My wife and I watched “The Social Dilemma” this weekend. I wasn’t expecting anything groundbreaking or profound (and it wasn’t – these conversations have been going on for quite some time now), but unlike “The Great Hack”, I actually enjoyed this one. It was good to see Tristan Harris, whose work I’ve been following for a bit now, be centered as the main talking head, and for his organization, The Center for Humane Technology, to get some high quality exposure. If you don’t read any further in this post I would count it a success if all you did was check out his podcast, “Your Undivided Attention”, which matches “The Social Dilemma” very well in terms of tone and content and features several individuals interviewed in the film.
This is not intended to be a comprehensive review or breakdown of the film; I will assume you have already watched it (and you should watch it). There is a lot to this film and there are plenty of other things I could address, but I think these three things are the most important of all I could say about it.
1) The Film’s Best Scenes Were Scenes from the Fictional Family
The fictional family drama was mostly hokey and and lame (and don’t even get me started on the Algorithm Bros) and yet two of the films best and most powerful scenes were within their narrative. The first scene was midway through the film when the young teenage daughter is deleting a post off the film’s generic Instagram stand-in because it didn’t get enough likes. The girl takes another photo, runs it through a FaceTune-like app, and then republishes it and watches the likes and comments flow in. But even in that moment all it takes is one vague and nebulous comment about her ears for her entire self-confidence to be shattered, and for her to begin (or rather, continue) despising her appearance. At the beginning of the film the interviewer asks several of the guests “so what exactly is the problem here?”, and I think this simple scene fleshes out the nature of the problem better than any straightforward answer could.
But it’s in the second scene, one that happens almost as an afterthought, where I think the film portrays something even more pressing and urgent. Near the end of the film, the “disconnected” sister goes to find her “Very Online” brother and happens to spot him at a political rally. She gets out of her car to get him right as the rally begins to get hostile, and the brother gets taken to the ground and detained by police. The sister gets caught in the scuffle and another cop, mistaking her for a protester, orders her to the ground as well and the two end up detained together at the end of the film. It’s a bit simplistic and silly, but I think it makes an extremely important point that the film doesn’t address enough: it doesn’t matter if you go “off the grid” if everyone around you remains on it. Even if you’re “off the grid”, you still live on it, because everyone around you lives on it and is being shaped by it.
Neil Postman, writing in his classic Amusing Ourselves to Death, includes a brief but important quote from a man named George Gerbner, a dean of a communication school:
“Liberation cannot be accomplished by turning [television] off. Television is for most people the most most attractive thing going any time of the day or night. We live in a world in which the vast majority will not turn it off. If we don’t get the message from the tube, we will get it through other people.George Gerbner, as cited in Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death
Too many times the decision to leave or “quit” social media is framed as a purely individualistic decision, and there are certainly numerous individual benefits to leaving social media and I highly recommend it. However, even if you reduce social media’s influence over your life by cutting it out, there remains a strong proxy influence because everyone around you is still being shaped by social media, which continues to influence you as it forces you to interact with people on social media’s terms. We must begin speaking of quitting social media as a family or communal event, one where collectives of people agree to reject social media altogether and create new ways of connection and communication that priorities embodied, physical relationship over cheap digital substitutes. It will only be when the people closest around you get off the grid that you too will truly be able to be off the grid yourself.
2) Christians Are Entirely Absent From This Conversation Because We Do Not Know How to Contribute To It
When I began listening to Tristan Harris and his podcast (again, really good, you seriously ought to listen to it), I felt a jarring disconnect from the conversation he was having and the conversations I was hearing and having within my own Christian circles. I couldn’t put my finger on where this disconnect for the longest time, but after finishing Daniel Darling’s recent book A Way With Words, I understand where this disconnect is: Christian discourse around the dangers of social media is mostly centered around the content of social media and not the context of social media and big tech.
