Netflix is in the news these days, and not in a good way. Something about a movie that allows young teen girls to dance as, well, full-grown women. That's as much as we know. We're not really curious to know more.
But we did get a little screen-time with Netflix over the weekend after a friend told us of a documentary on the service, an interesting little number called "The Social Dilemma." This isn't the movie review section, but we recommend. Editorially speaking.
For it is an engrossing film about the mega-companies you use on the Internet. Or, better put, it's a film about the
mega-companies using you.
Jeff Orlowski's movie uses some actors to stage points he's trying to make. But mostly it's a documentary, with interviews of former Silicon Valley employees/managers/head game-makers. They worked for Facebook. They worked for Google. They worked for Twitter. Some of them worked for more than one.
They all have something in common: They quit, and are telling the world why.
The point of the movie may be that, while these companies have done great things--connecting family members, finding information quickly--there is another side of the coin: The man who invented the "Like" button says he had no idea that teenagers would find themselves mired in depression if a post didn't get enough of them.
One defector, who was involved in getting people addicted to their phones, tells of going to a pantry to avoid family members so he could see what was new on his accounts. Another compares social media sites to slot machines, because each time you pull the handle (or scroll up), there's always something new to see.
This might be the normal warnings against the most recent fad. Except those who warned against rock 'n' roll, the Pet Rock and nose rings never warned of another Civil War.
Not only are these companies collecting Every. Single. Thing. that you post on the Internet, but they're using that to sell things to you, and auction off your eyeballs to the highest bidder.
That, most of us knew. The saying goes, if you're not paying for the product, then you're the product. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that when you like something on Facebook, and an ad appears for something similar a few minutes later, that means somebody, somewhere is keeping track. (Or something, like software.)
But what really caught our eye, like a fishhook, was how these companies could manipulate what you see on your computer to move you to certain actions.
One surprise: You know how Google will offer suggestions when you type in a word? For example, we just typed in the word "Beatles." Google was quick to suggest "Beatles songs," "Beatles albums," "Beatles movie." Depending on where you live, Google might offer different suggestions.
But that's just card tricks. More ominously, these companies keep up with what you search, like and read, and reinforce your political beliefs with more "news" that confirms your views. Even if that news isn't news at all, but completely false.
But such stories "prove" to many that they are the smart ones, and anybody who disagrees with them is a moron. Or perhaps evil. So a body grabs a gun and goes to a pizza place to free the kids caught in the child sex ring. Which never existed anywhere except on the Internet.
If you tune into Fox News or CNN, you know the kind of news you're going to get there. It's something else entirely when you keep getting stories sent to you that reinforce what you believe, even if it's false. As if other stories don't exist in that world. Which obviously means that you have information that the other side refuses to acknowledge, and why are people so dumb, and if they're not dumb then they must have evil intent, and what's wrong with you people?
From The Wall Street Journal's review of "The Social Dilemma":
"It's one thing to keep us looking at more and more ads while gathering data that predict our behavior, but quite another to harness algorithms to the task of serving up the counterfeit news of individualized feeds that reinforce our beliefs, immerse us in alternative realities and help foster conspiracy theories. The most urgent question posed by 'The Social Dilemma' is whether democracy can survive the social networks' blurring of fact and fiction."
Addiction by design. Massive data collection. Surveillance with little regulation. Conspiracy theories. Reinforcement of views to the extreme. And brilliant people formerly in charge of making all this happen warning that we'll soon turn on each other if nothing changes.
This little item on Netflix is worth the hour and a half. And worth the next few hours thinking about that hour and a half.
For the record, who told us of this documentary?