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Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Review: The Social Dilemma

 ‘The Social Dilemma’ is a documentary on Netflix that has been recently released. It is about the evils of social media and is causing a lot of distress. A school principal was dismayed that now parents are going to say, ‘We told you so! Take away the internet from children, immediately’. Hopefully, nothing of the sort will happen. 

This documentary is worth watching, but with an open and discerning mind. First, note that it is produced by disgruntled ex-employees of Facebook, Twitter and Google. Then, note that the views of the other side, people from these, and similar, companies, are missing. And, of course, children’s opinions are absent, but that is usual. 

The main contention of the documentary is that our minds are being psychologically manipulated by AI, created by evil designers. This used to be called ‘advertising’, I think. Note that any algorithm that uses a lot of data to make accurate projections of short-term future is called AI. In my time, we used to call these ‘moving averages’, ‘standard deviation’ and extrapolation. Nobody thought these were evil. 

Missing entirely in the documentary is the main new idea of our times, that when lots of things are connected together (phones, computers, people) into a network, we get self-Organizing Systems. Self organizing systems can show Spontaneous Order and Emergent Behavior. Ilya Prigogine got a Nobel prize in the 1980's for discovering this. 

Self Organizing Systems are unpredictable, so they cannot be ‘programmed’ for evil. Organisations like the ones above can only facilitate their formation, not what they will do. Like a gardener who can plant flowering plants, but cannot say where a beehive might form. You cannot make Self Organising Systems do anything, you can only let them do what they will. 

Jaron Lanier, the inventor of Virtual Reality, is prominently present in the documentary. He even compares us, humans, with neurons in our brains, being ‘forced’ to mindlessly perform as part of a network! Well, imagine if all the neurons in your brain became independent, free agents, while you sat around – brainless and smiling vacuously.

Algorithms in social media have small, very specific goals, usually to focus your attention on something. Just as neurons have a small and specific goal, to connect with other neurons. If the internet makes all of humanity into one giant brain, that would probably represent an evolutionary step. Evolution is not evil, it has no goal – it just happens. 

Similar documentaries and comments have been made about books, newspapers, television and radio when they were invented and started networking people. Even the postal system was not spared criticism. It all created some noise and died down. As will this one. 

Lastly, someone in the documentary suggests that children below the age of 16 should not be allowed to google! That is a bit like saying that the reading habit in children should not be encouraged until they are grown up because they might read comic books. 

So, do watch the documentary, and enjoy the paranoia. 


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