The Social Delusion
How technology subjugates psychology.
Posted Sep 18, 2020
The latest slab of self-aggrandizement from Silicon Valley has arrived in a documentary entitled The Social Dilemma. The chiefs of monetization now want to repent for the monster they spent their 20s creating. They have developed ‘ethical concerns’ about the ‘unintended consequences’ of building Skynet for vulture … I mean, venture capitalists. The documentary is timely as the U.S. enters the election cycle under the shadow of misinformation campaigns, Senate hearings on the responsibilities of social media, and civil unrest. In this post, I describe both the real and the fatuous claims made about the effects of the technological mediations we employ on our social relations.
People who work in the Silicon Valley are quick to establish that their goals as programmers and executives were to make the world a better place, or some such panegyric to the wonders of exponentially growing computing power. The vain self-delusion of moral rectitude is a marvel, because the fact is, intention of the creator does not encapsulate the uses of the creation. To think otherwise demonstrates the great tragedy of Silicon Valley: it lacks humility. The stated intention of the creators did not appropriately ascertain the effects of the creation upon the mental health of individuals, and the social body politic. We are paying now not only for this hubris but also for our willingness to buy in.
Digital life is both the utopic ease of commercial transactions and access to information, and a dystopic gobbler of time, virally infecting the nature of our relations to each other. More freedoms to see, hear, interact, and efficiently produce labor are available, while at the same time there is less freedom to reflect and go outside to experience the light leisure of being. The medium in this case is a self-destructing message.
Many of the documentary’s claims, about how we are being surveilled, about how our attention is the product, and about collusion between state and private companies, are familiar by now. Jaron Lanier philosophizes that the purpose of this industry is the imperceptible change of behavior over time. S. Zuboff grandiosely intones how human futures are being traded on the market, and the lackluster protagonist T. Harris describes how our behaviors are modeled into voodoo doll doppelgangers by all-powerful machine-learning algorithms whose goals are simply engaging users, growing the brand, and finding places to insert advertisements.
At this point, it is important to point out an element of the situation that is played down in this analysis. The tech industry is a part of an economic superstructure of corporations, profit margins, boards of investors, and global finance; of capitalism. As an analogue to Dobzhansky’s witticism that nothing makes sense in biology without the concept of evolution, it must be said that nothing makes sense in America without the concept of capitalism.
The focus, then, is turned to how Silicon Valley companies were able to create tools to manipulate users. The new persuasion technologies are said to be more powerful than the brain, described as ‘old hardware.’ It is claimed that the tech industry through social media is able to overpower, and thus exploit, human nature. An analogy is made between phone use and drug addiction, with vague reference to the neurotransmitter dopamine. Much can be said about how these technologies appropriate knowledge gained in the field of psychology. But the big question here is, who is responsible for the effects of technologies that change our social, economic, and personal lives? Is it the companies themselves who are run purely to generate profit? Unlikely. Is it the government who has colluded with these companies to collect personal information and create technology that is being used by the military-industrial complex? Maybe. Is it the responsibility of the people who are now partially subjugated to these programs for their very social and economic well-being?
If our era has one dominant cultural metaphor, it is sad to admit that it is the sloppy teenage sci-fi movie, The Matrix (1999). This re-boot of Descartes’ daemon scenario speaks to people raised in the digital age. I believe the reason why is that Keanu’s scenario disavows both reality and, since it is a simulation, our responsibility for creating it. At the same time this ethical position places the proverbial power in the hands of the programmers of the simulation. That is, The Matrix endorses both the cynicism and the megalomania of the engineers and consumers of digital treacle, while rendering engagement a muddle-headed romantic illusion.
And so, it is ironic to observe a new rash of cultural productions that assimilate the critique of digital culture, of attention merchants, surveillance capitalism, and digital ethicists of AI. This critique includes books and articles on the unintended consequences of transferring our public, social lives from face-to-face to screen-to-screen. The consequences we now know stretch from the personal in body dysmorphic syndromes, feelings of loneliness and isolation, and a notable lack of socialization, to the social ills of chaos and tribalism generated in the echo chamber of a social media that has colonized public space with misinformation.
Our reality is distorted by the medium through which we interact with the world. The symbolic interactionists like George Herbert Mead wrote about this in regards to early anthropology, which brought home the relativism of cultural forms. Then we understood through Marshall McCluhan and others that media was not a transparent medium, that despite the distortions baked into such structures we act within the available avenues. The creators of the medium, working under capitalist notions of production, did not sufficiently take into account the ethical ramifications of their creation. Nor have public institutions stepped in enough, nor have individuals asserted control over the platforms of their social networks.
The Silicon bros made algorithms to trace behavior, they enabled more avenues for specular entertainment, and built platforms for every possible form of social transaction. I think this is the crucial point: before the modern era, relations between people arose organically in a local and regional setting, there is a history to these relations and a purpose that melds social, personal, and economic interests therein. When these relations become abstracted in the modern age of technology through scaling up into larger units, individuals in fact end up with less control over the consequences of social affiliation.
It seems to be true that technological innovation under the umbrella of capitalist production has unleashed a digital Frankenstein that responds to our behaviors and in exchange reserves the right to modify them. Unfortunately, this creature was not designed to, and is thus not equipped to, curb its effects upon the psyche of individuals. In addition, though I have not engaged these issues here, the consequences extend to fair and just mass employment in the post-industrial age, and the educational role of media in a democracy. The question we must answer now is, how do we act upon our responsibility for this latest episode in the history of human vanity?
The Social Dilemma (2020). director, J. Orlowski. Netflix.