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. 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. 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.”
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.
 Matthew Stewart, The Management Myth: Why The Experts Keep Getting It Wrong (W. W. Norton & Company, 2009), 132-33.
 Margaret Heffernan, Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Own Peril (Simon & Schuster UK; Reissue edition, 2011)
 C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves (Fontana, 1960), 62.