The Social Dilemma

We watched The Social Dilemma on Netflix last night, which is totally worth the time. At one point, Tristan Harris plays off a quote from Steve Jobs, who famously remarked that computers should be “a bicycle for our minds.”

Harris draws a distinction between a bike as a passive tool, responsive to us and inert when not in use, and social media, which we respond to and which remains active even when not in use — not just gathering data but computing better ways of hijacking our attention.

In other words, given that we are the product being sold (or rather our thoughts and behavior), it is actually social media that uses us while giving us the subjective experience of the opposite. That isn’t true of a bike.

Harris then quips that, as the model “passive tool,” no one was afraid of the bicycle, which is actually not true.

To be fair, there is a sense in which he’s right: the reactions to the safety bicycle were not as pervasive or extreme as our reaction to social media. And I agree with his point and don’t want to undermine it.

But as a history buff, I would point out that many people were in fact afraid of the safety bicycle and the effect it was perceived to have on society. In the years after it was invented, newspapers blamed it for all kinds of social ills. It was reported to be dangerous, causing numerous injuries and fatalities. It was reported to incite violence through rigorous pedaling. It was reported to cause mania, especially in women, and to loosen their morals. (No matter where we are, we are always a short slide from depravity, it seems.)

I only bring it up because there are a few important lessons in there. As I am wont to repeat, we like to compare the news media of today to the recent past, the post-war era, which was a rather extreme anomaly. We like to think that the quality of the news has declined and that it was more noble and objective in the past. And yet, the Gray Lady (and others) regularly took potshots at the bicycle for the better part of a decade.

There is also a lesson about experts. If doctors and scientists could, with a straight face, blame the bicycle for inciting violence and causing mania, then they can blame anything, and we have good reason to be skeptical — of similar claims about comic books in the 1950s, for example, or video games today. Same for the pastors and moralists who claimed the bicycle (!) contributed to the decline of civic society.

Finally there is the lesson about ourselves and how we immediately think we’re more enlightened than those anti-bicycle hand-wringers. (I’ll let you ponder that on your own.)

And yet, Harris is probably right about social media and for the reasons he describes. We are not its users, not any more than a remote control uses humans to get its buttons pressed. We are the thing being used — not so much by the machines as by their owners.

Social media’s effects on society — not some amorphous “moral character” but real, measurable impacts like rates of teen suicide and political polarization — appear highly corrosive. In that way, they are rather like the industrial machines that used to pull limbs from children.

If we are more enlightened, funny then that we sit here letting it happen.

Some reasonable regulations are probably in order: personally, in the home, and for the nation as a whole. The Social Dilemma makes a few wonderful recommendations at the end, during the credits, and I encourage you to watch.