Recommended: The Social Dilemma
Data protection concerns each and every one of us – and our shared future. Not sure why? The Social Dilemma breaks it down for you.
What does it matter if social platforms monitor, track and profit off my online behavior? If this question has slipped into your dinner table conversation ever-so-briefly, or perhaps crossed your mind as you wondered what “cookies” actually mean and accepted none the wiser, you are probably familiar with the following arguments. 1) “It’s free so isn’t that a worthy trade-off anyway?” 2) “It doesn’t matter because I have nothing to hide.” As much as these lines sound justifying, I dare you to dig a little deeper and ask yourself whether they stand up to scrutiny.
Admittedly, I used to believe that when my data was shared with third parties, the biggest risk was the persistent ads for gardening tools that haunted my digital life as a result of Googling “how to mix plant soil”. Or, worst-case scenario, a far-right elite overthrows the government and, upon gaining access to my online history, deems me an enemy of the state – and I suffer consequences far worse than pop-up ads. Nonetheless, I figured I would take my chances because there seemed to be far more pressing issues in this world.
However, I would soon realize that many of these issues were impossible to separate from the question of data protection.
With the rise of social media and web 2.0, there seemed to be endless potential for value creation. The world as we knew it was changing and it was happening at an unfathomable pace. No time to take a step back to question whether exponential technological advancements could do more harm than good if we didn’t tread carefully. After all, the only way is forward, isn’t it? But as we’re venturing into web 3.0 accompanied by filter bubbles, fake news, polarization, cyberattacks, surveillance capitalism and tech addiction, we have arrived at a point in time that proves otherwise.
At the forefront of this debate is Tristan Harris. Before he dedicated his career to “studying how today’s major technology platforms have increasingly become the social fabric by which we live and think, wielding dangerous power over our ability to make sense of the world”, he worked as a design ethicist at Google. Becoming aware of his own reliance on the service he was developing, Harris wondered why measures to prevent addiction had yet to be implemented or even discussed. Clearly, it was a problem. So, why wasn’t anyone talking about it? And how did we get to the point where 30 designers are influencing the minds of two billion users, driving them to obsession?
Harris’ story is the starting point for The Social Dilemma. What follows is an impressive collection of perspectives, including Jaron Lanier (computer scientist and founding father of virtual reality), Shoshana Zuboff (Professor at Harvard Business School and author of ‘The Age of Surveillance Capitalism’) and Tim Kendall (Former Director of Monetization at Facebook and Former President of Pinterest), to name a few. Beyond the eerie music, which is a Netflix documentary staple, lies the far more dystopian truth. In the span of 90 minutes, various industry voices unpack how big tech companies manipulate their users in the name of profits, often with detrimental consequences.
The documentary illustrates how social platforms are powered by algorithms that favor profit over ethical concerns. For example, if radicalisation leads to more engagement and time spent on the platform, the algorithm will continue to push increasingly provoking content. Whether this leads to filter bubbles, conspiracy theories and polarization does not matter in the eyes of the algorithm. Its primary objective is to find the right content that will keep up numbers, and oftentimes, this does not align with what the user actually wants or benefits from. For the same reason, we see fake news spreading faster than real news.
There is a fierce game for user attention, where the playing cards take the form of notifications, infinite scroll, likes, and shocking content. And what does the playbook say? More time spent on the platform equals more ad revenue, with each paid promotion the user is exposed to. Successfully persuading the user to spend time on the platform is also rewarded with access to more personal data, as every action is carefully monitored and recorded. The information is then fed into systems that make assumptions about that user’s behavior, predicting everything from which ads they are likely to click on to what kind of content is likely to trigger a specific action. Congrats! This is information you can trade for monopoly money.
In other words, the question is not so much whether you have something to hide, but what happens to your seemingly “harmless” information which is harvested and sold. With every user that signs away their personal data for “free access” to these social platforms, we simultaneously give away power to corporations that can put our democracy at risk. How can we run representative elections when people vote based on misinformation? How do we solve universal challenges such as climate change if we’re experiencing increased polarization? How can society progress if people’s opinions are never challenged because their subjective truth is always validated in echo chambers?
Technology in itself can be a wonderful tool for human empowerment but, as Harris points out, a tool is not something that demands your time and uses you. But this is exactly what happens when data collection continues to be largely unregulated, and what we get in return is simply what we believe to be entertainment. However, there is another alternative and if you’re ready to start your conscious technology journey, The Social Dilemma is the perfect starting point.
For non-Netflix users, I would recommend this excellent TedX talk produced by Harris: