By: alyx goodwin
The Social Dilemma has received a ton of critique since it’s Netflix debut in early September 2020. And rightfully so – the irony of a Big Tech streaming platform in the digital age platforming a documentary about the dangers of Big Tech (specifically Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram) is a good place to start. If it often feels like we are living through a simulation, this documentary confirms what we know about capitalism: Corporations influence our wants, needs, and ideas as a means of making a profit for themselves and their shareholders. However, The Social Dilemma misses something else very critical to the functioning of capitalism, but often conveniently skipped over within mainstream ideology: racism and the particular impact of Bg Tech amassing profit and personal data from Black people and what that means for our lives.
Much of the documentary is interviews with unassuming, “good” white people who have worked at Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, Mozilla/Firefox, YouTube or Apple, the heavy hitters. They talk about how the original intention of the social media platform was to share ideas and foster connection between people, and that those intentions can still be salvaged when we actually confront the real wedge issue: profit. Big Tech depends on our addiction to and dependence on these platforms, so that they can be considered profitable and can encourage advertisers buy-in, increasing the profitability.
The lack of inclusion of a race analysis or even a person of color to provide insight on the issue was glaring in the documentary. There was only one Black person who spoke about Big Tech and profit, and that was almost at the end of the doc. Surveillance capitalism was mentioned a few times, with appearances by Dr. Shoshana Zuboff, author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, but never touched the significance of the way it particularly influences and harms Black people and other POC. So let’s fill some of these holes in.
“Never before in history have 50 designers– 20-35-year old white guys in California – made decisions that would have an impact on 2 billion people,” says Tristan Harris, completely ignoring the history of how the United States was built. Sure they weren’t “user experience” (UX) designers by today’s definition, but the U.S. user experience has been architected by young white guys since the Constitution (James Madison was 36 and Alexander Hamilton was 21 at the time). Not to mention the legacy of white guys who created Jim Crow laws, urban planners who designed housing segregation and redlining, and electeds and their staffers who engineer public policy that has criminalizing results for people of color. Harris’s attempt to distinguish the role of Silicon Valley designers falls flat in the face of history.
“There’s a problem happening in the tech industry,” says Harris, “and it doesn’t have a name, and it has to do with one source, like, one…” as he paces around a stage preparing for a talk. It was almost disappointing that he couldn’t think of a name, when Surveillance Capitalism and Racial Capitalism are right there.
Surveillance capitalism is a version of capitalism that utilizes our personal data for profit. This specifically has been applied to the advertising model and nature of social media – platforms collecting personal information about where you live, what you like and dislike, your political leanings, the kind of clothes you look at, the food you like, the news you read, etc., to sell this information to advertisers so that they can better target you with their products. It’s not a reach to consider the prison industrial complex a version of surveillance capitalism.
The Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) is defined and described by Critical Resistance as: “the overlapping interests of government and industry that use surveillance, policing, and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social and political problems”. The similarities between the PIC and Surveillance Capitalism lie in their ability to collect personal data through surveillance, and, using that data to inspire expansion of their tools, to bring profit to the companies and investors that have bought into the system. This system is self-sustaining for all stakeholders involved, as long as the need to imprison and survey remains.
Black People and POC have always been mined for their personal data as a means toward criminalization. The state welfare and public assistance systems, despite supporting basic needs, have used their relationship to the law enforcement to impose strict rules around employment, public housing, healthcare, and food benefits. Questions of criminal records and drug use are common on applications for public assistance and are types of data that make and break access to public benefits. There is also an unspoken correlation between the use of public assistance and where you’ve been segregated to live, which also decides the level of policing you experience- another system that collects and keeps much of your personal data for institutional gain.
In The Social Dilemma, Jaron Lanier describes the dilemma as “The gradual, slight, imperceptible change in your own behavior and perception that is the product.” This could also describe the expansion of the surveillance state & “national defense.” Install more cameras & technology to influence “good behavior,” where “good” is defined by the state or institution with power. The product in this case is criminalization.
Black people and communities of color have been systematically disparaged and divested from, leaving whole neighborhoods and populations without resources, public safety and healthy environments. Rather than reverse this with investment, municipalities pour into policing as a solution, further reinforcing a cycle of divestment until everyone is pushed out or locked up. On a larger scale, militarism and surveillance exploded after 9/11/2001, which also gave big cities the tools to go harder on “violent crime” in addition to terrorism.
All of this technology and expansion has to be financed, and the lack of regulation around the growth of tech has created these billion dollar companies that are just as harmful as they are profitable. Venture Capital (VC), “a form of private equity and a type of financing that investors provide to startup companies and small businesses,” plays a major role here. VC financed the growth of Silicon Valley and the defense industry. The CIA even has its own VC firm called In-Q-Tel, which invests in Palantir, a data tracking company founded by Peter Thiel. Palantir provides data tracking software support to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and today, Peter Thiel is a billionaire. If you add Facebook’s history of platforming hate and white supremacy, and then completely throwing the 2016 election, the relationship between tech, racism, and profit cannot be denied.
The Social Dilemma rounds out it’s diagnosis of “the problem” with a conversation on fact vs. opinion, subtly referencing the polarizing impact of Trump’s 2016 election win and the instances of emboldened violence and hatred in the last four or five years. The analysis offered by the documentary is that so much of the muddling between fact and opinion is due to advertisers creating political polarization, which brings in more money and encourages more use of the platforms. But what the documentary does not acknowledge is that globally, profiteering off of social media, a tool regular people now rely on, has empowered hate. Social media has just shown and proved that capitalism can successfully use it as an avenue to make a profit and control communities via racist surveillance, regardless of who is used and hurt in the process.
On the flip side, much of the growth of these platforms and tools can also be attributed to the growth and pushback to capitalism. The uprisings in Ferguson, Missouri, after Mike Brown was killed fundamentally changed how and why we engage in social media. Social media is where many began to develop an abolitionist lens on policing and capitalism. Social media closed a gap between Palestine and Ferguson, breathing internationalism into U.S. based political education and organizing against the state.
Phrases like “Black Girl Magic” and accounts like the Nap Ministry reinforce our humanity and basic needs that are often denied by capitalism and social media. And yet, despite the “sharing” intent of social media and the growth of the sharing economy, social media actively and forcefully reinforces capitalism. The more we use social media, the more capital sees a way to turn a profit. And, these platforms are everywhere– what else would we use now to find or share information? We can’t avoid being bombarded with ads despite us using these platforms for refuge, to be a part of popular education, and to spread messages that restore dignity.
So how do we reverse the dilemma? There is an opportunity in this moment that is calling for the abolition of police, but also to have a wider demand that includes the abolition of capitalism. Police are the muscle that violently upholds the money-making machine, and the more we start naming the things that we want democratically and community controlled, the more we tear at this muscle and The Machine. Technology is for everyone in the same ways that safety is for everyone. As we move through the 21st century, we have to ensure that the purpose of tech puts the people over profit.