The Enjoyment of Negativity: On ‘The Social Dilemma’
I If God Is Dead, Social Media Is Permitted
At the mercy of whatever obscure algorithmic forces now dictate our lives, many of us recently watched new Netflix film, The Social Dilemma. Enraptured by our irascible gods — postmodern deities whose digital powers make a mockery of self-determination, autonomy, free will, the Enlightenment project at large, etc. — we all consumed a film wherein tech evangelists proselytise for approx. 90 mins about the evil technologies they created. Supposedly atoning for their sins, these defectors — the Righteous Reformed — sound a unified clarion call: Big Tech is our Present Disaster, and they are here to help us Fix The Fabric of Democracy — even if they never exactly apologise or take responsibility for their failures.
II A Redemption Arc
Much like the social media designers, The Social Dilemma relies on various techniques of manipulation. Of these, one is especially obvious. All good documentaries employ a covert narrative structure, and The Social Dilemma is no different. It relies on yet another repetition of a naïve story. Like Instagram’s behavioural modification techniques, it’s invisible but effective.
The Social Dilemma presents a tale of knowledgeable accomplices / ignorant pawns who participated in a project of great harm, realised the errors of their ways, and now want to do good. This narrative ought to be familiar to every viewer of modern cinema and television: we see it in characters like Heracles, Game of Thrones’ Jamie ‘fookin’ Lannister and Theon Greyjoy, or Star Wars’ Anakin Skywalker. Its logic is simple: though these characters have been cruel and violent their entire lives, they find an untapped reservoir of goodness inside them at a critical moment. Having felt the temptations of the abyss, they nonetheless turn away. Averting their tragic arc, they subsequently commit themselves to some great, heroic mode of being. Usually, they fight the corruption they helped create, exploiting its vulnerabilities in ways only they understand.
Viewers know this as the Redemption Arc. It’s a familiar story that they will immediately recognise in The Social Dilemma, which gives us a coterie of recovering tech entrepreneurs/employees who are currently on the acclivitous slope of this steep climb. After working for Big Tech, they all realised the errors of their ways, and now they wish to redefine themselves as activists. Crusaders for The Good. Canaries in data-mines.
The function of the redemption arc implied in each interviewee’s history is obvious. It encourages us to trust the subjects. It gives them and the film Moral Authority. As the film’s credibility rests on the success of this impression, The Social Dilemma — and, presumably, the Righteous Reborn — need us to believe they are The Good Guys. But can the viewer actually trust these people?
III To Respond To My Own Question…
To put it bluntly, my answer is a resounding No. In truth, I barely know where to begin with the failures that undermine the authority of this film. Maybe its central ironies will do.
It doesn’t take much insight to see that The Social Dilemma capitalises on our fear of social media, thereby generating more profits and information for the industry criticised in the film. That the film’s existence shows how our fear of social media has been commodified by companies that practise surveillance capitalism. That they designed it and promoted it to us by using their information on our personal preferences. That viewing this film gives them even more information about our tastes, specifically concerning our enjoyment — yes, enjoyment — of our fear and paranoia about social media. That the film’s popularity, partly induced by promotional algorithms, guarantees that the companies we fear will create more products that play with this fear. That the film shows us a central problem of today’s capitalism, i.e its has a remarkable ability to profit from both endorsements and attacks, and can nullify and commodify critical voices while it reinforces profits. That The Social Dilemma reveals that negativity is a form of entertainment, and that negativity about entertainment is also a form of entertainment.
Maybe we could also mention the fact that not one of the Righteous Reborn expresses regret about their involvement in this industry, and how we are to take their redemption as given, simply because they say the right things and appear in the right film. Or we could discuss how these people have transitioned from being a) well-compensated IT technicians and entrepreneurs to b) high-profile activists who speak on an international platform owned by other Silicon Valley entrepreneurs (i.e. Netflix), and thereby retain their privilege and remain within the system they apparently oppose.
