil. It is not Mordor or R’lyeh. Technology executives, in general, do not set out to damage the world for damage’s own sake. What we have is not cosmic evil, but the banal kind. The whole system runs on metrics: daily active users, clicks per hour, ads served, time of use, viral growth, et cetera. Each worker is enslaved to the short-term fluctuations of indicators over which he has limited control, and is usually pushed to do unethical things by the need to keep the numbers in line. Even software engineers are promoted, demoted, or fired based on the number of tickets they close. Senior product managers live or die based on whether they can get users to spend five more seconds within walled gardens. At the lower levels, no one’s trying to foster addiction or radicalization— they’re just trying to survive.

That struggle to survive is not well-understood outside of the technological industry, because of superficial perks and creature comforts (ball pits, massage chairs, game rooms) that technology companies use to deflect attention from their authoritarian, ultra-capitalistic cultures. These accoutrements give a “halfway house” environment for the comfort of recent college graduates, who are sought-after due to the organization’s need to make the individual replaceable.

At the bottom of tech’s hierarchies, people don’t have the time to care about their effects on the real world— they have numbers to hit. At the top, they don’t have the courage. Those with courage and character are filtered out of the system before they can rise high enough to do damage.

The Social Dilemma also, in my opinion, showed a lack of courage. It opened up a lot of important discussions, but crapped out at the last mile for neutrality’s sake. Rather than use the real, dangerous alt-right for its fable, it concocted a forgettable, vague antagonist calling itself the “Extreme Center”. It mentioned the mostly-stupid flat-earth conspiracy theory while failing to address the far more toxic “Q” movement, which stands a good chance of getting people killed.

To say there are no villains in Silicon Valley is morally incorrect. Facebook was not designed with evil intentions, but many companies and products were designed toward evil ends. Mostly, these are firms few people have heard of, but that furnish authoritarian governments and employers will all sorts of data that are used adversely against people. The “performance” surveillance many modern workers are subjected to— especially during COVID–19— is downright dystopian. While the companies that do this kind of work are invisible to most people, they have massive deleterious effects on people’s economic lives. I’m talking about software secretly installed on worker’s computers to give their bosses real-time access to everything the worker does; I’m talking about software that monitors social media, de-anonymizing profiles, and informs upper management of their subordinates’ online activities. There is no word to describe this but evil. And yet, these applications of technology went undiscussed in The Social Dilemma.

Furthermore, unhealthful technological addiction is not a problem that emerged ex nihilo in the 2010s. We knew about it in the 1980s and 1990s. None of this is new. Have technology leaders used well-worn pernicious tricks (“dark patterns”) to increase “user engagement” (and, in some cases, knowingly foster addiction)? Yes.

In the late 2000s, someone I knew was building a dating site and asked me to invest in it. I’m glad I didn’t. Despite my cynicism about what humans are— especially when degraded by a malignant socioeconomic system— I tend toward optimism regarding what we can, and should, be. So, I’m too much of an idealist to have ever come up with Tinder, the actual winner. Anyway, it was clear even then that the problem with dating sites wasn’t the technology. The sites worked. Matching algorithms weren’t the issue. People were the problem. Tinder did not create “fuckboys” and “thots”— trust me, those have been around forever.

Unhealthy usage of social media is fueled largely by social and economic problems. If social media weren’t around, the self-destructive behaviors that corporate capitalism induces would be directed into something else. The problem is complex, but to put it simply: We’re no longer a society of makers. Production isn’t respected; conspicuous consumption— of goods, and of people’s attention— is the source of one’s social status. We’ve allowed those in charge to make decent jobs so rare that one needs “a personal brand” or a “platform” to get one. We’ve become a society of reputation managers. Starting in their teen years and sometimes earlier, people put thousands of hours and much of themselves into a bizarre, reputational form of online gambling, a real-time lottery that probably destroys more careers than it makes. They’ve become addicted to meaningless micro-approvals because corporate capitalism, in the future, will require them to play similar games; and they’re still too young to figure out which forms of approval matter.

Did technology companies create this dystopia? Not alone. Employers, who demand social media presence, did. Social media originally sold itself as a way for regular people to gain influence, at least on a local scale. What it does now is ratify a lack of influence. Though corporate bureaucracies never made a habit of treating regular people well, they used to be better, because it was impossible to know if they were dealing with a person of influence. Today, the lack of a blue checkmark means a person can be ignored without consequence, rejected out of hand, fired without severance.

Technology is an accelerant, but it hasn’t done anything to our society that we weren’t already doing to ourselves. The true culprit is corporate capitalism. Technological progress cannot be reversed; but an economic system on which the whims of the dead (inheritable, transferrable “rights” to private property, even at enormous scale) outweigh the needs of the living can be overthrown and replace with something new.

