Jeff Orlowski’s documentary The Social Dilemma on Netflix is an interesting panoptic exploration of ways in which human minds are allegedly twisted, manipulated, and directed by social media to produce outcomes by programmed algorithms whose creators, in the end, must have had nefarious motives. On the surface, we may cast them as players in a medieval morality play between good and evil. The evil operatives are the gnomic know-it-alls who somehow must have known that with the invention of the “Like” button on various social media pages and media outlets, they could send recipients into waves of euphoria — while those receiving a “thumbs down” could be sent into paroxysms of rage or, more commonly, paralyzing depression. The social media creators in the film, however, claim that they only wanted to “spread positivity and love in the world.”
The basic thematic thrust of the documentary is predicated on a dubious premise: the idea of an addictive media, the manipulative machinations of its architects and their unwillingness to confront their culpability in creating an addictive social media culture, and the latter’s contribution to the polarization of our society and the proliferation of “fake news.”
This film, which purports to gain some philosophical respectability by an identification with the anti-conceptual moniker, “surveillance capitalism,” presupposes a world of mindless victims; automatons in need of global marketplace regulation from “data extraction” invisible vectors that somehow predict our behaviors and, well, coerce us to do things that we would not do had our brains not been improperly hijacked by the artificially-driven analytics.
The Social Dilemma apocalyptically poses a question through one of its alarmed interviewees: “Can democracy survive the social network in a world where no one believes what’s true anymore?”
I leave aside the conjectural issue of brainwashing, mind expropriation, and mind alteration over which design ethicists have suddenly developed a bad conscience.
I assume, first, that people have free will. I assume that like any phenomenon that in and of itself is a morally neutral object but which can be used for good or evil—think here of a pistol that can be used for lawful self-defense or murder; alcohol, that can be a wonderful social lubricant if used in moderation, or a destructive organ destroyer if abused—so too social media, if used judiciously and sparingly and with sound judgment, can properly fulfill a limited set of rational desires.
The phenomena themselves do not engender vices in people. Lazy, slothful and unthinking people get addicted to social media. They get sucked into being bamboozled into believing fake news for investigative negligence, and they consciously chose to remain all comfy and sloppily ensconced in their curated silos. They lack curiosity and imagination. If they chose not to believe what is true it will mean that they are evading reality. To live that sort of life in a protracted manner will inevitably lead to chaos, pain and suffering, and then—death.
What should be the focus of attention is not how social media has exploited people and robbed them of their autonomy and sovereignty; rather, it should be how average mediocre human beings have exploited the platform to elevate themselves in a way that would not have been possible a generation ago. It is not social media that will destroy democracy, or prevent people from believing the truth. It is the cult of mediocrity and its members who have taken advantage of an innovative mode of communication, and have tuned into something garish and more annoying than karaoke bars where people brutalize beautiful songs, or democratic voting rights for dumb people who cannot read or speak English, let alone understand the basic function of government.
I’ll deal with two ways in which the egalitarian principle run amok in our society, and the absence of rational discrimination and elitism based on merit, ability and achievement have ruined both social media and, in the process, destroyed any semblance of High Culture in America today.
Social media gives anyone, including the village idiot, a platform to elevate his sophomoric high school opinions to the level of human knowledge. In the absence of any objective criteria to adjudicate among the asserted truth claims promulgated on social media outlets, deciphering the writings on the wall is like fighting lice in a vacuum. There are no objective standards for arbitrating disputes, or pointing out innumerable fallacious arguments (if folks even attempt to postulate arguments).
The vitriol, the mean-spiritedness, the hubris that people possess in pronouncing judgment and expertise in matters they have not spent even a nanosecond researching, and then having the temerity to think that their opinions on the matter can and ought to carry as much weight as seasoned expert—because we’re all equal and nobody’s better than anyone else—is so abysmally dangerous to a democracy, that few people realize that it is not the architects of social media that have inflicted any damage but, rather, the users that have exploited a morally neutral outlet for nefarious purposes.
If there is brainwashing and mind expropriation occurring, it is by virtue of the principle of egalitarianism that rules social media. Egalitarianism outside the legal sphere, that is, outside the notion that all human beings are equal before the law, is a specious idea. All human beings are not equal in intelligence, beauty, productiveness, and strength. Some are harder to replace, harder working, morally superior and, sadly, when some people die, they will be missed and remembered more often than others because they simply were better people than others.
Social media users have the tendency to reduce all persons to the lowest common denominator of the lowest of its subscribers or users. They enshrine mediocrity and stigmatize exceptionality, brilliance, originality, and thoughtfulness. They will downright murder genius. We are to take everyone seriously on social media because they are somebody. Even the mean-spiritedness is symptomatic of the moral seriousness with which users regard one another. Indifference and a “No comment,” approach is the death knell of virtual life on social media. But at least it might be the start of something called moral and linguistic accountability. If one is routinely ignored rather than engaged over an asinine comment or a conceptually inane viewpoint, one might begin to build a real reasoned argument, court respect and win genuine approval and “likes” based on meritocratic criteria grading skills. But users can’t control their own impulses. The designers of social media are not pulling “anything” out of users. It’s their own undisciplined and feral impulses they are foisting onto to the social media landscape.
There is a second way the egalitarian principle users of social media have created and elevated another phenomenon to the level of a cult that has little to do with invisible analytics and secretive evil designers. It has to do with turning social media into one big psycho-therapy counseling session. Think of Facebook, for example. Nowhere can you find a medium in which people elevate their personal suffering and woes as if they were universal and paradigmatically shared angsts worthy of metaphysical speculation in general.
These reports of sharing experiences of everything—from having the common cold, to romantic break-ups, and just stubbing one’s toe against the door are more than just cases of using others as repositories for the tedious minutiae of one’s life. It is more than taking oneself a little too seriously. Ironically, it fetishizes truth-telling to the point of making a parody of truth itself. Not everything that is truthful needs to be shared. In real life, actually, literal truths about people’s lives can be uninteresting and boring. We don’t need to hear all the quotidian details of a person’s life. Mystery and a desire to explore the depths of another’s humanity are what make for growth, curiosity and creative social intercourse in human lives.
At the risk of sounding harsh, there is something conducive to character building, about restraint, about the stiff upper lip and “chin to the wind” approach to life. The emotional diarrhea loosened on various social media outlets that invites succoring to losers in life, the myriad contumely rhetoric that splatters from so many timelines, the narcissistic infantilism that cries out for equally infantile response would evanesce if people simply took stock of all that makes social media the crippling mess its critics against the designers and founders take it to be: the character rot at the heart of so many of its users. It is they who exploit the platform, abuse each other, butcher the language, and dishonor the stylized art of real argumentation. They disavow, as well, the charity of spirit required to reasonably disagree with one another, and to get out of their curated bubble and live in the real world.
Perhaps it is time for people to realize that the real social dilemma is the dilemma within; that it is simply displaced onto any target one can pin one’s vices on to in order to create the divisiveness in the external world that is a manifestation of one’s own absence of internal cohesion, wholesome integration and moral and philosophical consistency.
Jason D. Hill is professor of philosophy at DePaul University in Chicago, and a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center. His areas of specialization include ethics, social and political philosophy, American foreign policy and American politics. He is the author of several books, including “We Have Overcome: An Immigrant’s Letter to the American People” (Bombardier Books/Post Hill Press). Follow him on Twitter @JasonDhill6.