2020-10-24 The Social Dilemma

OK, so I’ve seen “The Social Dilemma”. I felt I needed to watch it because I saw people caring about privacy and civil rights talking about it and saying it would be a good introduction to the problem we’re facing for friends and family – and recently I had friends recommend it to me and my wife, too! What a strange position to find myself in.

I agree with @cidney’s take:

Mixed feelings. I just saw the Social Dilemma last night. I didn’t learn anything new from it (this is old hat to anyone on fedi), but it’s aimed at a popular, nontechnical audience, and critiquing capitalism would have been out of scope and made it more polarizing.

It’s true. At multiple times I wondered: why isn’t anybody saying that the problem is capitalism? When they say the sector needs regulation, in a hand-waving kind of way, I wondered: why aren’t we simply breaking these companies apart? The US broke appart Standard Oil and the US broke appart AT&T. I got that idea from Cory Doctorow’s little booklet, “How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism.”

The idea that “if you’re not paying for the product, you’re the product,” suggests the simplistic solution of just charging for everything. But the reality is that in a monopoly, you’re the product irrespective of whether you’re paying.

And more: we could force these companies to pay their taxes. We could force them to implementations the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and then we could make the GDPR better. There are options that don’t require Silicon Valley technology: they require state that isn’t coopted and divided by the big companies.

I got that from @aral who said, “Don’t ask me if I’ve watched The Social Dilemma if you haven’t read The Prodigal Tech Bro.” He was talking about an article by Maria Farrell criticising the fact, that the protagonists of this documentary are the very same people that gave us this shit!

The Prodigal Tech Bro is a similar story, about tech executives who experience a sort of religious awakening. They suddenly see their former employers as toxic, and reinvent themselves as experts on taming the tech giants. They were lost and are now found. They are warmly welcomed home to the center of our discourse with invitations to write opeds for major newspapers, for think tank funding, book deals and TED talks. These guys – and yes, they are all guys – are generally thoughtful and well-meaning, and I wish them well. But I question why they seize so much attention and are awarded scarce resources, and why they’re given not just a second chance, but also the mantle of moral and expert authority.

Previously, all I had read was Jonathan Cook’s summary of the situation, recommended to my by @LydiaConwell. Cook makes a good point: the solution to the problem isn’t simply censorship. I’m sure that’s one of the possible solutions to the problem, but I also don’t want to live behind the Chinese firewall with censors and snitches and police everywhere. We had fascism in Europe and it wasn’t pretty. We tried the censorship of books in the past and it wasn’t good, either. The idea that we can simply label what is true and what is not is a tricky one. Some things are easy to dispell, but we need more than that.

… it is easy to know that Flat Earthers are spreading misinformation, it is far harder to be sure what is true and what is false in many others areas of life. Recent history suggests our yardsticks cannot be simply what governments say is true … Technological digital breakthroughs allowed someone like Julian Assange to set up a site, Wikileaks, that offered us a window on the real political world – a window through we could see our leaders behaving more like psychopaths than humanitarians.

That is a good point. The solution is probably going to be multi-pronged: we want there to be more competition, we want the to be more points of view, less of a winner-takes-all system, less automatic bubble-forming, less algorithmic recommendations, and so on. All of these require legal backup. We need to break up the big companies, we need to hold them responsible for algorithms causing harm, and so on. I don’t have a program ready to share, but what I do know is that in The Social Dilemma, when they suggest that they need to do better, I’m thinking: perhaps there are solutions that don’t involve Silicon Valley and software engineers and we should make sure to try those, too.

The problem I see is “solutionism”. If the social media train wreck is a problem that only software engineers can solve, well then that’s perfect: a new market jumps into existence. Companies can write software to fix the problem, can sell the solution, and in the end the same people stay in power, the same market forces continue to pull us appart, and the fiasco is simply delayed.

And so we come to Jonathan Cook’s conclusion, which is spot on, for the long term:

The multiple ways in which we are damaging the planet – destroying forests and natural habitats, pushing species towards extinction, polluting the air and water, melting the ice-caps, generating a climate crisis – have been increasingly evident since our societies turned everything into a commodity that could be bought and sold in the marketplace. … It is an ideological conspiracy, of at least two centuries’ duration, by a tiny and ever more fabulously wealth elite to further enrich themselves and to maintain their power, their dominance, at all costs. … Its name is the ideology that has become a black box, a mental prison, in which we have become incapable of imagining any other way of organising our lives, any other future than the one we are destined for at the moment. That ideology’s name is capitalism.

The question is just: how do we deal with it?

The movie is a good starting point, but I’m going to involve people who watched it following my recommendation in a follow-up discussion! 😀



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