The Social Dilemma, directed by Jeff Orlowski. Netflix, 2020.
This film offers an interesting if dumbed-down overview of social media exacerbating societal ills in its quest for data-driven profit.
At first glance, the relevance to the NPA theory isn't apparent. By far the most insightful parts of this docudrama discuss how discoveries in human psychology were married with great strides in computing power. Through crafty audio and visual cues and a constant stream of gratifying imagery, the commoditization of manipulative cunning has been mastered. Every user on these websites is accorded a profile, which dictates what is shown or recommended. The relentless pinging of dopaminergic pathways produces the addiction comparable to say nicotine or opioids, but also induces change in how the human mind processes information. In the name of short-term profits, a small portion of highly engaged users are given over to raving delusion. Thus the topic is pertinent to NPA theory.
A group of former employees of Google, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram and other offenders recall the heady days of their professional youths, where good intentions and idealism ruled the day. These engineers were bringing people together, not opening Pandora's Box. Tristan Harris published a worried treatise in Google of how things might go wrong thanks to the immensity of this power...only for no change to result. Not that change wasn't possible: Harris's prescriptions were incompatible with growth of the business. The recurring theme among the technologists interviewed is a sense of aghast dismay; their intellectual gifts bearing fruit of one violent lunatic display after another.
Since its inception, constant measuring feedback on what is effective in keeping users spending time on social media has perfected the formula. Time spent watching something, things commented on, moods and predispositions - it's all tracked to the millisecond. Yet what is excellent for advertising profits is malodorous for the mental health of individuals. Behaviors are controlled and shepherded with corrosive effects to social and political structures. The types most vulnerable are those most prone to suggestion and those who vest most in their physical appearance as a matter of pride and identity. Those predisposed to social isolation, paranoia or suspicions of other's motives are also likelier to lead the engagement metrics.
As with cigarettes, no NPA personage is without risk of coming under thrall. As a thing in itself social media is a massive misappropriation of the P trait tendency to collate, organize and regiment data; a failed experiment in the same vein as Frankenstein's monster. The potency of the systems designed can affect otherwise intelligent, educated individuals. The comfort zones of self-affirming bubbles, coddled by brain chemistry, is a recipe alluring to much of humanity. Beating an opposing and usually vilified group offers a combative thrill, the domination to be savoured in visceral, blow-by-blow imagery.
The dramatized portion of this documentary harks back to the moral panic films of yore, whereby innocent youth are corrupted by some new malevolence. A lad in high school finds himself radicalized by dogmatic internet propaganda, while his younger sister falls into depression induced by image-conscious anxiety. It's all rather heavy-handed and cheesy, bypassing entirely the fact that much of the nuttier stuff online is promulgated, consumed and acted-upon by adults. Were these hammy cliches replaced by nefarious reconstructions from reality, and further compelling explanations of the technology, The Social Dilemma would have been better for it.
For the power of its explanations, the film's proposed solutions are disappointing: delete your profiles and stop engaging until some sort of regulation is worked out sometime. This is half-arsed and couched in blase safeness given how interviewees predict perpetual unrest and civil wars as a result of divisions supercharged by social media. A catharsis will happen by necessity, but it's clear things must get worse before they get better...