A Personal Dilemma on The Social Dilemma

This was originally shared in my newsletter that I send out bi-weekly on what I’m learning and writing about in the topics of mindfulness, relationships, and technology.
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I’ve gotten multiple messages from friends asking if I’ve watched The Social Dilemma. Yes I have. It’s eye-opening, isn’t it? If you haven’t watched it yet, please do. You can find the link here. The documentary highlighted aspects of our technology that I’ve been reflecting on for the past 4-5 years.

Jeff Orlowski’s documentary “The Social Dilemma,” may be one of the most important documentaries of the year. The film explores the rise of social media and some of the potential harm it’s had on society. It was quite the doozy. From addiction, data mining, conspiracy theories, all the way to Pizzagate. There was a lot to unpack.

The doc’s star is former Google design ethicist Tristan Harris, who after leaving Google started the Center for Human Technology. Other guests include the co-founder of Facebook, the former President of Pinterest, policy researchers, and many others.

I felt quite sad after watching it. It’s sad to see how our phones are correlated with teenage mental health issues. It’s sad to see how addicted we’ve become to our devices. It’s even sadder that I struggle to come up with ways to help solve this issue.

I watched The Social Dilemma with my new roomies who also work at large tech companies. Once the documentary was over, I posed the question of how we can try to help solve some of these societal challenges. It was difficult to come up with coherent and practical solutions, mainly because of incentives. Many of us are measured on metrics like retention, acquisition, growth, etc.
Retention, for example, is a measure for how many times a user comes back to an application. In other words, if you come back and watch more videos on Youtube, then employees there are compensated and rewarded for achieving their “retention” goals. That’s hard to fight against unless you want to risk your own employment. This is the foundation of how these companies are run, how investors value their executives, and how employees are measured. 

I am still optimistic that there can be a positive change, it will just take a lot of effort internally, married with intelligent regulation. Likewise, you can use these principles but adapt the business models to deliver value to your members and customers. I’m biased, but at LinkedIn, I feel good that despite leveraging similar product tactics, our goals line up to helping folks get jobs – among other things. And, even at these large social media companies, there are wonderful, bright, ethical people working there. This is a novel and nuanced challenge which will take a novel and nuanced approach to solve. 

If you have thoughts or have read anything interesting on this topic please share it with me. For the time being, here are a few of my thoughts on how to be more mindful of our technology.

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