Four Surprising Keys to Resolving “The Social Dilemma”
*Spoiler alert*: This article contains mild spoilers about the new Netflix documentary “The Social Dilemma”.
My wife and I sat down to watch the new Netflix documentary “The Social Dilemma” last night. The dilemma at the heart of the movie is simple. On the one hand, the internet is undoubtedly moving us toward an almost utopian society where everything we want and need is just one click away, On the other, the deliberate manipulation of our psyches to maximize profits is rife for dystopian abuse from both power-hungry politicians and corporations who “just” want to get as much of our money as possible.
Our own comic attempts to not check our own phones as they dinged with alerts and notifications provided a perfect soundtrack to the movie’s explanations of how we (and the 3.6 billion other regular users of social media) were deliberately being manipulated into spending as much time as possible engaging with our screens.
While the movie did a fairly good job of explaining both the deliberately addictive nature of social media and the potential ramifications for both families and society as a whole, solutions ran short on the ground until the closing credits. In a series of 5–10 second vignettes, the film’s interviewees, many of whom were directly involved in creating and enhancing the algorithms at the heart of the dilemma, shared their best ideas for how to move forward.
Those ideas fit broadly into two categories:
A common theme in the advice given at the end was that external regulation is not just a good idea, it’s an absolute necessity. At the macro level, that means government oversight of giant tech companies like Amazon, Google, Facebook, and Twitter. And for families, parental regulation and oversight of screen time, including banning access to social media apps before high school, when the brain is more fully developed, is key to protecting your children’s mental health.
Interestingly, self-regulation turns out not to be much of an option. In one of the documentaries more graphic demonstrations, it shows a “tween” breaking into the kitchen safe to rescue her smart phone while various tech CEO’s and founders bemoan their utter inability to regulate their own app usage. As one of the interviewees points out, it’s your willpower versus a set of algorithms created by experts in the science of persuasion which have been studying your personal psychology every minute you’ve spent online over the past ten years or so and coming up with ways to manipulate people in general and you in particular. No matter how disciplined you think yourself to be, it’s just not a fair fight.
2. Deletion and De-notification
Steve Jobs famously described computers as “like a bicycle for the mind”, but in the movie, it’s pointed out that bicycles don’t reach out to you every 30 seconds to say “ride me!” In line with that, the other consistent piece of advice from the tech experts was that if you weren’t able or willing to delete the apps, you can always turn off notifications, which by design offer a kind of “intermittent reward” pattern reminiscent of Pavlov’s dogs who salivated every time they heard a bell. You can also not accept recommendations from the algorithms about which video to watch next and what else you might like to look at given your apparent preferences.
The key is to treat your devices more like bicycles (things that will help you get from wherever you are to wherever you want to go) and less like friends, who keep you company when you’re sad, entertain you when you’re bored, and have your back by agreeing with you whenever you’re upset and angry.
Which brings us to two more keys to protecting yourself from the downsides of online addiction while still being able to use your favorite app to order food to be delivered as you continue reading this article…
3. Don’t believe everything you see
Over the past five years or so, I’ve heard more and more people use the phrases “I did my research” or the generally more pointed “Do your research!” when commenting about things they heard about online. While in the past, research was the domain of PhD students and generally involved trips to public and private libraries, nowadays the phrase almost always means following links that were recommended to you and/or typing a query into Google.
But one of the more fascinating bits of the documentary was the explanation of how two people sitting next to each other and typing the exact same query into a search engine could be taken to completely different search results, depending on what the algorithm has recorded their interests and preferences to be. And people who feel strongly about things will invariably recommend articles that back their pre-existing views. This is generally called “confirmation bias” and can be summed up in what the writer Robert Anton Wilson coined as “Orr’s Law” — Whatever the thinker thinks, the prover proves.
So when our definition of research is “google it” and/or “follow links your friends send you”, our research will inevitably lead us further and further into the rabbit hole of your already existing beliefs and inclinations. Which is why two people who have only slightly different social, political, or religious views before they begin doing their “research” will often end up at opposite ends of the spectrum by the time they’re done.
Remember, the internet in general (and social media in particular) is designed as a kind of hall of mirrors, blinding you with infinite reflections of what you already think. So trying to use the internet to find out what’s really going on in the world is like staring into a bathroom mirror to see what’s going on outside your house. No matter how sincere your efforts, it’s simply the wrong tool for the job.
Here are a few of my favorite ways of escaping the hall of mirrors and shining the flashlight of our attention towards more universal truths:
a) Deliberately consume at least one news source on a regular basis that comes from a different political point of view than yours
b) Read the holy books from religions other than your own. If you’re open to all religious points of view, get stuck in to “The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins or pretty much anything by Christopher Hitchens
c) Find at least one person who you respect who disagrees with you and spend time with them with the deliberate intention of seeing something new
4. Don’t believe everything you think
In Creating the Impossible, I share one of my favorite stories about the painter Pablo Picasso, who was reportedly traveling on a train with a wealthy businessman who criticized his art as being ‘unrealistic’. When Picasso asked him to explain, the businessman took a photograph of his wife from his wallet. “This is my wife, as she is!’, he exclaimed.
Picasso examined the photograph and then commented wryly: “She’s very small, your wife. And a bit flat.”
Metaphorically speaking, thought is the paint with which our personal reality is created. We think and speak that paint onto the canvas of our minds and then experience the painting as if it’s real. But no matter how many times we’ve painted the same picture, it’s still just one of a million possible pictures that could be painted on that blank canvas. And no matter how ‘photo-realistic’ our preferences are, they’re still made up and painted by us. They’re a representation of a possible reality — one tiny sliver of an infinite creative potential.
When we put too much stock in our own ideas and beliefs, we lose out on the possibility to see anew. And as we start to see the thought-created nature of our personal reality and the reflective nature of social media more clearly, we hold on to our beliefs and identities a little more loosely.
Because we’re less inclined to fight with or argue against something we know is primarily being used to hook our attention, we’re less triggered by everything we see. We find ourselves falling into a more reflective space and beginning to think truly original thoughts for ourselves.
Meanwhile, even as we log in and out of the reflective illusion of the internet, the nature of the cosmos itself remains unchanged. The stillness at the heart of the entire universe is undisturbed, because it is everything and everywhere and by its very nature un-disturbable. And recognizing this, even in some small way, allows us to live with greater peace, more contentment, and an ever-expanding sense of humility and awe that we get to play a role in the unfolding.
As the novelist Marcel Proust wrote:
“The only true voyage of discovery… would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to behold the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to behold the hundred universes that each of them beholds, that each of them is.”
And this is, perhaps, the true gift of social media and the resolution of the social dilemma — the opportunity to experience the world through the eyes of another without ever losing sight of our own home.
Michael Neill is an international thought leader and master coach, challenging the cultural mythology that stress and struggle are a prerequisite to creativity, happiness, and success. As the founder and CEO of Genius Catalyst Inc., Michael’s mission is to unleash the human potential with intelligence, humor, and heart.
To learn more about Michael and his work, visit www.michaelneill.org or join the nearly two million people who have enjoyed his TEDx talks Why Aren’t We Awesomer? and Can a TEDx Talk Really Change the World?