Last week, I finally ponied up the time to watch ‘The Social Dilemma‘, the show on Netflix where various (mostly) middle 30s men engage in lamentation and plead for expiation for the creation of social media (nominally Facebook) that has made them a.) very rich, and b.) given them a permanent spot on the paid lecture circuit to perform this lamentation in public — and now on TV. There are a couple of professors helping out with the sacred rites, who are obviously Skinnerian behavorists. But most of it is scenes of teenagers being scanned into Facebook’s magic computers and thrashing about in increasing depression as the FaceBorg takes over their brains.
I might be being a little histrionic here (I am, actually, but hey — this is my blog) but what the show does do is show what happens when a group of individuals at a certain v-Meme level get together to do a production with a matched v-Meme group of worried prophets (the creators of the beast) and then project that worldview outwards. In this case, the group is highly status-driven, Legalistic Authoritarians — they do have a moral view about how their creation works, and they’re more than happy to stand up and tell people that now, in hindsight (note the poor consequentiality of their thinking process) they see the error in their ways.
And what is, from their v-Meme perspective, the error in their ways? They unleashed a monster onto the world public where people who have no control over their own agency, can be manipulated over time into buying stuff off of Amazon that other people with their same interests want to buy. And in the process, they might discover that their friends, who might even be suburban housewives, like QAnon.
It’s not that the various folks’ observations are totally incorrect — and that’s a big part of the project with criticizing The Social Dilemma. But the view that social media is somehow only unidirectionally causal is the broken viewpoint here. Like Dolly Parton once (potentially aprocryphally) said, “If I didn’t have ’em, I would have had ’em made.” Like it or not social media is emergent out of the world system that we have now. And the fact that people finally refined it and made it so easy to use AND addictive should surprise no one. Remember Myspace? I’ve read software critique pieces about the real reasons that Myspace failed — and it was mostly poor execution. That’s, for good or bad, how tech. works. Round One may suck. But humans, being the clever monkeys they are, come back around and turn the Wright Flyer into a Boeing 747 — if there’s a market. And there was.
The general premise of The Social Dilemma is that Facebook and Twitter invented these machines that collect your personal data, and then mirror that back to you in a not-subtle, manipulative way. In the process, not only do they sell you bike socks you might like (personal confession — I love cool bike socks) but they start slowly, or maybe not-so-slowy aggregating your beliefs as well, feeding you the toxic sludge of whatever side of the political debate you happen to be on. After a while, though you might have been non-political before, you’ve been migrated into what recent fellow podcast guest sharer John Robb calls “Networked Tribes”. John’s an astute fellow, and I’ll write a bit more about him in another piece. At any rate, this Periscope/podcast below held by Twitter pal Adam Townshend has John and me talking about this very issue:
The thing that is problematic is that the same people that created the various beasts are now, supposedly imbued with both agency and insight — things they didn’t have before — loose on the world carrying what is largely a message that social media is addictive, and all the folks out there in the world have no agency and are succumbing to mind control because of it. And the tag-on message is this: THERE IS NO WAY OUT.
Other than the last part, there is a good hunk of truth that social media is addictive. True story — I consider myself somewhat addicted. But I also know that when I’m away from the computer, in the middle of the wilderness, I’m not addicted. I don’t think about what’s happening on my Twitter feed when I’m on the river. Sometimes for obvious reasons.
It’s also true that social media profoundly affects those with low agency — the ability to take information and think for themselves. Especially if the media stream already feeds into their mental models of how the world works. I’ve written a ton, for example, on COVID-19, and I’ve yet to have any professorial colleague come up to me and thank me for my extensive work. Mostly because my work is deep-systemic in nature, and aside from members of the European epidemiological community, the Belief Zeitgeist is that COVID-19 is the Andromeda Strain. And that is decidedly not a view my work supports. I write for our local paper — and yeah, I get a modest amount of hate mail for that viewpoint. From professors.