Any of these would be good starting points indeed. But to me, these complaints are less salient than the neutered social criticism on display in the film. Most saccharine are the film’s vague appeals to the Fix The Fabric of Democracy Itself. These days, we all know that Democracy is gravely threatened. Nothing is so banal as the millionaire’s anxiety about the loss of Democracy. But in The Social Dilemma, as in real, contemporary America, there is no real solution to this problem. In the film, Fixing Democracy encompasses nothing more than requesting that governments impose regulations on Big Tech to make them Less Bad. Of course, this is bound to be ineffective. Today our governments are beholden to Big Tech’s massive powers — powers which only exist because the government didn’t intervene earlier. Regulation will never work: our regulators have already been bought by the subjects of regulation.
In step with prevailing political discourses, the interviewees all lament the fact that our media environment erodes objective, shared truths. But again, this insight is actually nothing novel. Indeed, this objection was raised years before Facebook went public by none other than David Foster Wallace. In 2005, he said that the media’s oligopolistic market structure, coupled with its plurality of stations whose reporting is explicitly ideological, had lead to ‘a situation of extreme fragmentation’ and ‘the kind of relativism that cultural conservatives decry, a kind of epistemic free-for-all in which “the truth” is wholly a matter of perspective and agenda.’ Fake news and the death of truth was here before Twitter, people. We simply needed platforms that could profit from this discourse for it to awaken within mainstream political discourse.
The problems that the Righteous Reborn neglect to mention are not new. Yet they are content to insist, again and again, that the Present Disaster is some sui generis, never-before-seen type of shit. We don’t know whether this lacuna is the fault of the film’s editors or its subjects. Nonetheless, it’s a gaping hole in this apparently radical exposé that substantially reduces the credibility of its interviewees. Indeed — it makes their claims to ignorance look like an excuse. Like a sign of guilt, hidden and repressed. As if they’re unsure if they have achieved redemption.
IV Dostoevsky in San Francisco
When the Righteous Reborn tell us they couldn’t have predicted How Bad Social Media Would Become, we must at least partly believe them. No matter their goals at the outset of their projects, they could never have foreseen the extent of their success. Despite the modern financier’s fantasies of ‘riskless risk’, shattered in 2008’s GFC, capitalism remains a speculative enterprise. Accordingly, they produced a world they didn’t intend to create — that they couldn’t intend to create. Wild, dreamlike success has made victims of them. Just as it always does.
It’s only fair to acknowledge they had no special clairvoyance. They are only human, after all. But in doing so, we can’t ignore the more fundamental, underlying problem. While the extent of the harm caused was beyond prediction, the nature of the damage is precisely what they should have expected. After all, each of our Righteous Reformed worked for companies whose stated raison d’être was to generate profit by a) creating products that would hyper-drive the existing principles of surveillance, advertising and addictive product design, and b) inflict these products upon billions of people. They sought nothing more than a version of 20th-century capitalism, heightened to the point of hysteria. Despite this, the film is silent about capitalism’s broader advertising industry, of which social media is simply the apotheosis.
If this claim seems outlandish, consider what advertising has tried to do for decades now. It aims at preference construction. Behavioural alteration. Surveillance. Manufacturing dependency. Fabricating identity. Generating fear. Influencing conscious behaviour by working on desire and the subconscious. Giving you thoughts that you otherwise would not have had. Extracting your time, attention and economic surpluses, and exchanging it for an experience that is neither enriching nor empowering but degrading and wasteful. As any marketing student can tell you, these are the principles that lie beneath all advertising. Changes in technical sophistication aside, none of them are new or unique to social media.
Our Righteous Reformed, much like their former employers, also claim that they didn’t foresee the mental health effects of their enterprise. This is similarly disheartening. As we learned from 20th-century totalitarian states like Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany, mass surveillance is the basis for perpetual terror. It forces rigid conformity and creates a culture of pervasive scrutiny among its subjects, who start to autonomously enforce the oppressive norms. Under surveillance, people become fearful. Doubtful. Trust, the basis of the Fabric of Democracy, is destroyed, leading to loneliness, uncertainty and higher rates of mental anguish. Unsurprisingly, suicides increase in such circumstances. Had they been aware of history or cared to listen to its messages, the psychological effects of their products would have been totally predictable.
