At the very beginning of the popular new Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma, a mélange of former big tech employees, gurus and whistleblowers are asked: What is the problem with social media? Curiously, none of them are able to come up with much of an answer—at least, not one that can be captured in a soundbite. This segment sets the tone for a film that is accurate and compelling in its diagnosis but vague in its prescriptions and solutions.
Mere moments in, the star of the film and the moral force behind it—tech activist and ethicist Tristan Harris, the “conscience of Silicon Valley”—is seen receiving and compulsively responding to a text message, eyes aglow in the light of his iPhone screen. Later, it’s revealed that most of the film’s participants, despite what they know about the industry, admit to harboring significant social media addictions. The movie itself, which laments all the ways in which social media and big tech companies are ruining society, is streaming on Netflix—a platform on which the average consumer spends about 10 hours a week. None of these facts take away from the virtues of the film, but they do clarify its central contradiction: how do we fix something that we are intrinsically part of? How can we improve our relationship to something, when it’s unclear where the thing ends and we begin?
The Attention Economy
The film is most useful in depicting exactly how the platforms function and outlining their basic economic incentive structure, which Harris calls the attention economy.
How do social media platforms make money? Basically, from our attention: human beings represent both their inputs and outputs, their product and consumers. These companies develop personalized profiles of us through artificially intelligent data-tracking software that predicts our behavior in order to show us targeted ads, hence amassing profit from our screen time. There is a profound problem here: the negative effects of social media are not bugs, but features. Conspiracism, ideological bubbles, catastrophizing and the psychological distress that comes from constantly comparing ourselves to others, are all highly profitable. The platforms make money from the quantity of our attention, not its quality. In an interview with David Fuller, Harris quotes economist Herbert Simon: “when information becomes abundant, attention becomes finite.” It is this finite resource that tech companies are competing over. The result is the loss of shared reality, the perpetual narrowing of our attention, and a bout of collective mania that threatens to rip our society apart.
One common criticism of this narrative is that humans are always adapting to different media of communication—an ongoing process of shortening attention spans that is the essential trade-off of living in our highly technologized modern world, with all its security and abundance. But those featured in the film reject this critique. The sheer volume of data that is harvested, the privacy concerns, the cultural and psychological costs and the immense inequality of influence between those who develop these platforms and those who use them, all come together to form an unprecedented situation. Excessive social media use is not a trade-off necessary to uphold modern standards of living: it is destroying those standards. Is technological advancement making the world better and we simply fail to realize it because the online world is so menacing? Or is the world is actually getting worse and we are just more awake to this? Or is living online itself actually making the world worse? The film settles on the third possibility.
When Tristan Harris talks about the narrowing of the human experience and the loss of a shared sense of reality, it is difficult not to nod along. Our attention is a sacred thing, maybe the only thing of intrinsic value, and the problems of social media represent as much a spiritual crisis as a social one.
In the film, Harris talks about his early childhood interest in becoming a magician, and how this ultimately led him into the tech world, an industry that—like magic—is built on the art of persuasion. Harris is concerned about the existential threat of diluting human consciousness. He describes social media as a monster created by the Frankenstein of big tech. But his lament at the loss of shared reality and common purpose is a bit off the mark. The issue is not that we lack a shared reality, but that we have one and it’s increasingly ridiculous. We have a common purpose, it just happens to involve endless scrolling, button mashing and digital histrionics. We are the monster.
On social media, we are all semi-famous and yet more invisible to each other than ever before. This is one of the many paradoxes of what Marshall McLuhan presciently called the “global village” engendered by the internet. We are more connected, but in ways that are utterly banal. We have more access to information, but most of it is completely useless or simply bullshit. We see more of each other, but what we see is a mirage. As Neil Postman tells it, we are effectively amusing ourselves to death.
A Huxleyan Dilemma
In his prophetic 1985 book of the same name, Postman charts the development of various media of communication—from typography to television—and outlines how each one has shaped the overarching sense of reality of a given epoch. He argues that there are two major dystopian possibilities for society—one Orwellian and the other Huxleyan:
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy and the centrifugal bumblepuppy.
Although the book focuses on showbusiness and television, it is just as relevant to social media. Postman misquotes McLuhan’s famous remark that “the medium is the message” as “the medium is the metaphor.” Our modes of communication reorganize our perception of life in symbolic terms, changing the metaphors we use to make sense of the world. For instance, cyberspace isn’t a real place. It’s just a metaphor for a space in which we communicate, just as the social media timeline is a metaphor.
Each medium of communication is its own metaphor and promotes a particular style of thinking. Oral presentations were once the primary means of public discourse, which encouraged a form of proverbial thinking that rewards tone, memory and storytelling ability. The early American colonies, by contrast, were a typographic culture. Reading cultures require methodical, linear thought and long attention spans. The abundance of readers probably explains the unlikely success of the early American experiment, Postman argues:
In the 18th and 19th centuries, print put forward a definition of intelligence that gave priority to the objective, rational use of the mind and at the same time encouraged forms of public discourse with serious, logically oriented content. It is not an accident that the Age Of Reason was coexistent with the growth of a print culture, first in Europe then in America. The spread of typography kindled the hope that the world and its manifold mysteries could at least be comprehended, predicted, controlled.
