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2 December 2020

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TV: The Social Dilemma

Online ads, screen addiction and fake news - technology under capitalism

The Social Dilema

The Social Dilema   (Click to enlarge)

Joe Fathallah, Cardiff East Socialist Party

The Social Dilemma is a film recently produced by Netflix, exploring the impact of social media on society. The film is hybrid between a drama and a documentary; it includes interviews with industry and ex-industry figures intertwined with scenes played out by actors, depicting a teenage boy named Ben falling prey to the manipulation of the supercomputer algorithms.

Many of those interviewed were involved in the initial development of today's social media platforms. In the search for a profitable business model, they stumbled across the idea of selling online advertising space. In order to give their product an edge over competitors, machine learning technologies were developed to process huge quantities of user behaviour data, and figure out what personalised content to feed to those users, in order to keep them online for longer.

Machine learning means that the computer improves its own algorithms based on the experience of past results. So, if you post pictures of your hamsters, the computer recognises them and gives you adverts for hamster food. If you click on these and generate advertising revenue, it sends you more related adverts.

Artificial intelligence technology is at the stage now where it works out the most effective ways to achieve a human-defined goal. It doesn't yet have the capability to pass any judgement on this goal, or to define its own goals. In this case, the goal is simply to keep us glued to our devices. The film documents the impacts of this on the mental health and wellbeing of people, especially the young. One of the teenage characters breaks open the locked box in which her mother had placed her phone, in order to post selfies online.

Populist politics

The film's analysis of the impact of social media on the political front misses the mark somewhat. The rise of right-wing populist politicians, such as Trump and Bolsonaro, over the last decade is a complex process and cannot simply be attributed to the spread of misinformation on social media. These creatures have been able to take advantage of a combination of the failure of capitalism to provide decent living standards for the mass of the population, and political vacuums existing on the left.

The tech gurus interviewed in the film, while well-meaning and genuinely attempting to 'clean up their own mess', are incapable of imagining any way of organising society other than capitalism. Therefore to them, the rise of political forces outside the boundaries of 'normal' western-style liberalism must be some sort of aberration caused by the proliferation of 'fake news'.

Back in the real world, people's views and ideas are formed largely on the basis of their experience in society. There's an urgent need to rebuild mass working-class political parties and trade unions, fighting on the bread-and-butter demands of decent jobs, pay, healthcare, education, and so on. In the past, such organisations provided a counter weight to the propaganda of the right-wing print media, and could play the same role in this new period of online media.

The Silicon Valley giants need to be nationalised under the democratic control of tech workers, engineers and representatives of the wider working class, in order to redefine the goals of the technology to benefit society, with mutual sharing of information and experiences, and establishing connections, rather than simply manipulating us into viewing advertising.

The potential of information technology freed from the shackles of capitalism has no limits. Today I can press a few buttons on my phone, and food arrives at the door. But imagine using machine learning algorithms to predict food purchasing patterns, and making sure all shops are fully stocked with everything we want to eat? These kinds of developments will be possible under a socialist planned economy, which harnesses new technologies for the benefit of the whole of society, rather than the profits of a tiny minority.

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RMT picket at Nottingham station - East Midlands Railway dispute - Sunday 13th June, photo by G Freeman

RMT picket at Nottingham station - East Midlands Railway dispute - Sunday 13th June. Photo G Freeman

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