My New Year’s Resolution and Netflix’s ‘The Social Dilemma’

This New Year I set myself just one resolution: to cut down my screen-time. 

Ironically enough, it’s while writing a legal piece in which I’m asserting that tech is the future, that I wonder whether this digital-centred future is one that I even want to be a part of. 

I mean, I’m living in a tech-centred world already. And you are too, reader-on-the-other-side-of-screen!

Because in some way, shape or form, whether we like to admit it or not, our very lives are inextricably linked to technology. And the Internet, well, the Internet pervades our everyday lives! 

From the remote working you do during your 9-5 in a global pandemic, to the cheeky Nando’s you order for dinner later that night – you, me and the rest of society rely on the Internet to get by.

But just because we have to use the Internet, that isn’t to say we can’t control what we use it for and for how long we use it. 

And that’s exactly what I tell my friend on a call just one day into the New Year and one day into sticking to my resolution. 

Intrigued, he says “You watched The Social Dilemma, didn’t you”. 

I’ve been living under a rock it would seem. 

“No I haven’t, what is that?”, I ask.

“It’s on Netflix. You should watch it, you’ll like it”.

So I do. And then I very unceremoniously disable my personal Instagram account (the only form of social media that I use) for the foreseeable.

After that, I sit down (in front of a screen again…Lord have mercy) to review the most eye-opening and frankly, horrifying documentary that I’ve seen in a while. 

This is my review of Netflix’s ‘The Social Dilemma’. 

My Review:

There are only two industries that call their customers “users”: illegal drugs and software”.

The Social Dilemma begins with a series of snippets from interviews with a host of former Silicon Valley engineers who helped birth the great tech giants (Google, Facebook, Instagram etc) that we are regrettably so familiar with today. 

In the opening scenes of the docudrama the tech-experts sit sheepishly, perched upon their chairs and awkwardly sip coffee. 

Having pocketed their millions working in Big Tech, it dawns on them now that they have ethics. So they’ve come to us – the general public and their targeted users – as whistle-blowers, to speak out against the very companies they themselves have modelled and designed to influence, manipulate and addict us into endlessly scrolling on our tech devices.

The experts include the former Director of Monetization at Facebook, Tim Kendall and the creator of Facebook’s ‘Like-button’, Justin Rosenstein. 

Rosenstein swears that he created the Like-button way back in 2007 as a feature to “spread positivity”. There is a sad irony then that in recent times, there are an ever-growing number of mental health crises, particularly within teens, that is directly linked to low self-esteem caused by a lack of likes. The documentary makes apparent that people are attributing their sense of worth to, and gaining validation from, the number of likes they attain.

Thumbs down to the Thumbs Up

This is made glaringly obvious from a drama that plays out during the documentary which follows a modern-day family who, like the rest of us, use technology. There’s a teenage daughter who in one scene, uploads an image of herself on Instagram, receives just a few likes and then deletes the picture altogether and lies in bed crying.

It dawns on me that this section of the drama, though fictional, must be a lived reality for already insecure teenagers growing up during the digital era. 

P.C. iHeart

It’s actually alarming to think that this is the society in which the future generation will grow up. Studies have already shown that we are, as a society, significantly much more fragile, depressed and anxious than our predecessors. I dread to think about the generation in which my now 9-year-old niece will be growing up. (Actually, I don’t – my niece won’t be getting a mobile phone until she’s 18 😅. Iqra darling, if you read this in the future, Aunty did it out of love x). 

The fact that social media has, on balance, more of a negative effect on our mental wellbeing than it does a good one, is however nothing new to me. 

Do you know what was new, frankly horrifying information to myself when watching this documentary, though? 

The insidious agenda behind Big Tech; that the designers at all of these giant corporations have all along known about the vulnerabilities in human psychology and that they design their apps and business models explicitly to exploit said vulnerabilities, all in the name of cashing out. 

…and you’re being sold to advertisers.

In fact, many of the whistle-blowers who feature in the documentary are actually Stanford University alumni members. The documentary, very briefly, takes us behind the doors of Stanford University which is one of the most prestigious higher education institutions in the world. It is here that a very unique course called ‘The Ethics of Human Persuasion’ is taught to it’s very bright students and the future tech-leaders of tomorrow. 

