Why ‘The Social Dilemma’ scared the sh*t out of me

Until a few years ago, I was not very comfortable with using social media. It is inevitable that during a time when life without oxygen seems more imaginable to the human brain than a life without networking, fears about who/ what might be at the receiving end of your message or about being “watched” might seem irrelevant, irrational even. Despite my friends repeatedly reminding me that my paranoia is pointless because of the insignificance of my existence in this capitalist world where fake identities and data stealing are no longer news, I was reluctant to be an active socializer online. However, the need to socialize got the better of me, and I got comfortable engaging with social media. In fact, I got quite too cozy with the idea of it, until I watched The Social Dilemma a few days ago.

The Netflix documentary directed by Jeff Orlowski opens with the Sophocles quote from Antigone, “Nothing vast enters the life of mortals without a curse” and is an indictment of the social media culture that we are in today. They are facts that most of us already know, many of us are well aware of, things we throw around even in casual conversations everyday. Yet, The Social Dilemma challenges this confidence of ours by interviewing former employees of big tech companies and academics, who substantiate the argument against these companies using first-hand accounts as well as scientific facts.

The premise of The Social Dilemma is the idea of ‘Surveillance Capitalism’. Shoshanna Zuboff, who is one of the interviewees, coined this term in her seminal work The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (2018). In the first chapter of her book, she writes, “Surveillance Capitalism unilaterally claims human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioural data.” The authoritative power that we humans have blindly granted to technology is being utilized to monitor us — our behavior, mood, interests, likes, dislikes — and increase the probability of a user viewing and clicking on an ad. Loosely speaking, they predict our behavioral patterns and put it up on auction for advertisers, thereby permitting the companies to monetize on data about us. The process is not so much about ‘stealing’ and ‘selling’ our data as it is about prompting us to access that which would fetch them the greatest amount of money with a single click. It’s like watching Dora the Explorer on TV as a child; when Dora asks us questions, our logic tells us that she already knows the answers and yet we want to run to the screen and unquestioningly click on the hill or the river or the fox several times. It is almost as if the Internet has the ability to hack into our psyche. “Eventually, surveillance capitalists discovered that the most-predictive behavioral data come from intervening in the state of play in order to nudge, coax, tune and herd behavior toward profitable outcomes.” Zuboff goes on to talk about ‘instrumentarian power”, which shapes our behavior, “automates” us without any military or violent force but using a computational network that earns our trust by making the world more accessible and easier for us.

Michel Foucault’s idea of power and knowledge needs to be recalled in this regard, wherein he argues that the state does not establish authority through violent means but through a hegemonic control of the subject. This authority exercises power over us through their knowledge of us, and thereby is able to control what we know of others as well as ourselves. Repression would have incited a revolt, but this kind of a regime allows the subjects perks of living, which make them remain blind to the silent abolishment of free will that goes behind the same regime.

Take, for example, a corporate company that makes its employees work tirelessly until they get burned out. People would still want to work in these places despite the hostile working environment because of the fears of poverty as well as not being accepted in a society that looks down upon people who don’t make their own money. Money-driven capitalist forces have gained control over the narrative of social acceptability. Moreover, incentives such as bonuses, maternity leaves and medical insurance work in the employees’ favor, which makes them stay on the job. Dogmatic beliefs like “hard work pays off” (which might not always be the reality) have been ingrained in our minds since our childhood. Our goals in life have thus been shaped by the premeditated social structures — education, job, marriage — without our conscious knowledge of it.

The same goes for many other institutions of power in our society. We grant them access to control over our life because it makes us fit in with the ideals of the society, which in turn, have been laid out by the same authoritarian power. It gives us an identity. Power then is not a person, but depends on the nature of the relationship between people at two ends, it is a system. And in this system, the ones who are exploited for maintaining this power act as ‘capillary networks’ of power, the people through whom power flows.

Thus, the users of Google and Facebook themselves are the ones who allow for the authority these tech giants have over our lives. People who do not have access to these platforms find it difficult to fit in, to survive in a world characterized by networking abilities and where knowledge seems to be available in abundance online, but is made available to us according to the will of certain people sitting on the other side of the network.

The Social Dilemma raises the issue of using the Internet and technology as political tools. Take the case of the recent controversy surrounding Facebook, where the company’s resources were used to promote and propagate the ideology of the ruling party in India. Facebook condoned hate speech against Muslim communities, not at one, but multiple instances, and did not take the posts down nor blocked the accounts of the perpetrators because they did not want to “upset” the ruling party. This is an issue of grave concern because the state-media nexus is easily the most influential method to (dis)inform people, spread fake news and this becomes yet another incident where the media acts in a biased and unconstitutional manner thereby violating democratic principles.

Foucault uses Jeremy Bentham’s idea of the ‘Panopticon’ to further his arguments about power through surveillance. It is a disciplinary concept that was employed in prisons, where the prisoners could be watched and monitored by the guards from a tower at the center. The prisoners would not be able to see the guards, thereby developing the fear that they are being watched constantly. They are always in a state of visibility and are therefore vulnerable. This prompts them to behave according to the prison rules, regardless of whether they are actually under surveillance or not. It gives the authority the power of seeing without being seen. Foucault, in Discipline and Punish, talks about how the state expands Bentham’s design to keep its subjects in check. People internalize authority and follow the rules of power because it becomes self-imposed. A driver is thus wired to stop at a red traffic light even if the road is empty.

The Internet works similarly for us. It produces knowledge, gives us access to many unknown ideas that otherwise would have been beyond our reach. It has helped in creating revolutions, bringing people in solidarity, dismantling oppressive institutions, connecting one another. The Social Dilemma shows the ugly side of it, how it manipulates our sense of self-worth and identity and reduces it to a mere number of likes and views, how an algorithm decides what we should watch next based on our viewing history, how all these algorithms together have control over our ideology, beliefs and how much we know. It is a horror show without any ghosts because at the end of the documentary, one feels like a lab rat, living in our own boxed, manipulated realities: “2.7 billion Truman Shows”, as Roger McNamara puts it. The internet has become a way of living today and despite being aware of the problems that come with being slaves to this automated life, the Delphic role played by the web in our lives makes it difficult to find a quick alternative to it. I might be worried that my free will of choosing what I want to see or read about has been compromised by the algorithm and I can try to reduce my dependency on it, but I shall still continue to click on the first link that comes on Google, or some quirky ad that will randomly pop up on my Instagram feed.

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Trying to figure out what to binge-watch next.

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