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‘The Social Dilemma’ Got It Wrong

We are in a quandary


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Viraj Acharya

3 years ago | 3 min read

The Social Dilemma recently debuted on Netflix — a new documentary that shines a glaring spotlight on the technology Social Media companies and how their algorithms function.

The film, in essence, underlines three key dilemmas — technology addiction/ obsession that is fueled from dopamine hits; social engineering created by persuasive pressures for extensive manipulation; and surveillance capitalism that has made data the most valuable product ever in human history.

The award-winning documentary is eye-opening. For the average user of social media, it should make them rethink their relationship with their socials but for the tech-interested individual its old news.

The methods used by social media companies aren’t exclusive anymore; mass manipulation tactics are rife throughout our everyday lives. Google’s Nest or Amazon’s Alexa, for example, employ the same tactics, but through the lens of voice instead of a scrollable feed. Spotify uses an algorithm that recommends music based on your ‘taste’, ‘previous history’.

The likelihood that they aren’t running A/B tests like the Big 4 is not unimaginable. The latest app we download sends us notifications, seemingly harmless alerts when in fact they are being used as small tentacles designed to pull you back in to engage longer with an application.

As our time online has increased, so have anxiety, depression and suicide rates, it’s not giving us a sense of fulfilment, in short, we’re miserable. Hopefully, our present-day society will eventually realise we are not in a dilemma, a situation in which a difficult choice has to be made between two or more alternatives, especially ones that are equally undesirable. We are in a state of perplexity and uncertainty over what to do in a difficult situation — a quandary.

Primarily because we didn’t even realise that this was an actual problem, and nor did anyone else until the penny dropped, and these companies realised that they needed to be sustainable in a way that didn’t impact the goals of the platforms.

Hence resulting in the infamous advertising monetisation model, where the user’s attention is the product, for sale to the highest bidder.

Think back to the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which now may feel like an eternity ago, but in reality, it only occurred in 2018. The scandal should have been the wake-up call for society to understand the manipulative nature of social media, the magnitude of what happened there should have shaken the fabric of the online world.

But as usual, we fell back into our slumber as we will likely do again with the Social Dilemma.

While the connected world has indeed created boundless quantities of positivity, people can stay connected; access information; share thoughts and opinions in a way that was inconceivable only two decades ago; we can maintain our livelihoods from these apps (Like me!), a notion that in many ways still seems ludicrous.

However, there are always two sides to a coin. As we were all obsessing over the positives, we were naive to believe that humanity would not exploit the product that social media is serving up to advertisers on a platter — us.

Gen Z and whatever generation comes after them are going to be the first generations in human history to be firmly implanted in the online world. I remember when the social media and the internet was a slow, boring, bare place where I could play games. Now it’s this ever-changing living entity that has placed a spell on my attention, diverting me from reality into the abyss of the online world.

As Tristan Harris, points out, far before technology overpowers human strengths, it will overwhelm human weaknesses, and if we aren’t there already, we are probably pretty close. I don’t want to go into battle with an Artificial Intelligent supercomputer, whose sole objective is to keep me engaged in an app when I pick up my phone.

Yet, I don’t want to lose out on the ability to be hyper-connected.

As users, we are all in some way mildly addicted to this drug like coffee it passes undetected through the halls of governance. But, it’s time for a change in the formula, one that allows for products to be designed about human nature, in tandem with establishing us in control of our data, not at the mercy of it.

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Viraj Acharya


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