“The Social Dilemma” and Churchill’s “Mass Effects in Modern Life”
“The Social Dilemma” is excerpted from an Essay on Winston Churchill’s 146th birthday, 30 November 2020, published by the Hillsdale College Churchill Project. For the original post, please click here.
“The Social Dilemma”: Netflix, 2020, 90 minutes.
“Is not mankind already escaping from the control of individuals? Are not our affairs increasingly being settled by mass processes? Are not modern conditions—at any rate throughout the English-speaking communities—hostile to the development of outstanding personalities and to their influence upon events: and lastly if this be true, will it be for our greater good and glory? These questions merit some examination from thoughtful people.” —Winston S. Churchill, “Mass Effects in Modern Life,” 1931. (All italicized paragraphs are from this essay.)
An Essay on Churchill’s 146th Birthday
Technology marches forward in quantum leaps, Churchill wrote, yet the genus Homo remains the same imperfect creature. Tristan Harris, former design ethicist at Twitter, offers remarkably parallel thoughts eighty years on. Harris does much of the talking in “The Social Dilemma.” His question is fundamental, though one wonders if there is an answer: “How do you ethically steer the thoughts and actions of two billion people’s minds every day?”
Harris is accompanied by technicians from all over Silicon Valley. Their experience accrued at the vast, exponentially expanding giants of technology. They are mostly, but not all, young. They have diverse backgrounds, accomplished résumés. Their interests range over things that concern most people, from climate change to civil unrest. A few are preachy, but not many. Unlike much of our discourse today, “The Social Dilemma” is almost devoid of politics.
Social media, Harris says, brings likeminded people together with unprecedented efficiency. “The Social Dilemma” contends that it and its Internet-enablers are hardening our opinions by steering us only to people and movements with the same opinions—and a scary number are dangerous. Countries with political disinformation campaigns on social media doubled in two years, reported The New York Times in 2019. “If you want to destabilize a country,” says a technician in the film, “Facebook offers almost the perfect platform.” “What are you most worried about?” another is asked. “Civil War.”
“The newspapers do an immense amount of thinking for the average man and woman. In fact they supply them with such a continuous stream of standardized opinion, borne along upon an equally inexhaustible flood of news and sensation, collected from every part of the world every hour of the day, that there is neither the need nor the leisure for personal reflection.” —Churchill
Substitute “media” for “newspapers” and you have a very up-to-date truism. Why has the last decade seen more polarization than the last 100 years? “The Social Dilemma” offers a theory. Those ten years coincide with mushrooming use of smartphones. During that time, the ability of platforms to track everything about a user’s persona has grown apace.
Up similarly are unwelcome outcomes. Teen (and pre-teen) suicide, depression and violence advanced exponentially. A study found social media use correlates with declines in mental and physical health . At one extreme, users are depressed if they don’t get enough “likes.” At the other, they blow their brains out. Is there a connection?
“…this great diffusion of knowledge, information and light reading of all kinds may, while it opens new pleasures to humanity and appreciably raises the general level of intelligence, may be destructive of those conditions of personal stress and mental effort to which the masterpieces of the human mind are due.” —Churchill
The product is us
“It is at once the safeguard and the glory of mankind that they are easy to lead and hard to drive. So the Bolsheviks, having attempted by tyranny and by terror to establish the most complete form of mass life and collectivism of which history bears record, have not only lost the distinction of individuals, but have not even made the nationalization of life and industry pay. We have not much to learn from them, except what to avoid.” —Churchill
Sixty-four percent of all people who joined extremist groups on Facebook did so because algorithms steered them there, states “The Social Dilemma.” This struck a friend who watched the film “like a bolt of lightning. Platforms like Twitter and Facebook provide their ‘users’ with a ‘matrix’ or a ‘cave’ in which to live their whole lives. They immerse them in ‘news’ and ‘facts’ they, through their digital tracks, indicate they wish to believe.” Churchill wrote in 1928: “We live in the most thoughtless of ages. Every day headlines and short views.”
Restricting the “diffusion of knowledge and information,” as Churchill put it, disregards social consequences. What matters is making money by giving people what makes them feel good, my friend writes. “Living without exposure to contrary information may explain why people, especially the young, may often be impervious to truth. Plato was on to this 2500 years ago.”
Social media is not free. It sells a product, and the product is obvious. A software engineer who spent years working on classified government projects offers a simple rule of thumb: “If you don’t know what the product is, you are the product.”
Who are our guides?
