'The Social Dilemma' and The Last Fucking Thing I'll Ever Write About Facebook

“The occupational hazard of making a spectacle of yourself, over the long haul, is that at some point you buy a ticket too.”

-Thomas McGuane, Panama

An early hint of what Social Dilemma is really about involves the project’s protagonist, Tristan Harris, correcting his handler on how to pronounce his name. “It’s Trist-AHN,” he says, affecting a studied collegiality born of many well-paid keynotes.

Wait, WTF is this?

Is this like the freshman French major pretentiously saying ‘Pa-REEE’ (itself an Anglicized mispronunciation of a French original) instead of English accepted usage?

Who knows.

As is clear from the first minutes, the entire point of this cinematic pageant is to keep the focus constantly, irrevocably, and fatiguingly on Trist-AHN, the anti-prophet of the social media religion.

As might be expected from someone who oozes as much self-righteousness as narcissistic self-importance, he faceplants in due course. “No one got upset when the bicycle showed up,” he proclaims, invoking the ill-advised example of bicycles as historical foil to the Internet and social media.

That’s of course hilariously and incontrovertibly wrong: There was a wave of anti-bicycle activism (much of it fanned by those in the horse trade) when the first two-wheeled conveyances came out in the late 19th century. And that’s been true of every technology—bicycles, cars, radios, TV, movies, video games, smartphones, and indeed even vaccines—since the mythic Prometheus gave humans fire. The supreme irony is that Harris, who always talks up his former techie credentials, is falling prey to the same historical myopia and cluelessness for which many techies (rightly I should add) are routinely criticized. It’s always Day One in the Eternal Present of the Internet, no different for its detractors than its fans.

The banalities of Harris’ technology takes aside, what’s most fascinating is how the film uses all the hackneyed tropes of visual media to attack social media: misinformation and emotional manipulation to combat the dangers of misinformation and emotional manipulation. More than once, Harris is pictured zipping up his bag in his hotel room and proceeding, in a series of meandering jump cuts, to whatever in-person spectacle he (the true star of this show) is headlining: the sort of stylized introductory b-roll footage that’s the staple of every docu-drama.

The sundry speakers are similarly couched in faux cinema verité devices: the scene intentionally opening before the talking head is settled into their seats, the prefatory ruffle of clothing or insertion of a mike depicted to give the scene a false feeling of impromptu reality, but all of it contrived and studiously included for effect. The shots use short focal-length lenses, blurring the distant-seeming backgrounds, and making the talking head’s presence pop on the screen. It’s almost a case study in breaking-the-fourth-wall post-modern theatrics.

One of the first reprieves from The Tristan Harris Show is none other than Shoshana Zuboff, author of that much-ballyhooed cinder block of a book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.

Like a 19th-century Victorian anthropologist weaving tall tales to wide-eyed Londoners about the exotic natives from some far-off land, Zuboff has staked out for herself the role of tech docent to the normies. And like many of those Victorian anthropologists, her understanding of the natives is, shall we say, rather fanciful.

Less diplomatically, everything Zuboff says is a nonsensical non sequitur.

”This is a world of certainty.”

Then why am I, crusty ad tech veteran, building probabilistic models all day?

“This is a totally new world.”

No it isn’t. I was there, at Facebook when it happened. We copied it all from the direct-mail people who’ve done it for decades.

“They’re trading human futures like we do pork-belly futures.”

Lolwut?

As an owner of a few acres of forest and an occasional tree hippie, I get misty at the thought of all the trees that had to die to produce her 700-page tome of what, like her interview, reads like output from an early version of GPT-3.

As far as I know, Zuboff has not spent one blessed hour inside a tech company, but her titular catchphrase “surveillance capitalism” has become a sort of reverse shibboleth: if anyone uses it, you’re absolutely certain they’re outsiders to this world and have no idea what they’re talking about. In a way, it’s a time-saving convenience.

After Zuboff, things go quickly from Nouvelle Vague interview aesthetics to retro kitsch.

