here, I sat down to watch The Social Dilemma this weekend. This time with my teenager in tow. Determined to make a decent review of the film. If, for nothing else, than it being a decent film that is in need of one.
This won't be just a paragraph or two of high praise for the hard-hitting investigative journalism in the piece. As much as the film is worth-while like all works of art, even this one has some problems with it. And those problems in this case especially are godless.
As the film started with the awkward first takes of the tech experts that noticed the social dilemma, I started to notice a common theme among their joint worries. They all could see the problems facing them, because of them, even in the recognition of the power and magnitude of the good some of them had created. Still, they all seemed blissfully unaware of the origin of the problems they were seeing in the rise of The Social Dilemma. That problem is a complete lack of sin forward theology.
I have no doubt that each of the people interviewed has some concept of good and evil. All humans do, skewed or not. But the way in which these tech geniuses and investors stumbled at the question of "Who is responsible for this problem" was telling. Maybe the director was doing this on purpose, if he was, it was brilliant. But when asked about the issue they all drew confused and complicated stares, like children caught by their father in the garden asking "Who told you, you were naked?", with the answer being themselves. A knowledge of sin and the savior from it, changes your use of the internet. It shows when you ask people about it and the thought of that dichotomy doesn't cross their minds or lips. The answer to who is responsible for, not just these problems but all problems online, is us. Or rather, us sinners.
The second problem is that this wasn't a fact by fact, idea by idea exposition on the problem itself. It was a narrative, in fact, three of them if you were looking closely. You had the story of the problem itself from Tristan Harris's perspective, for the most part. The story of the family trying to break their phone addictions at the request of the matriarch. Finally the story of Ben's avatar self and the three faces of A.I ( Advertising A.I. / Engagement A.I. / Growth A.I.)
This isn't a problem when addressing this issue. Most sermons do this these days. Weaving narratives to support a fact exposition or a truth in a long-form of media isn't a horrible thing or even a dishonest thing. However, it can be if it's not explicit. When we watch an episode of the Trials of Nature, David Attenborough skillfully overlays his narrative over the scenes of majestic wildlife being displayed for us. We get a hint of David's opinion of what a Lion might be thinking as he hunts and kills the gazelle, what the lion's motivations are, and aren't in contrast. But these are overlaid with the lion actually hunting and eating said gazelle in the video.
We don't get the gazelle or the lion with the Social Dilemma. What we get is a simplification of every fact and facet of these narrative's lives. This is understandable for Harris's perspective. Trying to wrap our head around something like this would be hard so to achieve that he simplifies his years of experience and first-hand knowledge for us to understand. But the other two narratives are telling in a way that finds a new corner of godlessness to roost in. The perfect, multicultural, nuclear, family and their teenage and pre-teen woes is a tired trope, so when it's adjusted to make the son so susceptible to online influence that he joins an extreme centrist protest rally because of failing boy-girl social skills. This alone should be something to make you think.
Not only because the concept of an extreme center political movement would be hard to find in real life, but rather that it depends on the other side of the screen to happen. A screen populated by a three-man team of evil and heartless characters. The A.I.'s were a brilliant piece of work but made decisions and calls based on Ben's activity or lack thereof online that only a human would. Moral judgments and decisions that only a person with a theology of sin would make. They were the cartoon angel and devil on bens shoulders. His electronic conscience if you will. And make no mistake their black clothing and then contrast beige and soft-voiced singular replacement at the end of the movie was intentional.
Algorithms can be made to make those decisions but again we come to the godlessness of the presumptions of this film. Those algorithms aren't actually doing that. Their programmers are. Sinners cause the evil we find online because sin is where evil comes from. it's not a single-minded trio of programming eccentricities doing this evil it's a coder in silicon valley who did. And who is that coder getting his virtues and vices from? When God is absent from the story, it usually means the Devil is writing it.
By this point in the film when Ben is getting arrested at a rally and we are finally seeing the truly dark side of the vanilla Web. A light sprinkling of bitter chocolate on a quickly melting sundae. Some really dark sweetness is avoided like the silent killers they are. And for the life of me, I can't tell why.
This movie didn't come close to the issue of online porn, not once! In all the narrative back and forth the teenage boy somehow finds an extreme political movement to join post friendzone before he finds Pornhub. Not only is this not realistic, by its selective avoidance, but the film also skirts an actual problem that is being faced on these social networks.
The amount of teenage porn that transfers on these networks and on their devices, teens sending pictures of themselves and others if they get a hold of them is staggering. This hot button topic isn't even grazed, neither is the real-time abuse of these connections for even worse crimes like human trafficking and child sex exploitation. Entire swaths of "wrong" exchange for a fake "right" narrative or two, that can't be compared and hence aren't scrutinized for truth.
Which brings me to my final problem. That is the wholesale avoidance of the partiality found on these social networks. To show that these social networks somehow exist with such control and algorithmic manipulation as only an after effect of the humanized algorithms is blatantly ignorant (or knowing of, if I'm right) about the controversial topic of online censorship. Everyone from the ground floor workers to CEO's of these social networks has been called out for this. From online comments to U.S. Senate hearings. All about the topic of Online censorship. Ideological bias runs deep on these platforms and to have a documentary not mention this topic once, but insist through a series of narratives that the algorithm is the biggest problem, is not just wrong, it's godless. A kind of partiality that doesn't recognize it's own trappings.
By the end of the film, I realized what I was looking at, not a single-sided view of the issues, but a half bind stumbling into the real moral issues of the dilemma. One we face as a socially connected race of humans. We're slowly becoming and chasing the dream of heaven but doing so with human means. In heaven, we will be truly known as we will truly know. Online we are known by that which we edit and filter and exposed for what we actually are in our actions and deeds (all it takes is the latest data breach or hack.) In heaven, there will be no sin only virtue. Online we can be any kind of sinful we want, so long as we can find our community to call it a virtue with.
The social dilemma isn't a problem of man and machine interacting in sub-optimal ways. It's an ever more accurate vision of Heaven, just without Jesus involved. Which is no heaven at all.
What every social network needs is more Christians being Christians. Acting as if God's will would be done online as it is in heaven. (Shameless book plug I know.) Ben's political leanings could have been challenged by weekly attendance at a church. His family's struggle to limit phone use blessed by a prayer shared around the table instead of politics and rules for the sake of rules. Unashamed and unafraid Christian friends to challenge Ben's involvement and posting online extreme centrist groups and posts. And Christian communities to be involved with where is teenage romantic affections could exist and be directed to godly partners of the opposite sex. Both online and offline.
The social dilemma isn't just a problem of humans interacting online. It's a problem of Christians not interacting with humans online.
“You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people's feet. “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.