Image via The Social Dilemma
What Will Your Phone Convince You Of Next?
Resolving To Reclaim Our Own Futures In The New Year
By Vickie Curtis, Writer of The Social Dilemma
2020 has been a trying time, at best. You know this, so there is no need to regale you with the many ways the year took a toll on our families, our Well-Being, or our social fabric, our cultures of dignity. Suffice it to say, 2020 was harrrrrd.
One bright spot for me unfolded way back in January. A film I’d been working on for two years had its big premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. For the premiere, I went to Park City, Utah with the creative team and film producers, and I took my seat in the audience. Hundreds of people buzzed around with excitement, about to watch what we had made. I wrapped my coat around my hips and across my lap, making myself a little movie-watching nest. The theatre lights hadn’t yet dimmed, so I glanced around, clocking how many of my fellow audience members were on their phones. The vast majority were clutching their phones—taking photos, texting, tweeting, liking. I smiled. This group of users (myself included) was about to be the first audience for The Social Dilemma.
Making this film changed my life, and I hoped that seeing it could change the lives of those in the audience. Working as a writer on the project, I’d been talking for years about the exposition, the rising action, and the resolution of the story. I like to think of the resolution as the Re-Solution. The molecules of the world have been rearranged by the action of the story, and now there is a new normal. By the time the film winds its way to the resolution, the characters in the story, (in this case, that’s us—the users of technology who scroll, snap, text, post, like, follow, email, google, swipe, and share) we have gone through an ordeal, we’ve had a revelation, and we’ve witnessed the consequences of our actions. But at the end of The Social Dilemma, we really don’t have a resolution. The characters (again, that’s us) have not yet slain the dragon and saved themselves.
I guess I’m saying that we are still stuck in the ordeal, right smack in the middle of the story. We still live with giant technology companies that have accumulated more power and more wealth than any other companies in human history. They still only make money by selling access to our minds. They profit if they grow, and they grow by designing addictive platforms to keep us checking back often. The platform is not designed to serve us any more than a mouse trap is designed to serve cheese to mice. Between tasty morsels from our social networks, they slip in ads, articles, “sponsored content” to persuade us and manipulate our behavior according to the whim of the highest bidder. Sometimes the highest bidder is a sneaker company, and sometimes it’s a political extremist group. Even if you’ve signed off these platforms for good, 3.7 billion of the people you share the planet with are still jacked into this system, consuming a steady diet of misinformation, and vanity/anger/anxiety-promoting content.
MISINFORMATION and DISINFORMATION and turning PEOPLE into BRANDS and calling them “INFLUENCERS!”
It’s all contributing to the unraveling of our democracies and the erosion of truth. We are more confused, more misled, more angry, more fearful, more addicted, more distracted, and more helpless. We’re in quite the mess, so what do we do?
I wish that sharing the film with thousands of people at Sundance and millions more via Netflix, was enough to vanquish the dragon and deliver a new solution. But short of The Social Dilemma offering a resolution, I hope it ignites your resolve.
There is something exciting about being slapped awake and forced to reconsider life-as-usual. (And if we can be grateful to 2020 for anything, it’s that slap.) People come alive when they let new information shake up their daily existence, when they abandon comfortable routines and choose to fight for a better world. As a storyteller, I’m reminded of this all the time. Heroes and heroines who disrupt oppressive power-structures by seeking out humanity in themselves and in others, they have the fullest lives. Thus, when we talk about what we can do about runaway tech, I’m not going to tell you to moderate your social media usage with time limit apps, or to leave your phone out of the bedroom when you sleep, because it’s not that simple, and frankly, it’s not that boring.
Instead, I’ll offer this: Join me. Join the folks you meet in The Social Dilemma, like Tristan, and Shoshana, and Justin, and Rashida. Join that punk kid at your school who refuses to have a phone. No one actually slays the dragon by themselves, so it’s going to take a lot of us working together, working apart, working everywhere, in lots and lots and lots of different ways, to slay the dragon and save ourselves.
I deleted Instagram and Facebook from my phone because they started to disgust me. Baby step. I’m replacing some Google platforms with tools like DuckDuckGo, Dropbox, and a good old-fashioned weekly planner. Baby step. I’m talking to people in D.C. about sharing The Social Dilemma with policymakers. Another baby step. I’m writing to you to remind you that it’s actually more exciting to live life off-screen. I bought good winter boots, so that I’d actually go outside this winter, and I’m finding likeminded people in my neighborhood, promoting front stoop interactions over tech-mediated interactions.
Sounds hard? Well, we stand to lose our critical thinking skills and our free will if we don’t. So let’s start building an alternative, shall we? Put down your phone and teach your little sister to do a cartwheel. Learn piano. Invite your neighbor to play socially-distanced ice hockey. Petition your school administrators for a smarter technology policy. Instead of passively scrolling, research the Attention-Extraction Business Model and its harms at TheSocialDilemma.com, then tell someone what you learned. Talk to your friends about finding ways to connect that don’t involve manipulative surveillance entities like Instagram or YouTube. (Remember, not all technology operates within this advertising business model, so some technologies are less harmful than others.) Make weird art instead of selfies. Go to law school and then change the law. Write a letter to your Senator. Write a letter to your Grandma. If your Grandma is a Senator, then definitely write her a letter. You get the point. Start somewhere. Talk to powerful people and let them know you have a problem with “business-as-usual.” Talk to me, talk to each other, and let’s hatch a plan.
This year, let’s all drop the busy work, the doomscrolling, the TikTokkery. Let’s stop clutching our phones like zombies and focus on work that nourishes us. Surveillance Capitalism and the Attention-Extraction Business Model are no good for humanity. Like any good hero’s journey, it won’t always be easy or clear what to do next, but most important is our resolve. Let’s start by deciding to do better, and together we can create something new.