Social dilemmas, digital and phygital experiences

As if proof was needed that new Netflix edu-docu The Social Dilemma is highly Marmite among (social) media cognoscenti, the SmallDataForum verdict is very much a score draw, from Sam’s firm thumbs-down to my approval and on to Neville’s not-seen-it-yet.

I share Sam’s take that there’s not much new to learn – certainly for topic obsessives like us – and I also agree that eminent voices such as Shoshana Zuboff’s and Jonathan Haidt’s seem overly muffled and perhaps squandered.

But then we’re not the primary target audience. Neither are new media commentators, such as the Verge’s Casey Newton, who feels that the film misunderstands social networks. If it gets the average Netflix user to reflect a bit more on what they do with social media (and social media with them), then that can’t be a bad thing.

Rotten Tomatoes’ aggregate Tomatometer appears to agree, with an 88% rating by critics (and 86% audience). If nothing else, that’s significantly above post-lockdown hit Tenet at 73% (76%).

In a piece full of quotable one liners – “our attention is the product being sold to advertisers” / “social media is a marketplace that trades exclusively in human futures” / “social media is a drug” – my standout was by computer scientist cum philosopher cum artist Jaron Lanier: “It’s the gradual, slight, imperceptible change in our own behaviour and perception that is the product.”

Again, not a new insight, but as the 18th century English satirist Alexander Pope said: “True wit is nature to advantage dress’d / What oft was thought, but ne’er so well express’d”. And it remains the magic trick of persuasion that we perceive outcomes (in purchases, votes, partner choices), but know so little about the zillion steps that led there. When Sam muses about the great con of digital advertising – perhaps that is exactly the point?

With thanks to the fabulous Marketoonist Tom Fishburne

The role of Mad Man Vincent Kartheiser clearly divided opinion, and to me the dramatization of the algorithmic AI triad of engagement x growth x advertising made sense as a reflection of psychological analysis of user data to predict behaviour AND feed stimuli to bring about said behaviour. That’s exactly the manipulation and deactivating of free will that Tristan Harris discussed in his interview with Kara Swisher 3.5 years ago:

It’s about free will. It’s about when is someone making a choice. It’s about documenting all of the cognitive biases that exist, taking all the stuff from behavioral economics to saying like where do people’s minds get tripped up?

From digital-algorithmic manipulation and behavioural addiction, our curiosity takes us straight to the wonders of British political communication, to sing or not to sing of Britons not wanting to be slaves, and raging over non-existent blockages in an international treaty that only months ago was hailed as a miracle (and helped secure a large majority for Prime Minister Demonic Goings Boris Johnson), but is now seen as a vehicle for “bad-faith EU” by the same people that negotiated, ratified, voted for and praised it.

We discuss Nesrine Malik’s latest columns in The Guardian, on the fabricated politics, BBC Proms hoo-haa as well as the populist principle of norm breaking as the new norm setting, as per EU Withdrawal Agreement Internal Markets Bill. Pacta sunt servanda, as EU chief Ursula von der Leyen reminded the classically educated UK PM in a tweet. To which his likely response would have been something like Quod licet Iovis

Artist credit:

Is it any wonder that Neville calls mediated political discourse “utterly pathetic” as he sinks ever deeper into a cynically resigned disaffected “nobody of any political stripe offering anything that is of use to any of us”?

Sam remains at least slightly more positive, although he also concedes that the flying-by-the-seat-of-one’s-pants style of governing doesn’t seem to be working all that well. Perhaps the idea of reinventing Great Britain as a tech start-up needs a second thought?

So, what next with COVID-19?

When we recorded episode 39 of our SDF podcast on Friday 18 September, we agreed that we’re currently at stage 1.5, and Neville saw the latest numbers as “gloomy at best, alarming at worst”. On Tuesday morning, 22 September, the British press are musing over a second national lockdown.

For now at least, sport is back, and Sam welcomes the move back from a digital to a phygital experience – although it may be temporary, and the return to the physicality and total immersion of gigs and matches might still be some way off.

Easily six months, in fact, as we’re now learning, and almost to the day six months after the PM announced the first lockdown, to the tune of sending the virus packing in twelve weeks. Which didn’t happen, as the PM explained in Parliament today, because of Britain’s culture, tradition and championship of liberty and freedom for more than 300 years.

But that’s just me, being petty and, well, German…

In any case, I have a few more days on the Costa Del Sol, practicing some socially highly distanced paddle boarding … hasta luego!

Listen to Episode 39:

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