The Social Dilemma review: How big tech companies use us for profit

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A man looks at his phone

“If you’re not paying for the product, then you are the product,” goes a saying that has been around in some form or another since the 1970s. When applied to internet companies, the adage says that even though some services appear free, they make money by selling their users’ data.

It is an idea discussed at length in the new Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma. The film examines the ways in which big tech companies manipulate human attention for profit.

Nothing in the film will be particularly eye-opening to anyone with even a passing interest in tech. But the documentary makes for interesting viewing nonetheless – not because it discloses shocking new revelations about the practices of these companies, but because of who it features.

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The Social Dilemma interviews tech insiders – former execs and employees of Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and so on – including the inventors of Facebook’s “Like” button, YouTube’s recommendation algorithm and the now-ubiquitous infinite scroll feature.

These people – mostly male, young and white – express reservations about the platforms that they have helped turn into “the richest companies in the history of humanity”, as academic Shoshana Zuboff says in the film.

The result is both compelling and hard to swallow. There is a bitter irony in hearing from the people who have profited from the very companies they now claim are eroding the fabric of society. Curiously absent are acknowledgements of complicity, let alone regret.

One of the interviewees, Tim Kendall, for example, was the director of monetisation at Facebook for five years. There, he was directly responsible for developing the company’s advertising model – the same model that has driven the decline of traditional media companies and been tapped by various groups to spread misinformation and to undermine democratic elections, all the while making the company billions.

Many documentary participants express a bright-eyed enthusiasm, verging on naivety, in their years working for big tech companies. “When I was there, I always felt like, fundamentally, it was a force for good,” says a former Twitter exec. “I don’t know if I feel that way anymore.”

These about-turns feel self-serving in a way that isn’t wholly convincing, as comedy writer Rachel Wenitsky recently lampooned in a viral comedy sketch. “I thought we were doing a good thing,” she deadpans in character. “After we altered the course of US politics and I made enough money to retire at 27, I realised I was wrong.”

The tech interviews are interspersed with fictional scenes of a family: one daughter is a Luddite, while her two siblings are so addicted to their phones that they are unable to get through a few minutes of dinner without looking at them.

If one were to be generous, some of the problems faced by the tech sector today could be explained by the law of unintended consequences. It is plausible that many tech moguls had good intentions, but were too blinkered by the allure of rapid growth to foresee that their networks and algorithms would be used as a tool to radicalise people and fuel epidemics of unscientific propaganda that hinder efforts to tackle covid-19 and climate change.

On the other hand, tech companies have deliberately used insights from behavioural psychology to make their platforms as hard to put down as possible.

While human minds are perhaps not entirely powerless in the face of shadowy algorithms conspiring to exploit us for money, as The Social Dilemma suggests, the film comprehensively covers big tech’s troubling aspects.

This documentary is likely to elicit a response framed in personal terms: I’m going to delete my social accounts! Switch off your notifications! Choose a video to watch next that isn’t recommended, in a pointless attempt to outsmart recommendation algorithms!

While individuals can take steps to use technology more deliberately, to consider the personal impacts alone is to take a myopic view. The Social Dilemma asks us to look at the wider societal implications. Platforms that were initially created to connect us have mutated into ones that divide us. Regulation, the film argues, has never been more pressing. The only way that will occur is through sufficient public appetite for change.

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