There is a social dilemma in tech, but it’s not about social networks

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Last week I eagerly sat down one evening to watch ‘The Social Dilemma’ on Netflix. I say eagerly, because the ideas that Tristan Harris holds about reforming technology always seemed bold and reformative to me. And I wasn’t disappointed — I think the film made quite a heavy and complex topic very watchable to the broad population. I think as far as storytelling goes, that in itself is commendable.

And I’m not here to disparage the film, I think plenty of people have quickly put their fingers on the pulse of what’s wrong:

  • Bicycles were actually very controversial when they were introduced!
  • Tristan Harris is a man with a platform, who doesn’t seek to credit or explore the ideas of others.
  • Social media is more ‘sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll’ than cigarettes.
  • ‘Techbros’ who have financially profited from a system of user and data exploitation shouldn’t continue to profit from disparaging it — especially given the underfunded and overlooked civil society who has been telling they’ve been wrong for years.

I also don’t blame past me for seeing Tristan Harris as some newfound prophet of the tech revolution. When someone speaks ideas you (and others) have discussed in pubs over a potent Belgian beer from a big stage with bright lights… well, much like me you might think they finally get it. You might get excited. The Silicon Valley peeps have woken up to reality!

Obviously they haven’t. Not quite, not yet. The reflections explored in ‘The Social Dilemma’ show just how shallow their understanding of what went wrong and how we fix it is. Ignore the notification! Ignore the systems we have designed specifically, meticulously, to trigger your dopamine responses!

Haha, ok my dudes. As it turns out I’ve also read Digital Minimalism and did the elimination diet. But the world has come to rely on these platforms. Now perhaps more than ever, people turn to these obsessive, addictive platforms to glean the community and connection they cannot safely access in the real world. I refuse to accept that as evidence of some moral lapse on their part. So, back away slowly from my mobile device, dear reformist tech dudes, go tend to your chicken coop or whatever else you guys are doing over there in California these days.

By now you may have guessed that, unlike many, I don’t think social media is beyond redemption. I’m not here to ask you to delete Facebook (but please do that if you feel like that’s a good choice for you!). No, I think it is the system that it’s built on — the merciless capitalist model of endless consumption (buying/selling/advertising) at its bedrock that’s the real issue. And in such a scenario, the onus shouldn’t be on individuals to alter their behaviour or outsmart these billion dollar industries. It is the governments who need to step up and regulate the tech companies. We need to hold them to a higher standard. Collectively.

The problems they deal with in ‘The Social Dilemma’ are just symptoms, they are cosmetic. They simply reflect and project the really misguided foundations that the social media platforms are built on. Though, cosmetic as these issues may be, they are undoubtedly dangerous. We desperately need to get really smart about how we regulate these harmful business models. Quick.

Alas, let me come to what I have come to appreciate as the greatest social dilemma of our time: our absolute aversion to regulating tech “innovation.”

Every government around the world looks at Silicon Valley with envy. At all of it, not just the social media giants. And every government is trying to figure out how to get their own tech unicorns and startups. The tech sector has exploited this and built the narrative that any regulation would hamper potential innovation and potentially cost us all billions. They have invested millions into trade associations and corporate lobbyists to yell this at officials in seats of power… on repeat. When any file came up to regulate technology in the EU, you would be sitting in a room in Brussels with some politicians, 4 academics, 2 NGO employees, and 100+ representatives from the full spectrum of technology companies. And at that point the scale of this internet platform economy dawns on you: the advertisers, the data brokers, the semi-conductor industry, the obscure cybersec vendors, consultants, and trade lawyers. The list is long.

It is my firm belief that if we all deleted Facebook, something functionally identical would take its place almost immediately. If our governments don’t fix the broken bedrock of this business model, we are going to keep playing this game until our societies are completely exhausted. Shattered.

Profit driven innovation and our inability to stand in its way firmly is the real social dilemma we face. Our political leaders cower at this massive industry and the cost to our democracies and the global order, in my view, is incalculable.

If you look around at the ubiquitous surveillance that surrounds us and think “damn technology has really run away from us,” please know that is because of our failure to act to set boundaries with tech, our utter inability to set boundaries around the innovation we are constantly promised. Yeah, social media has a harmful model, but the real social dilemma is whether — and when — we put people over profit. Thoughtful calculation over unbound innovation. For now, everyone has chosen profit.*

*Except for the EU in some places. The EU has definitely tried to put people’s rights first when it comes to social media and internet platforms. They do not do that for surveillance and spyware companies, and many other sectors.

Written by

Professional activist. I believe in democracy, freedom and justice. If you stick around I’ll probably talk about privacy, surveillance and modern society a lot.

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