The Social (Distanced) Dilemma

About two months ago, Netflix released a documentary that somehow manages to feel both perfect for our times and five years too late. The film, titled The Social Dilemma, provides a thorough and incisive look into just how far down the rabbit hole of social media and surveillance capitalism we have plunged within the last decade – to the point, almost, of no return. 

Yes, this is very “we live in a society” of the film. Yet, The Social Dilemma seems to have no real qualms with assuming, or appearing to assume, the role of doom-prophet. Rather, it takes on this role with an alarming fire that makes viewers want to “unplug and run,” as the NY Times puts it. I know I certainly did.

The film is really a milieu of disaster. I mean, an array of 20-30 year-old Silicon Valley tech guys discussing, in great detail, how bad we’ve really got it. How we, and our attention, has become no more than a commodity for the big tech companies to toss back and forth in the schoolyard like evil, avaricious little children. Very smart little children – children who went to Stanford. 

And “we”? We, of course, have no control over this, because these people are also masters in psychology, even if their doctorates happen to be in comp-sci. All we can do is sit back and feebly scroll, as our choices, and our choices’ choices, and our choices’ choices’ choices, ad infinitum, are made for us with every passing second…

Faced with this sort of reality, how do we ever grapple with the pure, unadulterated “truth” – i.e. the stuff that actually happened? How do we ever really “live” – let alone, happily? There must be a change somewhere. But where, exactly? And, God willing, how?

These are the sorts of conclusions The Social Dilemma inclines its viewers to draw, the kinds of questions it provokes them to ask. They can be trite or illuminating – it all depends on the viewer (and what sort of relationship they have with their phone). 

But, despite all this – that is, everything that The Social Dilemma hits on the nose about what it’s like to live in 2020 – there seems to be a few key things that The Social Dilemma misses about what it’s like to live in 2020. For starters, and for finishers, there is no mention of the pandemic throughout the entirety of the film. We cannot blame the film itself for this; it was initially released at Sundance in only late January, when the coronavirus was no more than a mysterious worldly phenomenon. When it did not seem to break one out of every three headlines. 

I don’t have to tell you that we do not live in that world anymore. We live in a world where our daily lives have become entrenched in pandemic living. We have forced ourselves and been forced to change in unique and peculiar ways, whether this comes to our physical, mental, or emotional standards – for many, all three.

What does this mean about our relationship with technology? That thing that, in the “old world”, i.e. pre-March 13th, controlled how we acted and what we wanted? That the producers of this Netflix documentary claim we are ineradicably tethered to until death?

It seems that, during quarantine, we became even more tethered – we defied The Social Dilemma’s expectations with our newfound cosmic boredom. You thought we were addicted to our phones then? Oh, just you wait and see…

Naturally, the next question in this Order of Things would be, “Can you really blame us?” But I think we all already have an idea of an answer to that. There’s no need to formally exculpate ourselves, or search for excuses on why, really, we were on Instagram an average of three hours a day last June. The fact of the matter is that we were, and we have good reason for it, although some of us may not find these reasons individually good enough. 

For many of us, during those dark and gloomy months, social media and our screens were not our distractions from reality, but, rather, the only things that made us feel closer to it. The only thing that kept us completely out of the dark, if it came with a miniature darkness of its own. 

The Social Dilemma fails to consider this because it didn’t have to. But now, we do. 

Consider what, exactly? Well, definitely not that there isn’t something terribly wrong with our relationship with our screens, and with big tech’s relationships with us, and that these relationships shouldn’t be sought to be remedied. But just that, in our current moment in history, the doom-and-gloom perspective might not be the most productive one. Because, as it would turn out, the things that bring us down can sometimes be the things that hold us up, if by a thread, in moments of catastrophe. 

And so, maybe we have to work with Silicon Valley. Maybe a radical new approach isn’t what we need right now, after all. Everything is slower now. Everything is different, the big things and the small. What can we really do? How do we move forward? 

I don’t know. That’s one thing that neither I nor the film have: an answer.