“…it is difficult to marshal today in any part of the English-speaking world an assembly of notables who either in distinction or achievement can compare with those to whom our grandfathers so gladly paid attention and tribute. [Yet] in one great sphere the thrones are neither vacant nor occupied by pygmies. Science in all its forms surpasses itself every year. But here again the mass effect largely suppresses the individual achievement. The throne is occupied; but by a throng.” —Churchill
The “throng” behind social media focuses little on human nature, other than its weaknesses. Exploiting destructive emotions—envy, greed, lust, sloth and hate—is easier than controlling them. The effort to control them—the basis of civilization—has gone on since at least biblical times. Social media is notably absent of “those to whom our grandfathers so gladly paid attention.” It is not absent of the politics of victimhood.
We cannot expect everyone to be as keen a judge of human nature as Churchill. The technicians in “The Social Dilemma” do not tell us why these things are happening, except to postulate that computers themselves, advancing their algorithms, are extending their influence into areas never envisioned by their creators. What they may miss is the fact that such power was never the province of computers. It is that of human beings, and it did not go very long unnoticed or unused.
“In the beginning there were web pages,” says a software engineer I consulted. “Some people figured out that they could put ads on web pages, much like TV, and hope that thousands of ad impressions would result in a sale. Then people realized that it’s more lucrative to track conversions when a user clicks an ad and buys something. Then the whole industry turned to collecting vast data about users, so that the ads would be targeted. Users would click and buy things, then feed that conversion data back into the targeting information. This would make the whole loop more accurate. That is where we are.”
“The Social Dilemma” poses stark and critical questions for those who daily rely on the web, smartphones and digital media. Mr. Harris and his colleagues think anti-trust legislation may be required to slow the accumulation of powers by a small handful of companies.
“….we may now ask ourselves whether powerful changes are not coming to pass, are not already in progress or indeed far advanced. Is not mankind already escaping from the control of individuals?” —Churchill
Ways and means
An expert enlightened me on all the ways we expose our personal data: cookies, IP addresses, installed fonts, wi-fi networks, Tweets, web sites. How you mouse around, how you open and read email. Your location, your referrer (the web page you visited before this one) are noted. Your cable company injects code into insecure web pages. “And so on,” he writes:
The problem occurs when one company is omnipresent enough to correlate all these things. Google and Facebook are prime examples. People add Google and Facebook code to their web sites, often unwittingly. Google Analytics is pretty much ubiquitous. “Share on Facebook” tags you automatically. So do those awful CAPTCHA things that make you click on pictures of fire hydrants. “Add feature” options on web sites build profiles of people. This is partially the reason that VPNs (virtual private networks) are overhyped for privacy. They can make you appear to be in a different country, but they protect only your IP address. Any of the other things will connect you back to your original profile.
The tracking is now so good that people who get come-ons think microphones are listening to them. Actually, they usually appear because you were near a friend who searched for something prior to both of you talking about it. Technology knows your friends, and the topics you talk about.
Mass effects on modern life: then and now
That much power will corrupt most people including apparently the legions of digital media and probably most of the rest, judging by their growing editorial interference with users. Control over what information people are exposed to will make it very difficult to develop in our children citizens fit for freedom. Ronald Reagan reminded us that the loss of liberty is always only a generation away.
I am unqualified to judge how dangerous are the trends these technical experts describe. Having read my Churchill, I was struck by the coincidence of their warnings with his long ago. I am genuinely interested in the opinions of viewers. Watch the show.
“The great emancipated nations seem to have become largely independent of famous guides and guardians… They wend their way ponderously, unthinkingly, blindly, but nevertheless surely and irresistibly towards goals which are ill-defined and yet magnetic. Is it then true that civilization and democracy, when sufficiently developed, will increasingly dispense with personal direction; that they mean to find their own way for themselves; and that they are capable of finding the right way? Or are they already going wrong?” —Churchill
Everybody will have their own interpretation of all this. Personally, I’m chicken. I’ve minimized use of social media—no friends, likes, dislikes, comments, features, no sharing nor joining anything. I browse mostly on DuckDuckGo because it doesn’t track your history. I use VPNs, blockers, incognito windows, every privacy setting available on iPhone, apps, Kindle and website. I’m not sure if it’s enough.
Winston S. Churchill, “Mass Effects in Modern Life,” in Thoughts and Adventures: Churchill Reflects on Spies, Cartoons, Flying and the Future (Isi Books, 2009). This latest text includes four essays not in the original title and expert footnotes by editors James Muller and Paul Courtenay. For other editions see bookfinder.com.
Larry P. Arnn, Churchill’s Trial: Winston Churchill and the Salvation of Free Government (Thomas Nelson, 2015). Includes as appendices two parallel Churchill essays, “Fifty Years Hence” and “What Good’s a Constitution?”