A recent Netflix documentary titled The Social Dilemma interviews several engineers who had helped build social media platforms, but who are now sounding the alarm on their creations. The film features prominent designers from Google, Facebook, and Twitter, including the engineer who created the pervasive “like” button and the inventor of the “infinite scroll.” The impact of the documentary comes from hearing the very people who created the technology behind social networks expressing regret and repenting of what they helped to build.
The documentary provides a clear explanation of the issues arising from social networking, whose business models depend on keeping people’s attention fixated on screens. These products employ sophisticated tracking and profiling in order to customize content that will further engage and influence users. The end result is that users are manipulated unconsciously through positive, intermittent behavior reinforcement (similar to playing a slot machine) for the purpose of attracting advertisers.
The design of social media results in many negative side effects which have become increasingly clear. There are documented declines in mental health related to social media use and growing addiction to smartphones. There has been an increase in political disinformation campaigns (doubling in the last two years), and remarkable growth in extremist groups due to algorithms steering people toward them.
Between interviews with former social media engineers, the film weaves dramatic vignettes of a family whose members are impacted and influenced by social media. A young man named Ben tries to shake his smartphone addiction but is drawn back into binging on his social media feed. Gradually, manipulative algorithms target him, nudging him to behaviors that cause conflict within his family. Later, he is steered toward a rabbit hole of online conspiracies, leading him to participate in a demonstration that turns violent. In another vignette, a teenage girl is portrayed wrestling with body image and depression as social media perpetuates unrealistic standards of beauty.
The interviews with social media designers alongside the dramatic sketches are effective at illustrating the issues arising from social media driven by commercial interests. Although one can try to push back, social media algorithms “tilt the floor” of human behavior in a way that is difficult to resist. The end result is greater polarization, outrage, and misinformation. The recent presidential elections in the United States have only served to underscore this point.
The movie opens with the filmmaker posing the question, “What is the problem?” The computer scientists and engineers in the film seem at a loss for words. The big answer to “What is the problem” is the reality of sin, which impacts not only human hearts but also technology. Technology is not a neutral activity of designing artifacts, but profoundly reflects a particular view of the world and the kind of people we desire to be, whether this is done consciously or not. Likewise, social media are not just neutral platforms to connect people, but include significant cultural, ethical, societal, economic, and political aspects. Clearly, the design decisions related to social media platforms ought to be informed by more than just technical or economic considerations.
What is missing from this documentary are conversations with social scientists who have been sounding these alarms for many years. Even so, there is something redemptive to hear social media engineers themselves voice remorse for their creations. Several of these engineers are now part of the Center for Humane Technology, an organization focused on the ethics of consumer technology.
I wonder how things might have unfolded differently if more computer science programs included the liberal arts. Computer science programs that focus only on technical content can produce computer scientists who develop a sort of tunnel vision. The Dutch statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper compares this kind of education to “[touring] the country in a hooded carriage” and reaching the destination knowing “nothing about the countryside.” 1
In contrast, computer science programs taught at most Christian universities include not only liberal arts courses, but also emphasize how faith ought to inform our technical creations. How do we responsibly unfold the technical possibilities in creation while answering the call to love our neighbor in our work as computer scientists? It turns out that we live coram Deo [in the presence of God], and all of life is religious. 2
Kuyper describes the perils of a utilitarian education simply to “acquire a steady position and a guaranteed salary.” He concludes that such a utilitarian education condemns oneself to become a “hewer of wood and drawer of water” rather than a “nurseryman in a consecrated garden.” 3 What the world of social media needs are more computer scientists trained not as just “hewers of code” but thoughtful caretakers in the garden of digital possibilities.
An earlier version of this article was originally published in Christian Courier.