The network dilemma

Elyeser Szturm, from the Heavens series


Commentary on the newly released film

The film The network dilemma, recently released by Netflix, crystallizes for a varied audience a series of discussions that have been agitating the virtual environment for some years now. Not that it presents great revelations, but it reveals details and brings interviews of characters that helped build the giants of the virtual network.

The script, very well constructed, mixes real testimonies with fiction, in order to demonstrate how the “manipulation and profit system” created by Silicon Valley companies, today among the most powerful in the world, works: Google, Facebook, Youtube, Twiter , Instagram, Pinterest, etc.

How did these companies, in principle “free” for users, become billionaires? How does monetization work through a simple “like” click? How is our personal data used to feed an explicit (and subliminal) advertising machine that moves millions of dollars?

Several researchers and scholars of new media have already pointed out the distortions of the system for a long time. Here in Brazil, sociologist and professor Sergio Amadeu, from UFABC, has stood out in the analysis of the dangerous side effects of the intensive use of networks. Although it brings behavioral, aesthetic, social and affective consequences that are not yet fully measurable, as is well demonstrated by the family represented in the film, we will focus here on just one aspect, the macro-political aspect.

The deponents of the film are, or were, important figures in the digital empire. Directors, bosses, engineers, ideologues who today see with reservations the wonderful future they sold shamelessly. They relativize the wonders of a system that little by little is proving to be dangerous, putting the very existence of democracy at risk. In a way, they update the debate raised by Umberto Eco in the 60s, with his famous book Apocalyptic and integrated (Perspectiva), which opposed the defenders of technologies as tools for social advancement to those who accused them of becoming an instrument of exclusion and manipulation of information.

The film directed by Jeff Orlowski dares to put actors representing algorithms, and punctuates its somewhat schematic fictional plot with frightening real facts: the mass manipulation of (dis)information that brought countries to the brink of totalitarianism. Explicitly, Myanmar and Brazil, represented in the film by the disastrous figure elected here in 2018.

There is a whole psychological survey of the internet user. Incidentally, the film remembers well that the term “user” (Addict) is only used for drugs and social media. To enjoy more and more of the pleasures offered by the network, the user does not mind having his data exposed, having his privacy invaded or even allowing authorities to record all his actions.

At one point, an interviewee points out a crucial fact revealed by a survey: a lie spreads six times faster than a truth on the internet. Truths have to be proven exhaustively, lies don't. Against this rapid growth of disinformation, there is no point in countering that Dilma's Ministry of Education booklet did not have a bottle of dick. The lie will always be ahead, miles ahead.

The film touches on the issue of democracy, cites countries that are in the process of corrupting values, but unfortunately does not speak of the devastating role of a Cambridge Analytica, in collusion with the sinister figure of Steve Bannon, influencing elections and referendums, such as the Brexit. For this, it is recommended to watch hacked privacy (The Great Hack), a 2019 documentary that focuses on the plot between the company and Facebook, involving the personal data of millions of people.

The big question for the left is whether it will be possible to compete on the internet with the same weapons as the right. This one, we know, is winning in this field, which it created and knows how to use very well. Deep down, it is an ethical dilemma that haunts any individual, as it is much easier to lie than to speak the truth. But how to propose collective, partisan, institutional solutions to face the avalanche of fake news, in an adverse field?

For some of those interviewed, like Jaron Lanier, the virtual world must be abandoned. “Turn off the nets, go see the sun outside”, he says, symbolically, at the end of the film, echoing Thoreau. In times of a pandemic, it is not a very practical solution. Others, repentant former executives, try to create control mechanisms to preserve democracy. But how to face a machine fueled by millions of dollars, in exponential growth, that corrupts and lures brains from childhood with dazzling promises of individual success, fortune and power?

Organizing a party or organization that operates ethically within this network seems increasingly distant. Before long we will see an explosion of revolt in the real world, if there is still awareness transmitted through traditional means. What remains is social pressure from groups organized around democracy to review legislation, pressure companies and demand transparency on the network. Or we will succumb to a global dictatorship so absolutist that it will remind our elders of the works of Orwell or Huxley. Which, of course, will be treated as fake news.

* Daniel Brazil is a writer, author of the novel suit of kings (Penalux), screenwriter and TV director, music and literary critic.


The network dilemma (The Social Dilemma)

Documentary, United States, 2020, 89 minutes

Directed by: Jeff Orlowski



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