I say “mostly” centered because, of course, there are exceptions. Neil Postman was a Jewish humanist but often wrote highly and intelligibly of Christianity is his works on media literacy/media ecology, and Alan Noble and James K.A. Smith have contributed two incredible books to this discussion in Disruptive Witness and You Are What You Love. The Device and Virtue podcast (another excellent podcast) does an excellent job at balancing their discussions on both the content and context of the tech world from a Christian standpoint, and if I might shamelessly throw some self promotion in here, the first season of my show Breaking the Digital Spell focused heavily on the context of technology and media as being the primary factor that shapes the content of our social media. But even in these examples (and I am sure there are others I could add) the emphasis is not on the design of social media or the psychological and political impact of social media, but on social media and/or our phones as being rival liturgies that disciple us to love them and serve them with greater devotion – which, ironically, is exactly what many of the guests in The Social Dilemma describe, but with strictly secular terms.
In fact, Christianity, more than any other religious or philosophical system, has plenty to offer in strengthening many of the claims and concerns expressed in The Social Dilemma. Christianity strengthens the claim that we ought not to tinker with human psychology at scale because humans are made in the image of God and have value and worth that transcends us, and that our brains are intricately designed organs that should be understood and respected, not exploited. Christianity strengthens the claim that we ought not give in to fear-driven polarization because we have been commanded to love our neighbors as ourselves, and to seek to promote their health and well being regardless of the views or positions they hold. Christianity strengthens the claim that human weakness is the threshold at which we ought to frame our discussions about the dangers of technology, because not only are we finite and limited creatures, we are creatures sick with sin and weak with desires and temptations that want to ruin us. Christianity strengthens the claim that we need an objective standard of truth that we can gather around lest we succumb to polarized views of reality, because the God who is truth can be known and exists outside of us and sustains a stable universe where truth can be known.
But sadly, Christianity is not relevant to these conversations because there are not enough Christians within the space to make these arguments persuasively, nor are there many Christians able to convincingly communicate these dangers within the church. Most of our discourse is focused on convincing people why you posts on social media may violate, say, the 9th commandment and not on how social media is designed to make breaking the 9th commandment as effortless and rewarding as possible. I long for that situation to change because I believe it would significantly further the cause outlined in The Social Dilemma and for the state of media literacy within the church.
3) Regulation Is Important But Not Enough
The main call-to-action at the end of the film is for regulation of these unchecked tech titans, and I fully support this. Unlike most conservatives I do not believe regulation is a de facto evil and believe good regulation benefits everyone, and many of the regulations floated in the film and discussions elsewhere are sensible and narrowly tailored towards fixing the problems they highlight. But just as Christianity has a framework for making most sense of why our brains are “hackable” and why it’s wrong to do so, Christianity also has a framework for understanding why we are in this situation at all and why regulation, though good and helpful if done right, cannot be enough. Jason Thacker summarizes the matter well in his review of the film when he says:
In the opening scene, the interviewer asks various experts a simple question: “So what’s the actual problem here?” Many respond in awkward silence as others fumble around with half-baked answers. In a moment of honesty, Harris admits there are so many problems he doesn’t know where to start. Even though this question is posed to spark curiosity in the viewer, it encapsulates a major shortcoming of the film. The interviewed experts focus on the many symptoms associated with social media and its outsized influence, but they don’t pinpoint the underlying cause of the disease. The Christian worldview actually has the answer these leaders can’t seem to locate: the deep-seated nature of sin, which infects all aspects of humanity, including our technological tools.Jason Thacker, ‘The Social Dilemma’ and the Bigger Dilemma
So long as we wait for Christ to return and usher in the resurrection of the dead and life in the world to come, we will continue to inhabit this state of utopian dystopia with technology. There will be new challenges, new exploitations, and new measures of brokenness that will arise even if the issues outlined in The Social Dilemma were to be solved. That does not mean we ought work to fix these things, but we ought to understand that we are the problem and we cannot fix ourselves.