Willful Blindness

Michael Metzger

Watch the Netflix documentary “The Social Dilemma” and you’ll wonder whether most of the tech industry is guilty of willful blindness.

If you’re into Halloween, consider this scary film: The Social Dilemma. I saw it two weeks ago. I wish those who work in tech (cloud, code, computers) would watch it. They’d witness an accelerating human catastrophe – and their part in it.

I’m not being melodramatic. Ten years ago I wrote about how scripture puts technology in a moral context – worship. Technologies require a moral framework.[1] That’s because they only tell us what can be done, not whether a particular technology ought to be done.

Tristan Harris feels the tech industry lacks a moral framework. I wrote a piece about the former Google engineer a few years ago. Then I watched “The Social Dilemma.” An entire generation of young people suffering from severe mental health issues.

Jean Twenge has touched on this. Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation? But Tristan Harris touches on the central problem. The business model. The tech industry’s business model is a triangle of product, consumers, and advertisers. But the product isn’t what’s being sold. It’s your attention span. And therein lies the problem.

The human brain has a limited span of attention. Advertisers know this. So they pay Facebook and Google programmers to create programs that hold attention longer. These programs are addictive. The aim is more clicks. More clicks, more revenue. It’s a destructive business model. Behavioral studies of young people are now bearing this out.

So why don’t most programmers and marketers recognize this? Margaret Heffernan attributes it to willful blindness.[2] Industry insiders are unwilling to listen to outsiders who question the model.

The Clapham Sect faced this problem. The English slave trade had a business model. It was a triangle of product, consumers, and labor. Tea was the product. Brits were the consumers. Africa provided cheap labor. The business model was efficient and profitable. But this model said nothing about the merits – or destructiveness – of the slave trade. Tea merchants and slave traders didn’t want to talk about that.

So what can be done? For starters, “The Social Dilemma” helps us recognize reality. American Christianity is an outsider, an exile. The film features former programmers saying social media “tilts the field,” creating cultures of depression, narcissism, and so on. God tells his people to create cultures. His people are AWOL in this film. It’s not apparent that the faith community is operating in the arenas where cultures are made.

Second, most Christians are habitual users of social media. It’s a bad habit. We can’t think our way out of bad habits. The only way out is to work our way into the spiritual disciplines. Silence, solitude, and fasting awaken us to the destructiveness of social media.

Third, I told you I’m writing for my kids. And their kids. One of their kids is our six-year-old granddaughter Sage Lily (“wise innocence”). Sage and I were on a bike ride last week when she said, “Papi, you know you can only have two or three best friends.”

Sage is wise beyond her years. Jesus had three close associates – Peter, James, son of Zebedee and his brother John the Apostle. Sage is also innocent, having never been on Facebook. She’s never been programmed to assume you can have hundreds of friends.

C. S. Lewis didn’t assume you could. “Friends are not primarily absorbed in each other. It is when we are doing things together that friendships spring up. That is why those pathetic people who simply ‘want friends’ can never make any.”[3]

When William Wilberforce pointed out the devastating effects of the slave trade, he uttered these immortal words to his colleagues in Parliament. “You may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know.” That’s the message of “The Social Dilemma.” The makers and marketers of social media can choose to look the other way, but in so doing they’re guilty of willful blindness.

 

[1] Matthew Stewart, The Management Myth: Why The Experts Keep Getting It Wrong (W. W. Norton & Company, 2009), 132-33.

[2] Margaret Heffernan, Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Own Peril (Simon & Schuster UK; Reissue edition, 2011)

[3] C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves (Fontana, 1960), 62.

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1 thought on “Willful Blindness”

  1. Mike, I was moved by this movie as well. It was very compelling to hear some of the insiders say they give their own children zero screen time because of their fear of the addictive nature of the medium. I saw first-hand the addictive nature of You Tube this summer during the pandemic. It was my only means to keep up with my beloved Orioles while I was in San Francisco. I watched the whole game pitch-by-pitch in 10 minutes. Of course, the O’s win-loss record is an excellent antidote for this addiction. After watching a couple of games in this manner, I was quickly led to numerous other Oriole highlights of my boyhood heroes and various World Series. Within the first week, I received ads encouraging me to have Maryland steamed crabs shipped to me in San Francisco. It was very tempting. Of course, this “addiction” does not have quite the consequences of what those interviewed in the movie spoke about. The movie certainly heightened my awareness of the social media’s addictive qualities.
    I was most moved by Sage’s comments about friendship. Social media’s use of the word “friend” is preposterous and I am sure very few are under the illusion that “followers” are indeed friends. I am also not sure friendships are formed by merely doing things together. They take work (enjoyable work, in most cases) to cultivate and they take an investment of time, money, and mindful and prayerful attention. It seems to me, one of the real dangers of the social media is that it will prohibit us from making those investments in valuable relationships that the Bible informs us are investments in eternity. I find myself and others opting to text someone rather than call so they can streamline the investment of time of furthering the investment in the relationship with social “chit-chat.” After all, doesn’t the efficiency of the text message get the job done? I would say, No!
    Recently, I had a woman confront me in our church to say that I had not recognized her presence on a couple of occasions (unbeknownst to me). It deeply hurt her and even prompted her to consider leaving the church. Fortunately, she told someone else who brokered a meeting between the two of us and we were reconciled. However, it caused me to do some soul-searching about why I had not “seen” her. I have concluded it was my task orientation on a Sunday morning that played a key role in my grievous oversight. I was reminded of the stories of task-minded disciples rebuking Christ as he spent his valuable time meeting at a deep level with lost people. I am now praying for the “second touch” of the Holy Spirit that will enable me to see people not as mere shadows but as souls that have worth…a worth that I will invest in.

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