“The Social Dilemma” and Churchill’s “Mass Effects in Modern Life”

“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.”

Social Polarization

 “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.

The dilemma

“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.

Further reading

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?”

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