The Social Dilemma arrived on Netflix at the end of 2020 with a clear message… Technology is controlling us. Here I share my thoughts on the film and some impacts on Education and how we might reframe and resist such controlling discourse.
If you haven’t seen it, The Social Dilemma is a docu-drama showing the impact of social media on our lives. The film paints a dystopian future of social media and more broadly the huge Silicon Valley ‘Stacks’ (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google etc) being able to dial up and dial down the actions and emotions of whole populations. A big 21st century issue is defining ‘Silicon Valley Big Tech’ which in essence are huge advertising companies and by failing to label them as such hides within them a black box of technical wizardry.
Former employees from Silicon Valley ‘whistle blow’ some of the techniques from platforms such as Google, Facebook etc claiming that addiction and nudging practices are in built by design. Should these methods be ported to education does that mean that education as a purpose is reframed as changing behaviours in a particular binary direction? Google have a classroom of over 100 million students and many have claimed that porting such ideas wholesale is a return to 60s behaviourism.
In essence any device that we use collects data about us and then presents us with content that the algorithm ‘thinks’ we might like. More on agency below, but consider the agency of the algorithm here. This is what is termed personalisation – you see adverts tailored to you and content which the algorithm decides is for you. In Education, technology and personalisation is lauded as the next technological development. Whilst having lots of potential, critics cite personalisation as each individual having their own ‘truth’ – consider your own social media timeline (that agrees with you and you agree with it) in comparison to someone else’s (who you probably don’t agree with) and consider which is the truth? It’s not that there has ever been one ultimate truth, now everyone has their own individual truth. This, the Social Dilemma presents as a problem for shared communities, compromise and democracy.
Social scientists interested in technology (Science and Technology Studies/ Science, Technology and Society) term the view presented by the Social Dilemma as technological determinism – technology determines what we do. This approach has a long history with Marx critiquing the zombifying effects of the industrial revolution led by capitalist factory owners where craftspeople and artisans went from making the whole product to a small part in a production line of monotonous and repetitive labour which has since been termed Fordism after the economic success of the car production lines of the mid 20th century. This was brilliantly satirised by Charlie Chaplin in 1936 in Modern Times.
So, what we see in the Social Dilemma is not entirely new and I argue not wholly technological and treating it as such leaves technology as a neutral and tool-like instrument to be used. Instrumental ‘use’ of technology is the opposite view of technological determinism and hits at the foundations of sociology – structure and agency – does the ‘user’ of technology have agency to use the tool for their own exclusive desired ends or is the social structure of technology controlling us all as to what we buy, what we believe and who we vote for (the overall premise of the Social Dilemma).
In Higher Education terms, the artisan craftsperson is characterised by the elite professor (disparagingly in the Ivory Tower University) with few of the population attending university. Conversely, the Fordist model is characterised by an often derided view of organised production line and factory underpinned by technology. A very real dilemma to be negotiated here is similar to the mass production of cars and other expensive artefacts in that mass production drives down prices and increases access but for many an exclusivity has been lost to the artisan and craft approach. For example, part-time and flexible access to higher education aided by digital technologies is encouraged but it’s not the exclusive and ‘premium artisanal product’ or the much quoted full ‘student experience’.
Technological determinism and instrumentalism use give us extreme perspectives with which to analyse such situations. More recent work by social scientists and philosophers have moved to balance such structure and agency beyond media responses to developing technologies as dystopian and utopian. For example Andrew Feenberg terms a wider societal move towards technology and rationalisation as the Technosystem which is not just the technology but incorporates markets (capitalism and neoliberalism) and administrations (governance and policy). Take for example the now widely used (in the UK) phrase of ‘Computer says no’ (from comedy, Little Britain). You’re being told no by the computer but somebody has made a policy or rule denying you your request (administration) and/or it’s not financially viable (markets). It’s not somebody or an organisation denying your request but the rational decision of the computer – or so it is presented.
Dystopian and utopian views tend to produce the best headlines and film narratives but those working in Science and Technology Studies (STS) term this hype which is not particularly grounded in reality but rhetoric, often with a vested interest for the author or organisation making the claims (on both sides of the debate). Lee Vinsel describes both sides of the utopian and dystopian view as You’re Doing It Wrong: Notes on Criticism and Technology Hype.
A more balanced, non-deterministic, perspective is offered by an approach which states that technologies mediate our experiences, for example, if we didn’t have a car or other such travelling technology it wouldn’t be possible to travel long distances to holiday or work. Reading an ebook is different to reading a physical book – the medium mediates our experiences of the text. Media theorist Marshall McLuhan famously stated that the Medium is the Message. In education terms, an exclusively online course must then be different to an exclusively classroom one – one of the reasons why direct comparisons are problematic.
Are we controlled by technology?
It is a question that has been asked for a long time and will continue to be asked – what is technology doing to society – but we shouldn’t be drawn down into binary and dualistic paths which result in us smashing up our computers and burying them or putting everything online without question.
Here are some recently completed and published works which elaborate these points further around agency of humans and non-humans.
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