New documentary investigates the internet’s hidden agenda


Photo from Unsplash

Natalia Pozuelo-Arbide, Staff Reporter

Launched on Sept. 6, the “The Social Dilemma” is one of the latest Netflix documentaries. The film is directed by Jeff Orlowski, an American filmmaker known for his Emmy-Award winning documentaries “Chasing Ice” (2012) and “Chasing Coral” (2017). 

Within the first five minutes of ominous music, a suspenseful silence washes over the somber faces of former Silicon Valley employees who contemplate the interviewer’s question: “So then what’s the problem? … Is there a problem, and what is the problem?”

Orlowski’s 89-minute film includes several interviews with former Silicon Valley workers. Despite coming from a variety of companies including Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest, they all left their job for one reason — ethical concerns brewing in the industry. 

Throughout the film, the interviews capture the underlying consequences of the tech world’s business model, which is built on a foundation of surveillance capitalism, subliminal advertising, growth hacking, monetization of user engagement, artificial intelligence and persuasive technology platforms. 

Photo from Unsplash

The documentary interviews Shoshana Zyboff, an American author, Harvard professor, social psychologist, philosopher and scholar. Zyboff states, “This is what every business has always dreamt of: to have a guarantee that if it places an ad, it will be successful. They sell certainty,” she emphasizes, “In order to be successful in that business, you have to have great predictions. Great predictions begin with one imperative: a lot of data.” 

Despite this, Zyboff makes it clear that this is a marketplace that has never existed before. Just as society is learning more about the novel virus COVID-19, uncovering the answers to the “unknown,” we are learning more about the “unknowns” or repercussions of the never-before-seen marketplace within the tech industry.  

The film revolves around Tristian Harris, president and co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology and former design ethicist at Google, and his reasoning for why the tech’s business model creates these consequences. Harris explains that the tech business model follows a standard playbook relying on engagement, growth and advertising for the maximization of corporate profit.

In other words, persuasive technology — including every tag, like, tweet, post, comment and swipe — contributes to information ecosystems produced by corporations as their chance to compete for maximization of profit. Harris explains surveillance capitalism thus: “Profiting off of the infinite tracking of everywhere, everyone goes by large technology companies whose business model is to make sure that advertisers are as successful as possible.” 

Essentially, the film’s ending summarizes the question, “What’s the problem?” The problem is that technology has become an existential threat to humanity, and the unregulated tech marketplace runs way behind on laws like protecting one’s digital privacy. 

Experts are concerned about the consequences of stakeholders controlling the outcome of technology’s impact on our actions. However, they also want to emphasize that we can control the “fabric of society” by demanding that tech products be used with the intention of moral responsibility. 

Simply put, the film’s call to action is to start a conversation, recognize the problem, take responsibility and reform the tech business model for the sake of human’s futures. Well, if that is too much pressure, watch “The Social Dilemma,” which offers many small ways to join the movement to dismantle tech tools of manipulation, such as uninstalling apps you waste time on or turning off your notifications.