If you try to kill a vampire by slapping it on the shoulder with a rubber spoon, the vampire will laugh at you. To kill a vampire, you drive a wooden stake through its heart. The Social Dilemma took the rubber-spoon approach. Rather than implicate capitalism directly, and rather than address the alt-right as opposed to a contrived “extreme center”, it indulged in the neoliberal politics of not-being-political. It willfully ignored that, in the West, the right is at least two orders of magnitude more toxic and violent than the left— and that there are deep historical reasons for this. Instead, it indulged a certain TED-talk, self-help, pro-employer fix-one-thing-ism whereby overuse of social media is the problem, not the toxic culture— intrinsic to neoliberal capitalism— that produces online bullying, political polarization, and unrealistic beauty standards.

We live in a world of engineered division, a world where an extremely small set of people control immense capital, power, and cultural influence. They are not “the 1 percent”; they are probably less than 0.01% of the global population, and they can only stay on top using fragmentation. Those being ruled must be pitted against each other. Toxic virtue signaling— both in the “Red” Judeo-Christian flavor and the “Blue” cancel-culture flavor— must be amplified. The notion must be spread that our worst president in recent history was elected by “Russia” and racists— and the expense of the true narrative in which the emergence of demagogues is a predictable result of decades-long economic desperation. Young people must be told that the bullying and back-biting of high-school movies is a trait typical of adolescence— even though it is not that way in most cultures. A culture of constant competition for meaningless attention must be created. At the same time, conservative politics must continually reinvent its own image (Reagan Revolution, “Join the Fight” 1994, Tea Party, Trump) and corporate capitalism must continually churn its culture— out with overly formal names like “International Business Machines”; in with childish ones like “Google”— so as to appear like a refinement on its former self when, in fact, it is getting worse all the time.

None of this was invented by technology companies; they have only increased the efficiency of the processes by which degradation occurs. These tricks have existed for a long time. The CIA and KGB knew of them. Academic psychology knew about them. Brand-team leaders in old-style companies knew and used these myriad exploits. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that, in the 2010s, sleazy game companies and even hate groups have adopted the same machinery.

The Social Dilemma accurately and articulately presented problems, but could not give a satisfactory answer to the fundamental question because— in a misguided attempt to be neutral and inoffensive— it refused to attack the economic system that created these abuses. The inconvenient, grand topic is corporate capitalism’s innate unsuitability for human life. The rest is all detail.

What conclusion can one draw from The Social Dilemma’s presentation of the issues? Many of the people being interviewed say, Opt out. For some people, this is an option. They can delete their social media accounts, trade in their smartphones for 2000s feature phones, and live simpler lives. To issue this suggestion presents no harm to neoliberalism, because almost no one actually will opt out. For one thing, far from being intrinsically evil, modern technologies are legitimately useful. Furthermore, it’s difficult to participate in economic life without using them— most people don’t have the option. Even if a million people decided, in disgust, to #OptOut or “go off the grid” or delete their accounts, most of them would come back. The system will slide back to where it was.

This is an appealing suggestion, from neoliberalism’s viewpoint, because responsibility is placed on the individual. If bad things happen to someone because of her social media exposure, neoliberalism can say, “She knew the risks”. Never is it mentioned that, for so many people— small-business owners, writers, even academics— opting out isn’t an option. Regular workers, too, live in the crosshairs, because for most jobs actually worth getting, a person without a national reputation (an asset hard to build while abstaining entirely from social media) might as well not apply.

One can opt out of Facebook. One can stop tweeting. One can duck out of an open-source community that becomes toxic. Few can opt out of the (ever-worsening) labor market. Someone can delete Facebook and LinkedIn; that choice, she can make. However, if she’s turned down for a job because HR finds she doesn’t have “a Facebook” or “a LinkedIn”— an abuse of technology that she is unlikely even to know about— she had no say in the matter. With corporate capitalism and propertarian hierarchy, nonconsensuality is the point.

Smartphones are here to stay. Social-networking sites and dating sites and picture filters are here to stay. Corporate capitalism, we can do something about— not individually, but collectively.

The Social Dilemma had the opportunity to take an interdisciplinary view of a complex problem involving technology, psychology, economics, politics, and sociology. Instead, it gave us an opinion piece with wishy-washy politics and vague instructions that the world will ignore.

Michael O. Church is a programmer, researcher, onetime game designer, and essayist who was ubiquitously described in the early 2010s as “the conscience of Silicon Valley” despite having never lived there. As such, he has mostly been forgotten, and mostly prefers it that way. His first novel, a steampunk fantasy called Farisa’s Crossing, is slated to come out in late 2021 or early 2022, and he should probably get back to that.