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Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

Why social media isn’t really the real villain of this age

Beware the appeal of a documentary that claims to be against what it has no qualms doing itself

The Social Dilemma is a documentary that conveys something you have heard many times, but with ominous background music. The facts in the 90-minute film take less than a minute, it seems, to narrate: Social media and email are designed to keep you hooked to your phone and away from “real world", a superior place where people drink barley and eat sugar with real friends, or say “What’s up" to real acquaintances and look over their shoulders to see if there are more interesting people around.

Everything else about the documentary is melodramatic and dishonest evangelism of a band of “good guys" who were part of the tech industry that created social media and Google. Some of them encashed their stock options and are very rich today, while others appear to have lost out.

The band of late heroes is lead by Tristan Harris, a type of man who calls himself an “ethicist", who looks angelic and unthreatening, who says all the right things, who pauses for effect and smiles sadly, a hero of people who believe in heroes and therefore never ask what is behind a heroic action.

At the very start of the documentary, the heroes say or imply that the tech industry is not evil by design. But soon the documentary appears to realize that a successful story requires heroes, and heroes require villains. So it sets out to define the villains—the social media companies and Google and others whose products have intoxicated the world.

But then Netflix, which streams this documentary, is even more addictive than social media. Without this streaming service and the transmission of its existence by word-of-mouth on social media, the documentary would have been doomed. Hypocrisy in good people is known as “irony".

The “ethicists" of the documentary inevitably tell you that if you’re not paying for media content, then you are not the customer, “you’re the product". The way they claim your time is harvested for “advertisers", you would think they have never heard of The New York Times or The Guardian or BBC, the revered products of their type whose golden years were funded by advertisers. Advertisers have always funded or greatly subsidized quality journalism. Now, on social media, they have a more efficient way of spending money.

The “ethicists" accuse social media of manipulating human psychology. But this is the objective of every business, including documentaries, streaming platforms and food industry players that permeate the three-dimensional “real" world seen at risk by The Social Dilemma . The manipulation of psychology is also the objective of all arts, but then these arts have failed on this front because they are run by cartels that promote dud self-absorbed bores who never ask, “What do you want?"

The Social Dilemma itself manipulates human psychology in very obvious ways. It exploits the emptiness in salaried people who see hope in every email, and the nameless grief of the bored, and the fear of parents that their children are turning into zombies (like them). The film features some menacing actors who play the bad guys who run tech companies. They stand behind machines and turn dials to control your emotions. Social media algorithms are represented as the sentinel machines you have seen in films, so that you are suitably scared. Of course, there is no activist deceit that is possible without the use of suicide data. The “ethicists" of the film imply that people kill themselves because of the emotions unleashed by social media.

Harris claims that the world is worried about social media. In contrast, he says, when the bicycle appeared, our ancestors had not complained. He is wrong. When the bicycle emerged, the sanctimonious dismissed it as a frivolity of the wealthy youth. Poet John Keats called it “the nothing of its day". It was deemed dangerous. Books, too, horrified people once.

The “ethicists" of every era have always whined about the way of the world, and about how no one has time for the wonderful art of the whiner. Guess the era of the novel this is extracted from: “Long novels written today are perhaps a contradiction: the dimension of time has been shattered, we cannot love or think except in fragments of time each of which goes off along its own trajectory and immediately disappears".

This is from the novel If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino, published in 1979, and the whine against social media today is exactly the same. In any age, a lament of a noted writer is never an accurate analysis of the world, but rather the writer’s grouse against fast becoming obsolete.

In trying to make the power of social media sound terrifying, the documentary mentions an American basketball star who was persuaded to believe that the world was flat. This is symbolic of the sham this documentary itself is.

Unlike that basketball star, you do not believe the world is flat. Why? The intellect and mental health of a person has an overarching influence on what news he or she will consume. The platform itself is inconsequential. Your choice of disinformation will never be that the Earth is flat; it is likely to be more sophisticated—that Russia influenced the last American presidential election, or that The Social Dilemma is a work of honest humanitarianism.

“How do you wake up from the matrix?" a good guy in the documentary asks. Some people think that just because they can ask this question, it means they themselves are not part of the matrix.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, and a novelist, most recently of ‘Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous’

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