I have never been a fan of stories about dysphoric futures, but have watched their rise in media coverage in the last decades. From The Hunger Games series to the latest Blade Runner, we have all seen different versions of an AI-generated future in a dying ecosphere. It is a complicated story with long-standing racist, misogynistic, and capitalist threads weaving together to cement a direction that moves closer to the brink of the dystopia we sell as entertainment.
The Social Dilemma, one of the top-watched documentaries recently released on Netflix, is accused of oversimplifying the impact of social networks as the primary culprit of the denigration of human integrity and culture. Of course, it’s true that the documentary should have included more diverse voices in its production and dug deeper into the ways that social media didn’t invent the multiple colliding crises we face, but instead magnified them.
That said, The Social Dilemma did capture our collective attention for a minute and showed us just how much of our time we have lost in our day-to-day lives on devices. Yes, the film could have done better on the dramatization elements, but no parent could pretend that they haven’t seen their own kids glaze over in the endless scroll of social media, or totally come to pieces in the harsh fishbowl of needing to be seen by peers 24/7.
I still remember the first time social media really scared me, back when it was still trying to learn how to make money. I walked into a room of young teens filling my family room – my kids and their friends – with each one glued to their phone, entirely unaware of their friends sitting right next to them. I made them look up and asked them what they are looking for. What could be better than their friends right here, right now? They looked at me blank faced, rolling their eyes. And now here we are, having auctioned our attention to something better than the people right in front of us.
While the The Social Dilemma has its shortcomings, the data on what it is doing to kids’ self-esteem, suicide rates, and capacity to relate to one another is terrifying. Even if it is only privileged, Silicon Valley developers coming clean on how they bought into the capitalist machine (and now regret what they made possible in the process), they teach us all about humility and admitting to where we have gone wrong.
The truth is that there is no easy solution out of this mess that we all face every day. Turning off your social channels will not cure the inequities that define our culture and drive our economy. And yet, there is a great deal of value in finding some quiet from all the noise.
If indeed it is true that all the personal information we have fed into these AI machines is influencing our behavior in ways we cannot even witness, then taking a break, even a short break every day, may well provide the clarity we need to face our true personal issues with the people we love.
I have always said that I don’t have time for a virtual life because I am hard pressed to live my 3D one with the attention and integrity it deserves. Mostly this is the message that rang so true for me in watching The Social Dilemma, that when we talk face-to-face – when we look into someone’s eyes – we see the truth that devices and AI algorithms seem intent on destabilizing.
Loving people in real time is the true anchor in a sea of noise.