Sundance 2020: The Social Dilemma

We live in a world where it is common knowledge that our phones are tracking our every move.

We are like killer whales tagged with homing beacons.

Beacons that may or may not be listening to everything thing we say and pulling personal information from it. Or maybe they don’t even have to because we hand them so much information about our personal lives every second of every day.

But so what? You have nothing to hide. Who cares if they listen to your conversations? I mean… it will only make the ads you were already going to see better, right? Gone are the days of having to watch commercials for products that you care nothing about. Cookies and algorithms will figure out your taste so that you only see what you care about.

These extraordinary algorithms and the computers they run on were built by visionary geniuses and masters of the tech industry with the hopes of connecting people and pushing the world into its next iteration.

But what happens when you can use these pieces of technology for good and for evil… as a tool or a weapon?

The Social Dilemma, a documentary by director Jeff Orlowski that had its world premiere at The 2020 Sundance Film Festival, will explain to you how and why your phone, your computer, and your social media profiles are gathering from you all the information they possibly can. The experts at the center of this enthralling documentary will tell you exactly why you should be terrified of the consequences that come from social media being so seamlessly tied into the fabric of our daily lives.

Orlowski’s earlier, critically-acclaimed documentaries (“Chasing Ice”, “Chasing Coral”) focused their attention on environmental crises – which some might argue is the most pressing dilemma that we face at this moment. While attending Sundance, just hours before the film’s premiere, I sat with Orlowski to ask him about the film and why he found this topic to be important enough to shift his sights from the real world to the digital world.

When I arrive I find Orlowski sitting alone on a long bench inside an empty room at the Sundance Press Offices. The Standford graduate looks surprisingly young for someone who has such an extensive list of accolades as a documentary filmmaker. As we talk he looks at the floor in contemplation before answering each of my questions. He is serious when he speaks but his words come out fast and with excitement. The conviction with which he talks about technology and the problems our world is currently facing because of them draw you in, and I feel less like I am having a conversation about a film focused on social media, and more like I am listening to someone tell me a terrifying story around a campfire.

Orlowski brings this same fervor towards getting his message across in The Social Dilemma. The film never drags or feels overly pontifical. It keeps it’s audience’s attention with a quick, entertaining pace and rewind-worthy quotes given by former heads of their divisions at corporations like Google, Twitter, Facebook, etc.

“This issue of technology is the issue of our time,” Orlowski explains to me. “Climate change and the tech crisis are the two biggest issues that we are facing at the moment.”

He goes on to explain that it was Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google and one of the main subjects of The Social Dilemma, who got him really thinking about what he calls an “existential threat to our civilization that has the potential to rip us all apart.”

As all of the experts in The Social Dilemma explain, we have already begun to see the true potential for catastrophe that social media has to rot on the world. Because all those algorithms designed and built with the idea of targeting consumers with the perfect advertisement or helping users to connect with like-minded individuals about any topic under the sun have now grown too large for their creators to control. Today, the data that they mine from our profiles, our clicks, our likes, and any other way they can get it is available to anyone who is willing to pay for it, no matter how divisive or nefarious their intentions might be.

An example that Orlowski brings up in our conversation is that in the past year multiple publications have revealed that popular apps for tracking a woman’s menstrual cycle share the information they mine from their users with Facebook. These apps also collect and share information about the last time a user has had sex, their mood, their weight, etc.

Facebook and Tinder also share information with one another.

So let’s say in this period-tracking app a user puts that they are single, they’re feeling a little bit depressed, and that you haven’t slept with someone in [insert whatever a dry spell looks like for you here]… this information could then tell Tinder that the user is vulnerable, susceptible to advertisements, and it’s time to start ramping up their notifications and pushes to that specific user.

Orlowski goes on to tell me that sites like Facebook, Instagram and Amazon can even see how long you stay locked on to a specific picture or ad to help them best track your shopping habits and interests.

Therein lies the problem because if Facebook is getting information from an app that lets them know when you are feeling down in the dumps and they can also see your shopping habits, they have the potential to understand if you shop more or less when you are feeling depressed and this could motivate their actions, which could inevitably motivate the kinds of ads you see and the amount you’ll see them when you are feeling happy or sad.

Here’s what’s even more troubling…

We are all both consumers and products to companies like Facebook. So a company’s goal would be to keep us buying as much as possible and regulating how, why, when, and what we buy. So it stands to reason that if you buy more things online when you’re feeling depressed, and these companies have access to the things that could make you happy (likes, hearts, matches, etc.) what’s to stop them from using all of their resources to keep you from being happy so that you will continue to try and fill the void in your poor little heart by buying.more.shit?

Fish in a barrel.

There’s so much more though…

“One of the issues we speak about in the film that worries me the most,” Orlowski continues, “is the fact that our technology decides the menu that we get to make all of life’s choices from.”

“You can go to a restaurant and look over the menu and think that you have free will over what you are choosing to eat but someone else decided what was going to be on that menu. Our technology is doing that with information. If you go to Google and search for things related to climate change, it gives you different responses based on what it thinks you are looking for – based on what it THINKS you’ll want.”

They put this idea to the test in The Social Dilemma and the results from computer to computer have astonishingly different responses to the same search query.

“So now it doesn’t matter if the information is true or not, it’s simply what was picked to be on the menu according to what a computer thinks you want. The computer thinks ‘I’m showing you this because of what I know about you. Based on the fact that you liked (X), and you clicked on (X), and you engaged with someone like this, these are the results that will be of the most interest to you and people like you.’ Regardless if it’s true or accurate information.”

“If that’s how everyone is getting their information and their news then that’s, in my mind, why everything is as polarized as it is now. This technology optimizes for divisiveness because the decisiveness makes the companies more money.”

Divide and conquer.

Each of us getting our own type of reality that the computer thinks we want until it becomes what we want. Our own individual echo chambers. Truth be damned.

“The beautiful thing about AI is that it’s fantastic at finding patterns but this AI is in the hands of people that are trying to sell us more products. The most magnificent and powerful technology the world has ever seen and it’s not being used to stop climate change or cure cancer. It’s being used to manipulate us.”

The Social Dilemma is an important documentary for anyone who wants to understand how targeted ads, the dissemination of news via the internet, and social media are being used as weapons to control us – and the information comes straight from the top.

Or maybe it doesn’t. Maybe I am just writing a bunch of nonsense and passing it off as gospel. Maybe I never even talked to Orlowski. You know what they say… you can’t believe everything that you read on the internet.

Image courtesy of Sundance.

Stay tuned to Milk for more Sundance 2020 updates.

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