The advent of telegraphy and photography dissociated space from time so that something could be seen or read with a new level of immediacy, laying the groundwork for a media space in which received information exists for its own sake, completely detached from the necessities of daily experience or existential utility. The invention of television created a world of irrelevance, incoherence and impotence:
Together, this ensemble of electronic techniques called into being a new world—a peek-a-boo world, where now this event, now that, pops into view for a moment, then vanishes again. It is a world without much coherence or sense; a world that does not ask, indeed, does not permit us to do anything; a world that is, like the child’s game of peek-a-boo, entirely self-contained. But like peek-a-boo, it’s endlessly entertaining.
Postman’s prescriptions include grappling with our relationship to these devices and inculcating healthier attitudes towards them. This is similar to the solution Tristan Harris has in mind. But one key difference is that Postman saw the tragic irony in trying to address the problem through its own means, or in other words, he saw the contradiction in using these technologies to free ourselves from them. But if the issue is as grave as Harris and Postman suggest, then we can’t overcome this issue through the prism of its own metaphor. The moment we broach the problem it becomes kaleidoscopic, a hall of mirrors, and a step in any direction can spring a trap. If our perception itself is formed by these media, it will take something truer and deeper to loosen their grip on our souls. That is why I see no other way forward than to simply get the fuck out (GTFO)—do everything humanly possible to dissociate our sense of life from what’s happening on our screens.
Unsurprisingly, less time on these platforms correlates with healthier life outcomes. As Jean M. Twenge has written:
The Monitoring the Future survey, funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and designed to be nationally representative, has asked 12th-graders more than 1,000 questions every year since 1975 and queried 8th- and 10th-graders since 1991. The results could not be clearer: Teens who spend more time than average on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy, and those who spend more time than average on nonscreen activities are more likely to be happy.
The style of thinking that social media promotes is schizoid. News stories that seem of life-or-death importance one week are forgotten about the next. Every event, experience or thought is compulsively turned into an Instagram story or a tweet thread, as though we need to post about our experiences to make them real—in the language of social media, pics or it didn’t happen. Our attention is condensed into fleeting moments of joy that are quickly followed by lethargy, as if we were perpetually coming down from an ecstasy trip. Viral videos are turned into social movements without any context or background. Stigmatizing people online and metaphorically erasing the humanity of strangers is normalized. We’re all thirst queens now, desperately craving attention. Our consciousness is split between our daily experience and this online theatre, which encourages a solipsism that renders the existence of other people surreal. Then there’s the cringe factor, the added layer of self-awareness that comes from constantly curating our lives for public consumption, eliciting a reflexive feeling of dismay at the disparity between perception and reality, expectation and outcome, the ideal and the actual.
Some people are able to bypass the most superficial aspects of the platforms, and many of them end up becoming influencers, but that doesn’t change the fundamental incentive structure under which the rest of us operate. I’m not against anyone building a career or making a living on social media, but it’s not possible for everyone to do so. And although it can be a great informational source and a tool of discovery, the relationship is pretty one-sided if we’re being honest with ourselves. It’s hard to compete with an A.I. system that knows more about our own psychology than we do, a point that Harris drives home again and again. There is an asymmetry between our ability to navigate social media and its ability to navigate us.
The pathological mindset underlying social media use has been described as FOMO (fear of missing out). But there’s more to it than that. I’m sure most of us have experienced that moment, perhaps late at night, when, scrolling through social media, we are suddenly struck by an overwhelming feeling of dread at the spiritual and existential void that lies quietly beneath our twirling newsfeeds and notification buttons. Social media affects our relationship to time—not just by cutting down our attention span, but by fostering the neurotic impulse to fill every moment with content or substance to justify our own existence. The resulting mania is characterized by a feeling of obligation: we have to keep posting to stay relevant lest our digital selves dissipate into the ether. It’s a fear of disappearing and an inability or unwillingness to find meaning in our existence per se without needing to show it to people or gain some kind of advantage from it.
The Social Dilemma presents both the problem and solution to this as entirely top-down matters—a structural issue. This kind of analysis is highly fashionable these days—the idea being that, because no single individual can change the system, personal responsibility is a myth expounded by the powerful to vindicate themselves. Although Tristan Harris does emphasize the role of individuals on his website Humanetech.com, which advocates “taking control” by turning off certain notifications and following other rules of engagement, the greater emphasis is on the responsibility of tech companies and the government to regulate these platforms. But is limiting our kids’ Instagram use or turning off our email once in a while really too much to ask of grown adults? Is it really that hard to shut off your phone when you are out with a friend, or to read more, instead of scrolling? The digital world is here to stay, and it is up to us to develop a healthier relationship to it. It’s not worth waiting for the consciences of Silicon Valley to kick in and save us. Nobody is coming to save us. We must face the fact that we are actively contributing to the problem. It’s on us to GTFO—to stop confusing the real world with the digital world and discover for ourselves precisely one ends and the other begins.
Harris talks about how we are missing out on so much by succumbing to the addictive quality of these platforms, but this is the case with all addictions and doesn’t necessarily make recovering from them any easier. The deeper question is what exactly we are missing, and why is it more worth our time.
The pandemic has been a major case study in the excesses of social media consumption. With so many of us home and bored out of our heads, screen time has accelerated, and so have all of its effects. I imagine this period in human history will go down as the moment when social media and the real world became indistinguishable, and whether the story is told in an uplifting or lamenting tone in the future is contingent on how we respond to it at present.