It is in essence a course on the human brain and it focuses on how technology can be used to be more persuasive and ultimately, reprogramme our brains until addiction occurs. The course specifically teaches the brightest minds in the tech industry which methods they can utilise in order to play on people’s ability to be addicted or to be influenced. 

And it works. We see how influential social media is on a daily-basis. 

Take last week for example, when the prevalence of ‘Fake News’ (which the documentary highlights “spreads six times faster than real news”), meant that a disinformed and Fake News-induced mob of Trump-supporters stormed The Capitol!

The influence that social media wields in the spread of information cannot be underestimated…and it wasn’t. President Donald Trump was banned across all social-media platforms shortly after that whole fiasco ensued!

More locally, Boris Johnson said “We’re all in this together!” and the WhatsApp Aunties were listening! They too, have pulled together during these difficult times to do their utmost best…to also spread fake news!

Yesterday evening, Channel 4 News interviewed a Doctor who stated that a large percentage of the British Muslim Asian population are refusing Covid-19 vaccines because fake news is circulating on WhatsApp which is claiming that there is pork in the vaccine? PORK? As in, oink oink pork lol?

You just can’t make this stuff up.

Actually, hold on a second…you can! And that pitifully comical example above is yet another real life example of how social media platforms are being used to spread fake news. Therein lies the issue.

And in terms of social media creating within us a form of addiction?

Well, to explain social media addiction, the documentary rather aptly gives us the analogy of a slot machine:

Much like with a slot machine, we users of social media have formed a habit of dragging something down  (in this case, the top of our notification bar), repetitively throughout the day, to see if anything is there. And when we’re rewarded with the dopamine-effect and something is in fact there, this only serves to further reinforce this unconscious habit and create addiction.

And if we don’t voluntarily take to checking our mobile phones like crack-fiends to their cocaine, that’s okay! Facebook or Instagram will oh-so-kindly remind us what we’re missing out on!

Because a well thought-out and calculated strategy used by tech companies in order to glue us to our phones is the use of notifications. Their systems recognise any long periods of inactivity by their users and so what they do to reel us back is send us a notification.

Yes – you read that right! Those notifications that you randomly get on your phone aren’t random at all. They’ve been intentionally designed to grab your attention and entice you into spending more time on your tech device.

And it works. Look at you, tapping that notification! Look at me, tapping mine! LOOK AT US – HOOKED!

From a business-perspective it makes perfect sense; the longer that tech companies can keep their targeted audiences, us, glued to our phones, the better. They can sell us things through ads and that shitty little, relatively new, in-app shopping feature on Instagram (@Instagram ugh, what was the need pls? We have ASOS, we’re good love)!

But from the perspective of a user, you realise that what begins as a harmless little glance at a holiday picture here, ends up in you seeing an ad for a cute little top there and then watching a recommended YouTube video next. And it goes on and on as you fall deeper down the rabbit role, with your screen time increasing all the while.

My Verdict:

So what’s my verdict on The Social Dilemma and would I recommend it to those of my readers who haven’t watched it already?

The answer is a resounding yes.

Because while the hour-and-a-half long documentary is in no way a tell all exposé of the Big Tech industry, it does offer the ordinary non-tech person, such as myself, a unique and interesting, yet frightful peep into the business-minds behind these big corporations.

Ultimately, this documentary helped me understand what a small pawn I was in the wider (capitalist) game.

And that contributed to maybe as much as 35% of the reason why I swiftly disabled my personal Instagram and resolved to cut down my screen time. The other 65% of my reasoning was solely because I’m just over socials and have been for a little while now.

As for my resolution…

…so far it’s going well. My screen time is decreasing daily and I’m all the more merrier for exchanging fleeting text-based messages for meaningful off-screen relationships. Admittedly, I am still having to rely on phone calls during this Lockdown to speak to my friends but I’ll be replacing calls altogether for catching up in person with my people when the Lockdown is over.

For those of my readers who have watched The Social Dilemma, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the documentary! Although I’ve cut down all other use of socials, my @franklyfahmida Instagram account is active (I’m allowing myself 3 minutes a day on it loool) and I always love hearing from my readers via DM to discuss my pieces 🙂 You can also reach out to me via the comment box below if you too are steering away from social media!

For now though, it’s about time I hop off of this screen!

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