‘The Social Dilemma’ and the Bigger Dilemma

A few weeks ago after my wife and I put our boys to sleep, we pulled up the new Netflix documentary “The Social Dilemma.” Featuring a number of noted authors, scholars, tech leaders, and activists, the film helps explain the growing influence of algorithmic technology, especially in social media. 

Led by Tristan Harris, former design ethicist and president of the Center for Humane Technology, The Social Dilemma explores how these technologies are specifically designed to serve up a perfectly curated and addictive online world where companies profit from tracking our every digital interaction (often called surveillance capitalism).

The film focuses in part on the artificial intelligence (AI) technology behind the tools that drive our social-media feeds, email platforms, and most of our “smart” devices. As Harris explains, our concerns about AI are often centered on when it will overcome our strengths and outperform us in various tasks (“the singularity”), rather than focusing on how it has already overcome our points of weakness by fostering addiction and fueling dissent. Many of these systems control what you see in your social-media feed, when you receive notifications, and even what you type—all in order to modify your behavior, whether in what you buy or what you watch.