by Jonathan Cook
Part 2 - Children as guinea pigs
Although not flagged as such, The Social Dilemma divides into three chapters.
The first, dealing with the argument we are already most familiar with, is that social media is a global experiment in altering our psychology and social interactions, and our children are the main guinea pigs. Millennials (those who came of age in the 2000s) are the first generation that spent their formative years with Facebook and MySpace as best friends. Their successors, Generation Z, barely know a world without social media at its forefront.
The film makes a relatively easy case forcefully: that our children are not only addicted to their shiny phones and what lies inside the packaging, but that their minds are being aggressively rewired to hold their attention and then make them pliable for corporations to sell things.
Each child is not just locked in a solitary battle to stay in control of his or her mind against the skills of hundreds of the world’s greatest software engineers. The fight to change their perspective and ours – the sense of who we are – is now in the hands of algorithms that are refined every second of every day by AI, artificial intelligence. As one interviewee observes, social media is not going to become less expert at manipulating our thinking and emotions, it’s going to keep getting much, much better at doing it.
Jaron Lanier, one of the computing pioneers of virtual reality, explains what Google and the rest of these digital corporations are really selling: “It’s the gradual, slight, imperceptible change in your own behaviour and perception – that is the product.” That is also how these corporations make their money, by “changing what you do, what you think, who you are.”
They make profits, big profits, from the predictions business – predicting what you will think and how you will behave so that you are more easily persuaded to buy what their advertisers want to sell you. To have great predictions, these corporations have had to amass vast quantities of data on each of us – what is sometimes called “surveillance capitalism”.
And, though the film does not quite spell it out, there is another implication. The best formula for tech giants to maximise their predictions is this: as well as processing lots of data on us, they must gradually grind down our distinctiveness, our individuality, our eccentricities so that we become a series of archetypes. Then, our emotions – our fears, insecurities, desires, cravings – can be more easily gauged, exploited and plundered by advertisers.
These new corporations trade in human futures, just as other corporations have long traded in oil futures and pork-belly futures, notes Shoshana Zuboff, professor emeritus at Harvard business school. Those markets “have made the internet companies the richest companies in the history of humanity”.