As technology advances, aspects of our lives have been progressively become more public and vulnerable. While these technological progress is necessary, we often look over how much we depend on these technologies and how much the technology itself take away from us. It is ideal to think of technology as something that would make our lives easier, but recent advancements in the aptly named “Information Age,” it seems that humans are the ones being sold for their important data. It is deeply unsettling that this human made creation has become the ones controlling our lives, controlling what we view and affecting what we think. In the documentary “The Social Dilemma,” this problem is outlined through examples of how social media has been controlling us over the years, and problems that arose because of it.
In my personal experience, I’ve seen such influence of social media over political opinion and action on a famous forum website called “Reddit.” In reddit, there are different “subreddits” that users can subscribe to discuss specific subjects, from a specific video game to political opinions. In addition to this subscription service, the users can either “upvote” or “downvote” posts they approve or disprove, adding/subtracting 1 from their current post votes. Then, the algorithm arranges the recent high-upvoted post and shapes it into the subreddit’s “hot” page that most viewers browse in. This system of promoting like opinions in combination with the segregation of communities results in an echo chamber that promotes political extremism that results in bigotry and hate speech. As seen on r/The_Donald, a community based on supporting the current United States president Donald Trump, had multiple racist, homophobic posts that were then promoted for people to see due to its amount of upvotes. In particular, a post in 2017 with an image of a political cartoon with the title of “But hey, it wasn’t all bad. In the end a Muslim was shot” amassed 9500 upvotes in the span of 8 hours due to this terrible phenomenon. This is what the documentary, “The Social Dilemma,” believes is wrong with the current management of internet technology. Due to an unfortunate consequence caused by trying to keep users online, communities suffer from polarization, and the users become more radicalized.
In the documentary, I noticed other harmful aspects of modern social media. Many of the social media platforms such as Instagram or Facebook rely on three protocols to achieve its goal of maximizing revenue: Engagement, Advertisement, and Growth, all being run by algorithms. Due to the lack of ethical considerations, many of these protocols tend to be manipulative due to its priority of maximizing user retention. Tristan Harris, an ex-engineer of Google has expressed concern of the design of these services that big tech companies provide. He urges that the advances that these companies such as Google and Facebook takes should be considered ethically, and how small decisions become out of control just because of the sheer nature of internet platforms, and their motivation to keep the users on the site for as long as possible. He claims that this greed for revenue should not be before the transparency and ethical design of the whole system. This was the main driving force for him quitting his job and setting up a company focused on bringing ethical design to the tech industry called Centre for Humane Technology.
In my discussion group, we mainly discussed about how much these tech companies are responsible to keep this cycle of polarization and radicalization in check. This is similar debates determining to what extent the School Nutrition Associations (SNA) and the government have responsibility in preventing child obesity, in a way that they are both consequences introduced due to their service. We decided to conclude on a note similar to the general consensus on the aforementioned SNA and childhood obesity argument, that while the service they provide is truly convenient and helpful, they do need to actively inhibit actions that could result in human harm. Of course, the tech companies have not taken any significant actions so far to provide clarity on what data they collect and what posts their algorithms censor to prevent radicalization and polarization.
Unfortunately, the algorithm is in full control of what we view, process, and interpret of the world of the internet. We are but puppets of the algorithm, and as long as we are on the stage, we are being controlled to some degree. Every minute actions that you take, every single point of data you produce, the algorithm takes note and “learns” how to better itself. Every single clickbait-y article that you click on, the algorithm takes note and puts more on your timeline. This process of “learning” and “improving” is also the reason why the initial creators of these algorithms cannot explain how these bots work, as they all are specialized and “improved” to some degree that neither its creators or its consumers understand. To have a technology that no one person on Earth can explain right on your fingertips… It is a scary thought indeed.
This documentary was enlightening to see, as most of these processes went under my nose for many years I’ve been on the internet. To highlight a problem from the most prevalent aspect of any first-world citizens, it intrigues and sparks a conversation on how these companies need to be held reprehensible for their inhumane protocols that unfortunately run through the entire internet realm.