In an intertextual homage to that pillar of cinematic art, 80s/90s-era family sitcoms, all the b-roll running around and talking-head setup is periodically interrupted by a rebooted Family Ties-style melodrama concerning a suburban two-child family and their diabolical phones. The placid evening meal is disrupted by a Karen-like mother who locks her brood’s phones in a Tupperware container. The daughter, like a druggie jonesing for a hit, gets up and smashes the phone free of its Tupperware prison to check a notification, and thus does the drama begin. The daughter spirals into neurotic self-absorption prompted by comments on her social media posts. The son is radicalized via video recommendation algorithms and ends up in handcuffs at a protest with some unspecified groups of activists. The social-media sitcom functions as a Hogarthian Rake’s Progress, judgingly depicting every downward step on the path to social-media perdition, and culminating in instructive ruination.

(There might have been sub-threads I missed in The Tupperware Family melodrama; to be honest, after about 20 minutes in, I started using Netflix’s 10-second fast-forward button to skip around. Perhaps my attention span was been sapped by excessive phone usage: fucking Facebook again.)

Full-House-meets-Black-Mirror was only part of the 90s-era TV redux though.

This is how I wish people thought I spent my days in the world of ads targeting. It’s just like this.

Interspersed in the sitcom drama, like the parallel sci-fi reality in Tron or Black Mirror’s ‘Hang the DJ’ episode, we have what’s presented as the dastardly employees (or are they human avatars of supposedly algorithmic processes?) manipulating the content our suburban family sees. This putative Facebook office looks like a cross between Minority Report and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: wall-sized displays packed with rounded-edge design facing a phalanx of humans at sleek touchscreen panels. The figures function almost like some Olympian triad who interject technology’s wiles—notifications, pop-up calls to action, algorithmic feeds optimized for dopamine—to manipulate the lives of the hapless mortals back down on Earth into some Sophoclean tragedy.

The real (and only) Greek pathos in Social Dilemma appears when the former social media employees show up to denounce their previous endeavors, and the mood suddenly resembles that of a confessional booth.

Traitors always exert a strange fascination on the human mind. Benedict Arnold, despite the damnatio memoriae proclaimed in the early years of the republic, is better known today than many other heroes of the American Revolution. The public is likewise fascinated when the former foot soldiers of tech (title-inflated by journalists to ‘executive’, almost as if by law) turn on their former corporate benefactors and repent in Cultural Revolution-style struggle sessions.

This we get in spades. Social Dilemma manages a decently A-list lineup of a few former social-media players: Tim Kendall, first ads salesperson at Facebook; Justin Rosenstein, early Facebook employee and Asana co-founder; Sandy Parakilas, former Facebook employee; Alex Roetter, former Twitter engineering leader; Roger McNamee, early Facebook investor and (per his account) mentor to Mark Zuckerberg; lastly (in what seems archival footage), Chamath, former head of Facebook Growth and now VC.

Elites publicly prostrating themselves in acts of contrition (whether real or imagined) are as old as time and Christianity itself. But why now? For many of these names, their days at Facebook (or wherever) were years ago. Can we venture a guess?

It used to be cool to walk down a SOMA street with a Facebook hoodie on. Very quickly after 2016, that totally changed. In the rarefied circles that these deca and centi-millionaires inhabit, how popular would it be to be identified with the platform that (in the public mind at least) led to the 2016 election result and, to this day, helps prop up an unpopular president? Not very, one assumes.

How much of these struggle sessions are a salve for their own consciences versus a performative regret display for their chatty social cohort? How much do their consciences really dog them? Only they can say.

By the end, my anesthetizing bottle of Rioja had almost been drained, the cat was hiding under the couch after witnessing her owner yell at the screen like a mad man and (of course) Netflix autoplayed another trailer as soon as the credits rolled to get me to keep on watching…

If this is all seems a somewhat stuttering, chaotic mess of an exposition, it’s because the film itself is. One decontextualized speaker segment jumps to another, interspersed by family drama plus the latest from the bridge of the Starship Facebook, plus always more and more of The Tristan Harris Show.

What few serious reflections on tech contained in the film—Jonathan Haidt makes a brief cameo and presents some interesting data on teen mental health and smartphone use—are overshadowed by all the docu-drama gimcrackery and Tristan Harris worship. The film never really escapes a wilted salad of cliché tropes about the big bad Internet, and its only conclusion, arrived at meanderingly and well toward the end, is that social media needs to be regulated.

