The Most Important Film You'll Watch. Probably.

10 takeaways from The Social Dilemma.

I was going to present a provocative question about journalism in this edition of Media Buddhi. But because this newsletter is equally about what I call ‘Internet Buddhi’, I’m instead going to spend the next few minutes doing my best to get you to watch The Social Dilemma.

The Social Dilemma is a gripping docu-drama on Netflix about the deadly impact of social networks. It is stuffed with memorable lines and radical insights, and might even make you change your relationship to internet devices and apps. Watch it here. This piece can wait.

If you’ve already seen it, this is a refresher.

The film centers around Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google who left to start the Time Well Spent movement because he was alarmed at how tech companies were manipulating and addicting us to internet devices. (Readers of this newsletter would have encountered him and a few other characters from the film in previous pieces.)

In The Social Dilemma, Harris is the key figure in a revolving caste of characters that include former executives from Facebook, Google, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram and YouTube.

Here are 10 lessons from it.

1. We are not customers. We are the product.

“If you’re not paying for the product, then you are the product.” - Tristan Harris

This is a point made repeatedly throughout the film. We think we are customers of these tech companies, but we are actually what is sold to advertisers. We’re also the raw material in the product chain, mined repeatedly for data.

Jaron Lanier, known as the ‘father of virtual reality’, adds another layer to this meaning. He says that it is “the gradual, slight, imperceptible change in your own behavior and perception that is the product.”

2. Social networks function on data they harvest from you and me.

How long you look at a photo on your Facebook or Instagram feed, where you go, what you search for on Google search, YouTube or Maps, who you meet—everything is mined and stored by these tech companies. Forever. This data is used to construct models of you so that they can predict what you can do next. This ability to predict your feelings and behavior online is sold to advertisers.

The film shows that there is an instant marketplace or auction for every little advertisement that is shown to you. The winner—bidding as little as a few paise or cents in each case—gets to place an ad in front of you.

Shoshana Zuboff is the author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, described as “the single most important book about politics, economics, culture and society in this century” by one reviewer. In the film, Zuboff says, “This is a new kind of marketplace now. It’s a marketplace that never existed before. And it’s a marketplace that trades exclusively in human futures. Just like there are markets that trade in pork belly futures or oil futures.”

3. These apps are not just tools.

Social platforms and tech platforms are not just tools, like the bicycle is a tool. When you need a bicycle, you use it. When you don’t need it, it just lies there.

Tristan Harris: “If something is a tool, it genuinely is just sitting there, waiting patiently. If something is not a tool, it’s demanding things from you.”

4. Social media is not like a drug. It is a drug.

The film demonstrates that social media is designed for addiction. A crucial point it makes is that it not like a drug. It quite literally is a drug.

In the film, Dr Anna Lembke, the Medical Director of Addiction Medicine at Stanford University’s med school says, “Social media is a drug. I mean, we have a basic biological imperative to connect with other people. That directly affects the release of dopamine in the reward pathway. Millions of years of evolution um, are behind that system.”

5. Social media apps and the mobile phone are ‘digital pacifiers’

The film notes that we are being conditioned to be completely dependent on our devices to regulate our mood. We’re losing the ability to do so ourselves.

Tristan Harris: “We’re training and conditioning a whole new generation of people that when we are uncomfortable or lonely or uncertain or afraid, we have a digital pacifier for ourselves…that is kind of atrophying our own ability to deal with that.

6. We’re all in our personal Truman Show

The film references The Truman Show, a hit movie from 1998 starring Jim Carrey. The lead character, Truman, is unsuspectingly living in a reality show. Everything is simulated and unique to Truman.

Social media is exactly liking living in our own version of the Truman Show because everything we access: from social feeds to search engines online are a version that is only fed to us. Even your partner or friend sitting across from you is getting a different. This can create a situation where each individual can end up believing different facts about life.

Roger McNamee, an original investor in Facebook and mentor to Mark Zuckerburg is part of the movement that is asking questions of big tech. McNamee says in the film, “the way to think about it is it’s 2.7 billion Truman Shows.”

7. We no longer know what is true and what is not

As I’ve written before, we’ve lost the idea of an objective truth. We believe in our own facts.

As Tristan Harris says, “If we don’t agree on what is true or there is such a thing as truth, we’re toast. This is the problem underneath other problems, because if we can’t agree on what’s true, then we can’t navigate out of any of our problems.”

8. Social media is confusing because it’s simultaneously both utopia and dystopia

The film notes that huge advances have been made possible because of these technologies. This is what makes them so dangerous: social media has changed our lives so much for the better, that it took years for us to understand that it was simultaneously making our lives much, much worse. In other words, it’s a deal with the devil.

9. The solution has to be financial…which means regulation

These tech firms are all trapped in a business model. It is no longer realistic to expect them to self-regulate. Jaron Lanier says, “Financial incentives kind of run the world, so any solution to this problem has to realign the financial incentives.”

“There’s no fiscal reason for these companies to change”, says one of the interviewees. “And that is why we need regulation.”

10. For children, no social media until high school

Psychologist and behaviour scientist Jonathan Haidt who is also featured in the film says, he has three rules for families. One, all devices are shut off at a fixed time every night. Two, no social media until high school. Three, figure out a time budget for your kids.

Like Sam Wineburg, a professor of education at Stanford University states, “everybody needs a license to drive on the information highway.”


Further reading

Regular readers of Media Buddhi would have encountered many of the people featured in the docu-drama before. Here’s a partial reading list:


P.S. Television is equally bad, because it uses the same business model that internet companies have perfected, which is selling our attention to advertisers. Phew!