Spool forward a couple of centuries. A small group of social historians drawn from the survivors of climate catastrophe are picking through the documentary records of what we are currently pleased to call our civilisation, and they come across a couple of old movies. When they’ve managed to find a device on which they can view them, it dawns on them that these two films might provide an insight into a great puzzle: how and why did the prosperous, apparently peaceful societies of the early 21st century implode?
The two movies are The Social Network, which tells the story of how a po-faced Harvard dropout named Mark Zuckerberg created a powerful and highly profitable company; and The Social Dilemma, which is about how the business model of this company – as ruthlessly deployed by its po-faced founder – turned out to be an existential threat to the democracy that 21st-century humans once enjoyed.
Both movies are instructive and entertaining, but the second one (which has just been released on Netflix) leaves one wanting more. Its goal is admirably ambitious: to provide a compelling, graphic account of what the business model of a handful of companies is doing to us and to our societies. The intention of the director, Jeff Orlowski, is clear from the outset: to reuse the strategy deployed in his two previous documentaries on climate change – nicely summarised by one critic as “bring compelling new insight to a familiar topic while also scaring the absolute shit out of you”.
For those of us who have for years been trying – without notable success – to spark public concern about what’s going on in tech, it’s fascinating to watch how a talented movie director goes about the task. Orlowski adopts a two-track approach. In the first, he assembles a squad of engineers and executives – people who built the addiction-machines of social media but have now repented – to talk openly about their feelings of guilt about the harms they inadvertently inflicted on society, and explain some of the details of their algorithmic perversions.
They are, as you might expect, almost all males of a certain age and type. The writer Maria Farrell, in a memorable essay, describes them as examples of the prodigal techbro – tech executives who experience a sort of religious awakening and “suddenly see their former employers as toxic, and reinvent themselves as experts on taming the tech giants. They were lost and are now found.”
Biblical scholars will recognise the reference from Luke 15. The prodigal son returns having “devoured his living with harlots” and is welcomed with open arms by his old dad, much to the dismay of his more dutiful brother. Farrell is not so welcoming. “These ‘I was lost but now I’m found, please come to my Ted Talk’ accounts,” she writes, “typically miss most of the actual journey, yet claim the moral authority of one who’s ‘been there’ but came back. It’s a teleportation machine, but for ethics.”
It is, but Orlowski welcomes these techbros with open arms because they suit his purpose – which is to explain to viewers the terrible things that the surveillance capitalist companies such as Facebook and Google do to their users. And the problem with that is that when he gets to the point where we need ideas about how to undo that damage, the boys turn out to be a bit – how shall I put it – incoherent.
The second expository track in the film – which is interwoven with the documentary strand – is a fictional account of a perfectly normal American family whose kids are manipulated and ruined by their addiction to social media. This is Orlowski’s way of persuading non-tech-savvy viewers that the documentary stuff is not only real, but is inflicting tangible harm on their teenagers. It’s a way of saying: Pay attention: this stuff really matters!
And it works, up to a point. The fictional strand is necessary because the biggest difficulty facing critics of an industry that treats users as lab rats is that of explaining to the rats what’s happening to them while they are continually diverted by the treats (in this case dopamine highs) being delivered by the smartphones that the experimenters control.
Where the movie fails is in its inability to accurately explain the engine driving this industry that harnesses applied psychology to exploit human weaknesses and vulnerabilities. A few times it wheels on Prof Shoshana Zuboff, the scholar who gave this activity a name – “surveillance capitalism”, a mutant form of our economic system that mines human experience (as logged in our data trails) in order to produce marketable predictions about what we will do/read/buy/believe next. Most people seem to have twigged the “surveillance” part of the term, but overlooked the second word. Which is a pity because the business model of social media is not really a mutant version of capitalism: it’s just capitalism doing its thing – finding and exploiting resources from which profit can be extracted. Having looted, plundered and denuded the natural world, it has now turned to extracting and exploiting what’s inside our heads. And the great mystery is why we continue to allow it to do so.
What I’ve been reading
The truth about WFH
How GitLab is transforming the future of online work. An interesting FastCompany piece on what we might learn from a company whose employees have always worked from home.
Plastic not fantastic
America’s Plastic Hour Is Upon Us. This is the strange title of a long, sombre essay by George Packer in the Atlantic. Long read, but worth it.
Covid lessons from Swift
An Immodest Proposal. A sharp, Swiftian essay by Samuel Weber in the LA Review of Books.