More than tools: who is responsible for the social dilemma?

The Social Dilemma has been causing a stir, somewhat ironically, on social media lately. While the film’s topic is timely, and explored with applaudable intentions, its subject matter is mishandled. For all of its values, and all of its flaws, the film’s diagnosis of social media is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of technology. Its recommended path to recovery, as a result, leads to a dead-end. Until we think of technology not as a tool but as a set of relations, we will never truly grasp the problems with which The Social Dilemma is concerned.

Jim Dine, 1973, "No Title"
Jim Dine, 1973, “No Title”

This feature length documentary turns primarily to tech industry insiders, as well as a few computer scientists, economists, and social psychologists, to spell out the dangers, which appear to be many, of our current entwinement with social media platforms today.

Glitzy infographics correlate the advent of social media with increased anxiety, depression, and self-harm in US teenagers – supposedly because platforms so easily allow us to compare ourselves to one another online. Sliding scales represent how the algorithmic filtering of information on social media increases political polarization – by only presenting self-reinforcing information to users, so it goes, social media are damaging to rational deliberation. And, in a rather confusing turn, human actors personify the technological nudges of the social media user interfaces – showing how our actions, and our very thoughts, are shaped by persuasive computer design.

The Social Dilemma argues that social media platforms are designed to manipulate us, capturing our attention for their economic gain. The longer we interact with platforms, the more data we produce, the more accurate a prediction of our behaviours can be established. These user profiles can then be sold individually or as part of demographics to marketers and advertisers wishing to reach specific audiences online.

To guard against such dangers, the documentary implores viewers to “take back control” of their lives online. A little self-discipline in how we use social media can help – limit your time spent scrolling? Turn off your push-notifications? Perhaps don’t stalk your ex’s new life, zombie-like, right before bed? However, while such actions are a start, the film’s experts argue, full control can only be achieved through complete disconnection from social media altogether.

Notwithstanding the validity of the “evidence” the documentary mobilises to justify its claims, or its tendency to trust those in the tech industry to know how to mend what they themselves have wrought, The Social Dilemma actually reveals a bigger issue at the core of our relationship with social media – one that individual, behavioural changes alone won’t fix. In our debates surrounding the impacts, potentials and perceivable “dangers” of social media today, we continue to rely upon an out-dated and redundant “tool-view” of technology.

To anyone who has paid even the scantest notice of the news in recent years, the negative effects of social media and the attention economy– in personal, political, and social spheres, are easily grasped. But the way The Social Dilemma makes its case for “manipulation” is flawed, obscuring the real, and much more profound, stakes of our deal with social media today.

To be “manipulated” suggests that users are being diverted from a course of action they would otherwise have taken. This implies a pre-existing individual, already happily furnished with their own desires, and with full capacity to enact them as they please. Social media, in this framework, is the diverting, deceiving technology that takes individuals away from their “true” interests. By falling prey to the nudges of social media, and giving in completely to what they are predicted to want, users are stopped from acting wilfully, as they otherwise would.

Yet when have human beings ever been fully and perfectly in control of the technologies around them? Is it not rather the case that technologies, far from being separate from human will, are intrinsically involved in its activation?

French philosopher Bruno Latour famously uses the example of the gun to advance this idea, which he calls mediation. We are all aware of the platitude, “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people”. In its logic, the gun is simply a tool that allows the person, as the primary agent, to kill another. The gun exists only as an object, through which the person’s desire of killing flows. For Latour, this view is deeply misleading.

Instead, Latour draws our attention to the way the gun, in translating a human desire for killing into action, materializes that desire in the world: “you are a different person with the gun in your hand”[1], and the gun, by being in your hand, is different than if it were left snuggly in its rack. Only when the human intention and the capacities of the gun are brought together can a shooting, as an observably autonomous action, actually take place. It is impossible to neatly distinguish the primary agents of the scene. Responsibility of the shooting, which can only occur through the combination of human and gun, and by proxy, those who produced and provided it, is thus shared.

With this in mind, we must question how useful it is to think about social media in terms of manipulation and control. Social media, far from being a malicious yet inanimate object (like a weapon) is something more profound and complex: a generator of human will. Our interactions on social media platforms, our likes, our shares, our comments, are not raw resources to be mined – they simply could not have occurred without their technical mediation. Neither are they mere expressions of our autonomy, or, conversely, manipulation: the user does not, and cannot, act alone.

Instead, with this idea of mediation, neither human individuals, nor the manipulative design of platforms, seductive they may be, can be the sole causes of the psychological and political harm of social media. Rather, it is the coming together of human users and user-interfaces, in specific historical settings, that co-produce the activity that occurs upon them. We, as users, as much as the technology itself, therefore, share responsibility for the issues that rage online today.

However, we are not responsible in the terms of control that the talking heads of The Social Dilemma argue for. This is certainly not to side-step the culpability of those (overwhelmingly white, male Californians) who own, design, and release social media technologies. Understanding who profits from social media, and the normative cultural worldviews they peddle, is crucial. Rather, in recognising the complexity of this “socio-technical” relationship – between designers, users, interfaces, and algorithms – we can move beyond the unhelpful binary of cause and effect. A move away from deterministic thinking would widen our view, to consider the problems raised in The Social Dilemma in a more nuanced way.

For example, rather than seeing the ostensible crisis in mental health faced by teenagers as caused by social media self-comparison, we can investigate how other socio-political factors –  gender, race, and class inequities for instance, material conditions, as well as actual governmental policy decisions, entangle with social media to contribute to our feelings of individual and collective wellbeing. As opposed to considering social media filter bubbles and echo chambers as causing political polarization (as if it were merely a matter of access to the right information), we can instead ask in what ways our fractured political climate actually reflects the systemic failures of neoliberal ideology, lasting institutional racism, and patriarchal nation-statehood.

If we are to pursue these more complex, more progressive, discussions, it is necessary to re-frame social media as something more than a mere “tool”. Rather than simply leave it to former tech industry insiders to spell out the ills of social media in documentaries like The Social Dilemma, we must engage with thinkers from a diverse range of backgrounds to look to the historical conditions of social media’s origins, while always questioning the economics and cultural politics of its global dissemination.  We must personally examine how our own thoughts and actions are subtly shaped by social media’s design, while taking time to listen to marginalized individuals and communities who are impacted the most by the violence produced through social media today. And by seeing technology as a relation, by sharing responsibility in this way, we lift the burden of fixing the problem from the individual user alone, and discard the moralizing discourses such a burden brings.


[1] Latour, B. (1994) On Technical Mediation Common Knowledge Fall Vol.3, no 2. Pp. 32-33

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