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The Social Dilemma

"If something is a tool it is genuinely just sitting there, waiting, patiently. If something is not a tool, it's demanding things from you. It's seducing you. It's manipulating you. It wants things from you. And we've moved away from having a tools-based technology environment, to a manipulation and addiction based technology environment. That's what's changed." - Tristan Harris, as spoken in The Social Dilemma


Placing my phone beyond reach, I resolved to watch The Social Dilemma without distraction. I paused the film a few times to make notes, including transcribing the quote above, which gets to the core of the matters being addressed. About half-way through I took a break to pee. I checked my phone (D'oh!), had a quick text exchange with my daughter, and resumed my screening. The irony of being unable to sit still and watch a 94-minute movie in which continuous partial attention is a primary topic, without distraction, was not lost on me.


The Social Dilemma may seem to be an odd choice to kick-off Doctober, given my general intention with this challenge (a doc a day, for the month) is to drive attention, mine and yours, to lesser-known productions. It was released on Netflix last week and is, currently, receiving more media coverage than any new feature doc.


Yet, I've been consumed by the subject of "attention" for two decades, since reading Jonathan Crary's Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle and Modern Culture. In this expansive and scholarly book, Crary addresses "the current social crisis of attention amid the accelerating metamorphoses of our contemporary technological culture." It was published in 1999. Facebook launched in 2004.


As with most documentaries that synthesize a plethora of perspectives on a contemporary issue, I wasn't expecting anything new from The Social Dilemma. Just last week I listened to the film's primary speaker, Tristan Harris, cover most of what the film has to offer in a 74-minute conversation on Sam Harris's podcast. And I recently read Anna Wiener's millennial bildungsroman, Uncanny Valley, a memoir in which she grapples with her complicity in the tech sector's pernicious pursuit of our attention:

"It wasn’t just me. Everyone I knew was stuck in a feedback loop with themselves. Technology companies stood by, ready to become everyone’s library, memory, personality. I read whatever the other nodes in my social networks were reading. I listened to whatever music the algorithm told me to. Wherever I traveled on the internet, I saw my own data reflected back at me: if a jade face-roller stalked me from news site to news site, I was reminded of my red skin and passive vanity. If the personalized playlists were full of sad singer-songwriters, I could only blame myself for getting the algorithm depressed." - Anna Weiner, Uncanny Valley, p. 186

Walking "charter'd" streets in a hyper-capitalist London during the Industrial Age, William Blake envisioned "mind-forged manacles" shackling the consciousness of working people. Now it's algorithms, with a vast self-help industry selling mindfulness, deep focus, time-management hacks, habit building, silent retreats, media diets, essentialism, tidying-up, all on offer as a futile means of resistance and escape. Even as I buy into all of it, a glance at the Screen Time app on my iPhone, data shaming myself after diving into Tik-Tok last week, tells me that my attention is the product they are selling, as does The Social Dilemma.


The film is directed by Jeff Orlowski, who broke into the A-list of feature documentary directors following the immense success of Chasing Ice and its sequel, Chasing Coral, founding what seems like a fulsomely-financed and networked production company, Exposure Labs. Surprisingly, The Social Dilemma is a "docu-drama," which I was not expecting. This is a tricky, high-risk form, and more often than not fails. The dramatic thread ventilating the interviews here, a family illustrating and playing out the repercussions of social media addiction, is neither too invasive nor does it add much. Yet, there's a "control room" motif that is clunky and abrasive, not functioning as an elegant dramatic metaphor nor an effective emotional expansion of the ideas put forth by the talking heads. There is also a random animated scene introducing Tristan Harris and an awkward data illustration involving a sneaker, both of which add little visual value. Often I wonder, watching interview-based docs that strain towards the cinematic: Why wasn't this a podcast? That's not necessarily the case here, but.


The Social Dilemma lays out its argument with an impressive "cast" of former tech executives, a few academics, and Jaron Lanier, who by now must have more documentary appearances than even Noam Chomsky. The teaser or whatever that term is for the bit of business that sets the table in the first five minutes in factually formatted docs (is it the "lead"?), positions these speakers as whistleblowers. The conceit seems forced against the stakes for those participating. Tristan Harris, the "closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience" (as per The Atlantic Magazine, via his website's bio), is the central speaker, and he's excellent. I wasn't aware of him until last week, and I won't bring you down the Tristan Harris internet rabbit-hole that followed my viewing of The Social Dilemma. A small personal victory was that I didn't do this "research" whilst simultaneously watching the film, which is what I do most of the time.


Here's the gyst: "It's really bad. It's really really bad." This summary offered by former Facebook executive and billionaire venture capitalist Chamath Palihapitiya, who appears in footage that seems to have been licensed by the production, rather than shot for it. You'll have to watch the film to find out how and why it's so bad, which is all mapped out quite cleanly, cogently, and engagingly. The Social Dilemma is an advocacy documentary. Its metre is apocalyptic shock and awe, as is typical of the genre. It's a documentary financed, designed and marketed for impact, targeted to raising public awareness and informing opinion and policymaking. Also typical of the genre is the utopian breath, the notes of optimism, on which the production concludes. Notable is that many of the tech executives interviewed, having made their fortunes on our addictions to the digital stream, severely limit their own children's access to these perilous waters. But we already knew that from Steve Jobs. Don't get high on your own supply.


Predictably, I've already encountered the usual angst, on social media, that follows when a person realizes that social media is relentlessly invasive and addictive. "I just deleted Instagram!", tweets one such person, after watching The Social Dilemma. We've all been there, repeatedly. In How To Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, published last year (and easily the best book I've read on the subject), Jenny Odell rationalizes a middle-ground:


"Civil disobedience in the attention economy means withdrawing attention. But doing that by loudly quitting Facebook and then tweeting about it is the same mistake as thinking that the imaginary Pera is a real island that we can reach by boat. A real withdrawal of attention happens first and foremost in the mind. What is needed, then, is not a “once-and-for-all” type of quitting but ongoing training: the ability not just to withdraw attention, but to invest it somewhere else, to enlarge and proliferate it, to improve its acuity. We need to be able to think across different time scales when the mediascape would have us think in twenty-four-hour (or shorter) cycles, to pause for consideration when clickbait would have us click, to risk unpopularity by searching for context when our Facebook feed is an outpouring of unchecked outrage and scapegoating, to closely study the ways that media and advertising play upon our emotions, to understand the algorithmic versions of ourselves that such forces have learned to manipulate, and to know when we are being guilted, threatened, and gaslighted into reactions that come not from will and reflection but from fear and anxiety. I am less interested in a mass exodus from Facebook and Twitter than I am in a mass movement of attention: what happens when people regain control over their attention and begin to direct it again, together." - Jenny Odell, How To Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, p. 93

You really should read this book. It's what motivated me to start writing about documentaries and publishing that writing (warts and all) here on the internet, after years of not doing so. I can't complain that the documentaries I'm working on aren't getting any attention, when I'm not personally giving enough attention to a form I truly love and believe in, one with the capacity to convey both truth and beauty, all with the investment of an efficient 90 minutes of my precious time...plus the six I hours I spent setting up this blog and writing above (sorry inbox). I haven't devoted this level of sustained attention to one single task in months. It was excellent. Now, go watch a doc. It's screen time well spent.


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