One of the things that is consistent in this type of criticism is that young people are being programmed to do whatever awful things old people who mostly, in this society, resent young people, can dream up. This kind of projection absolutely drives me nuts. Mostly because a large part of my socialization is with undergraduate college students, who really are, for the most part, decent individuals, though often unruly and poorly raised. And secondly, because I am someone who is paid by society (and young people’s student loans) to engage in that programming. Which mostly doesn’t stick. I’m in year 33 of being a professor at Washington State University, and nothing really works to program young people’s brains with a monolithic worldview. It’s bits and pieces. Life is waiting to take those bits and pieces and consolidate them. And those experiences are largely going to come from the economic system we’ve set up, with its widening income gap and desperate destabilization of folks’ abilities to meet basic needs. That’s the real programming.
No one also seems to be asking what, exactly, does social media provide that gives it an ‘in’ in creating an endless desire for the latest brand of tennis shoe? The answer is obvious — young people use social media for their level of connection, which for many is not deeply meaningful. Yes, young people care about the latest styles of clothes, and trends in music. But many of them care about other things as well — look at things like the Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for the Future, or the Sunrise Movement. A lot of them are not looking forward to a brighter future, and are alternately lashing out, or facing their own depression about their prospects. But the main thing of almost every exchange is still the same. They are looking for others to connect with. We are a social species. And the fact that folks in Silicon Valley have figured out how to both meet, as well as hijack that social need, should surprise no one.
If FaceBorg is not directly causal, as I insist with my argument that young people (as well as all people) have some degree of agency in how they think about things, what exactly is social media? The answer is not simple, but the short version is that for the astute, social media is a sensor network as much as anything that tells us about the state of our society today.
And what does that tell us? It tells us what most of us already know. That we live in a world where our institutions of connection are decaying or collapsing. We live in a world where old modes of social organization that used to supply at least some safety and protection from loneliness are really not doing too well at all. I hesitate to use the standard verbiage “under attack”. It’s not obvious that there is so much an explicit agenda that is causing these problems inasmuch as it is an emergent phenomena, brought on by decaying economies that provide smaller and smaller public spaces, less time for people to connect, and a corrupt body politic that seems to have lost any will for evolving a society for the good of its people.
Social media is not the direct cause of any of this, though it certainly can shine a light on all of it, as well as be used as a tool by the empathy-disordered to create even more of this. The very format of social media — short, poorly empathy informed soundbites — reinforces the Authoritarian Knowledge Structure.
Groups do form that informatically press back against these trends. In a complex society, the emergent power of empathy is always present. In the face of an increasingly status-driven press corps, we see older reporters starting Patreon and Substack accounts for longer form investigative reporting. Complexity and population density demand it.
And social media is what I call a memetic bandwidth amplifier as well. Because of the structure that I discuss in the paragraph above, social media does give the Authoritarians the upper hand. Look at how young the term ‘social media influencer’ is.
But make no mistake — young people, as well as social media, did not create the world we live in. They have simply not had the time to fuck it up. Old people have done that, and they are rigorously averse to assuming responsibilities for their sins, nor using anything resembling acquired wisdom to fix the circumstance. Even a stable school system where kids wouldn’t have to worry about getting shot would be a start, and we can’t even seem to do that. Never mind more advanced concepts of bildung, where we attempt to build integrity, agency and character into our young people – as well as usable life skills and an understanding of history.
What does social media really do? The real victims of The Social Dilemma are not mind-controlled. They are depressed. And that’s what should really worry us. Why are our young people depressed? Could it be because of social media and ad clicks? Or is it due to real things, like imminent poverty, the metabolic syndrome crisis and incumbent problems with obesity, and a lack of meaning and connection? Followers of my blog know I’m solidly in the latter camp. A society that loses the energy of its young people IS in peril of collapse. I have first-hand experience harnessing that energy in my Industrial Design Clinic. When directed with love, it is awesome and awe-inspiring.
Which, unfortunately, the youngish men in The Social Dilemma cannot seem to see. Or at least they never mention it. Their worldview has not fundamentally been changed from their original insulated solipsism. They were responsible for changing the world by inventing social media. And they were the ones that opened the Pandora’s Box. If only they could get the damn thing closed.
But anyone that knows anything about the actual story of Pandora’s Box knows you can’t shut it after all the bad things fly out. And at the end of the story, the only thing left in the box is Hope. Which can be a fine thing. But Hope alone will not suffice. Hope is the desire for change without action. The way the larger mind must deal with the problems exposed both with, and by social media, is to look at the root causes of our problems. And that is something, for a variety of reasons, Silicon Valley is loathe to look at.