With this, Social Dilemma can be neatly filed alongside every other anti-social-media polemic in this now-popular genre, all of which end in one of three ways.

The modern media mishegas

No matter the format or author, the arguments arrayed against the social media giants by the professional chattering class—I used to talk and fight with them before growing tired of screaming into the tornado for peanuts—boil down to three broad classes (arranged in rough order of intelligence):

  • Luddism

  • Regulation

  • Antitrust

Let’s examine them each in turn.

(For the purposes of brevity, we’ll call this toxic stew of social and epistemic pathologies amplified by social media—misinformation, ‘fake news’, hate speech, group violence, universal Rashomon effect, etc.—via a catch-all moniker: the Suck).

Firstly, fighting the Suck via Luddism:

Dune’s Butlerian Jihad was a clever literary device that allowed futurist scifi to still feature the kinetic action of old-timey swashbucklers. After all, who’d watch a movie about AI-enabled, remote-controlled drones fighting in a desert over a scarce, valuable commodity when that’s just the Middle East right now? History doesn’t record many examples of civilizations wholesale abandoning transformative technologies, unless that technology—iron for stone, nuclear weapons for chemical ones—was superseded in some way. The one example that comes to mind is imperial China abandoning ocean navigation after the pioneering long-range voyages of explorer and court eunuch Zheng He. The world-historical consequences of that Luddism were Asia eventually being colonized by Europe rather than vice versa. Now, with ninety percent of everything arriving via ocean-crossing ship, Western global supremacy on the wane, and the primary beneficiary of ocean transport being China itself, the Luddism of the Ming dynasty seems as puzzling as it was pointless.

Which is a fancy way of saying nobody is ever fucking giving up their phones and you’d have to be a moron to think they will.

The dark Satanic mills of our dystopia: a purported Facebook data center. As a random anecdote, it used to be tradition among Facebook employees, when visiting one of the West Coast data centers, to find the specific ‘dev’ box used (remotely) to write code and take a selfie with it.

Regulation-wise, this same social-media commentariat was clapping like a pack of penguins when the European Union was thunderously passing its General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), and again when California was passing the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA). As I wrote about at the time, these regulations have done little beyond more deeply entrenching incumbents like Google and Facebook in their advertising monopolies, harming up-and-coming startups with onerous regulation, killed the third-party data ecosystem that served as an alternative to the walled gardens of Facebook, and generally made the European tech and media scenes hamstrung, without any net consumer benefit. As someone who routinely navigates these regulations in my day job, I feel quite comfortable saying that fuck-all has changed in terms of actual privacy; the shifting rules of the GDPR/CCPA have merely sloped the field to the benefit of one or another team of players, and racked up millions in privacy lawyer fees.

”Real regulation has never been tried,” is the response of one prominent social media academic with whom I still have these increasingly pointless debates. This reaction is like when socialists are presented with the example of Venezuela: no, that’s not what I meant, they reply, I meant this other flawlessly-executed vision that’s sure to work. Ignoring that government regulation will necessarily be mired in both rent-seeking and regulatory capture is like conveniently ignoring that full-on, state-controlled socialism necessarily degrades into authoritarianism and inefficiency.

“Best of luck with that,” to use the dismissive Wall Street phrase.

How about killing the Suck via antitrust?

I’ve written before there are good reasons for supporting potential anti-trust intervention in the case of Facebook, but they are almost wholly concerned with fomenting tech innovation and disallowing a tech incumbent to accrete more power (and therefore more easily settle into complacency) via acquisitions. You can’t fight the Suck by breaking up companies; if anything, it makes it harder to fight as small fragmented players would be less able to tamp down foul play like state-sponsored misinformation. Consider the few companies that managed to grow to adulthood out from under Facebook’s shadow, e.g. SnapChat or Instagram before it was snatched up: they had practically nothing in the way of content moderation or user protections. In fact, fast-growing, recently-acquired Instagram bootstrapped its user operations with Facebook’s far more developed team. The ‘Baby Books’ that would come out of antitrust, though possibly very exciting from a pure product point of view, would be less rather than more able to combat the Suck.