For these reasons, I admire neither the bravery nor the supposed self-sacrifice of the interviewees. Sure, it’s good that their ethical consciousness has finally emerged from its coma, its sleep-state bought by the narcotic cocktail of dollars and ideology. Yet the fact remains: they all allowed themselves to participate in obviously problematic practices for years. Even worse, their dissent earns them a nice profit, public recognition, and unanimous social approval. Fundamentally, their shift was a safe move. To me, this means they are not heroic. Rather, they have simply grown into moral mediocrity from a state where their ethical sensibility was hideously underdeveloped.
In a way, the Righteous Reborn remind me of Dostoevsky’s more ambivalent characters. In David Foster Wallace’s words, Fyodor was one of the first writers ‘to understand how deeply some people love their own suffering, how they use it and depend on it.’ In novels such as Crime & Punishment, his drama relies on the religious notion that we can draw tremendous masochistic pleasure from guilt and apology. Dostoevsky knew we can produce pathos for ourselves by first becoming a criminal and then a confessor. He knew that we love to make ourselves the subjects of redemption.
At some level, I suspect our Righteous Reborn are sensitive to this notion. After pursuing immorality with total abandon, they sacrificed their economic profits for surpluses of the heart. And so they gained the pleasures of self-renunciation. The sweetness of repenting. The joy of condemning oneself in the eyes of a higher authority. Of lashing themselves at the feet of their gods. Allowing ourselves a literary indulgence, we can say that the interviewees are all like Raskolnikov. They are men who produced their own guilt, only to harvest the pleasure that comes with its relief. Thus, the Righteous Reborn spent their lives building the redemption narrative The Social Dilemma chose to rely upon. The cost of this story, however, is obvious. Years of moral blindness were required before they could feel like truly moral actors. To attain redemption, they had to first create damnation.
V The Good
In his late novel Cosmopolis, Don DeLillo, that prophet of media society, writes that technology ‘is crucial to civilisation… it helps us make our fate. We don’t need God or miracles or the flight of the bumblebees.’ For me, there is a critical ambiguity within DeLillo’s quote. While technology helps ‘make our fate’, it isn’t clear whether this fate is beyond or within our control. Do we control technology, or does it control us?
By perpetuating their narrative of accidental blindness, the Righteous Reborn suggest that the perils of technology were neither a matter of malevolence nor negligence, but fate. They want us to believe they are like their consumers — that we are all victims of godly technologies that exceed our control. Thus, I suspect our Righteous Reborn would partly accept the answer proposed by Cosmopolis: we are masters of our fate no longer.
Arguably, there is merit to this claim. However, I nonetheless refuse to accept that political outcomes, which are always the consequence of a decision to regulate, are a matter of fate. Things could have been otherwise. Had the regulators and the companies so desired, we could have used technology to preserve or improve our democracy. Nonetheless, we simply allowed for the continuation of business as usual: the steady erosion of democracy in favour of profits.
With this in mind, my overall feeling for The Social Dilemma is one of contempt. The film’s title gives it all away: we only face a dilemma because those who hold positions of power have not a shred of integrity within them.
Most disingenuous, then, are the claims that these men only wanted to spread The Good with their technological projects: connection, love, communication, and so on. From the moment that they began work in hyper-competitive, utterly capitalistic Silicon Valley, they knew precisely what they wanted to achieve. They desired power, dominance, and private profits. They hoped to be masters of the universe, tragic gods. They sought the drama of redemption. That there is little trace of The Good left in the products they willingly designed while they remain prodigiously wealthy and socially prominent ought to show them that The Good was never their primary aim. Otherwise, they would have bothered to protect it.
Maybe we ought to be a little forgiving: it is easy, after all, to confuse Profits with Benevolence in today’s economy, isn’t it? Perhaps. Yet if we accept that our present Social Dilemma was the result of such confusion, we must pause to consider the nature of our society. For this would mean that our most intelligent people are utterly clueless about ethics, empathy and compassion. It would mean that the most powerful people in the most powerful society ever are bereft of even an essentially mediocre moral compass. And if this was the case, then we ought to be far more concerned about the fate of our world than even The Social Dilemma suggests.