How can I be so sure of the futility of all this?

Well, the evidence is right there in front of us: It’s called WhatsApp, and I’ve written before how its success is the counterargument to the standard-issue Facebook discourse.

For US readers where WhatsApp has never quite been as preponderant, the service is a surprisingly simple messaging app with two key features: strong support for messaging groups and (this is critical) easy message forwarding. That’s it. There’s no Feed, no algorithmic anything, no ads, no selective surfacing of content or friend suggestions. The key thing is its utter ubiquitousness, particularly in developing markets like Brazil and India where smartphone adoption has soared. For your typical user in such a market, WhatsApp is the Internet, in the same way AOL was the Internet to early American dial-up users.

Thought experiment: How would you explain something like WhatsApp to a 17th-century peasant? You can’t make references to anything remotely technological like radio or film, so you’d have to resort witchcraft: a WhatsApp-enabled smartphone is like a magical talisman that grants you the power of telepathy. Your thoughts can instantly be transmitted to anybody’s, and vice versa. Never before have we wired all of humanity’s brains together in such a many-to-many snarl of communication, and nothing in 5,000 years of written human culture has prepared us for this moment. That’s what this Internet revolution really represents when it comes to the Suck, and the real devilry of which everything else is some cosmetic permutation. And that’s also what professional activists like Harris completely miss when they (mis)cite the history of bicycles and launch into 89-minute-long neo-Luddite Netflix screeds.

Pointless though this social-media militating may be¹, it will provide a cozy media career for those who ride the wave while it lasts. The insanely wealthy former ex-Facebookers will expiate a few iotas of guilt and still be invited to the right brunches and playdates for their kids. The speakers’ bureaus for the privacy gadflies will use clips from Social Dilemma in their profiles to convince you to pay them thousands (plus business-class airfare) to hear the same spiel in person.

Their influence, beyond maybe nudging Facebook to create something like the Ads Library (a good idea, by the way), will be nil. Being in the right 15-minute meeting at Facebook (like the one I fumbled through in the opening scene of Chaos Monkeys) will have more impact on the future course of media history than ten lifetimes of microphoned media hits, academic studies, and online activism. That’s the hard reality those heckling from the stands will never understand, but those actually playing the game do.

After the buzz of Social Dilemma dies down, the rest of us will still be stuck here with our brains wired to each other in fundamentally uncensorable ways that transcend niceties like national borders or political parties. That startling technological development, the final decoupling of geography from human communication and its democratization to everyone on the globe, will never go away however fervently Luddite nostalgists may wish it so².

Ultimately it’s up to us if the next chapter in our history, to use the printing press/Reformation timeline as a guide, is the Thirty Years’ War—the bloodiest, bitterest conflict in European history until WWII—or the Enlightenment, a period of unprecedented scientific and political progress.

Nobody is going to rescue us from ourselves and our talismanic smartphones: not the European Union and its hamfisted regulations; not the Federal Trade Commission and its army of DC lawyers; not 3 billion Facebook users somehow abandoning their smartphones en masse. And we should definitely not expect salvation, or even a path to get there, from the self-anointed figureheads of media-savvy media condemnation: Trist-AHN and the peddlers of ‘surveillance capitalism’.


  1. If you make the mistake of presenting the reality of activist or academic influence to an actual activist-academic, they’ll stiffly reply that Facebook should have read their 2006 paper presented at the Proceedings of the Society for Digital Hermeneutics where they predicted all of this, and why didn’t those Silicon Valley idiots think ahead a little, huh? How none of these hawkeyed academics have ever parlayed their seeming clairvoyance into a successful venture-capital career is, of course, one of life’s great mysteries.

  2. Part of the unreason around the pro-regulation, pro-antitrust arguments frames Facebook as some sort of dastardly conspiracy foisted on society by malevolent overlords, when really Facebook iteratively converged on precisely what users wanted via relentless testing and user measurement. Thus, any limitation on that offering—or Twitter’s or TikTok’s or anyone else’s—is about as effective and temporary as prohibiting some brand of ice cream: you’ll just have another ice-cream stand providing the same flavors in a hot second.