Reprogramming Society: A Conversation with Jeff Orlowski

Julie Luebken 14 November 2020
Image Credits: Cambridge Tech and Society

The Social Dilemma, at least personally, was a scary documentary to watch. The chilling footage of previous tech-executives provided a bleak picture of a world where human perceptions and behaviour are influenced, and even driven, by the social media we consume. The documentary’s producer, Jeff Orlowski, spoke at a recent event hosted by Cambridge Tech and Society, accompanied by two Cambridge academics: Ella McPherson, senior lecturer of Sociology and Co-Director of the Center for Governance and Human Rights, who specialises in human rights in the digital age, and Matt Mahmoudi, a researcher in artificial intelligence and human rights at Amnesty International.

Watching the documentary made me acutely conscious of my personal encounters with technology. The struggle to keep off my phone, the desire to have meaningful conversations with the people around me and the superficiality of social media. The relatable stories in the Social Dilemma was a “creative risk” to Jeff. Certainly, he could have limited the storyline to academic discussions and apocalyptic warnings by Silicon Valley’s brightest, but it would have been restrictive in engaging audiences. Jeff expressed a willingness to ground the story – avid social media users are less inclined to engage in messages that do not conform to their daily habits. When a storyline is involved, especially one they can relate to, this sparks epiphanies about how our technology use affects us, those around us and our social networks.

Technology is like “living in a personalized Truman show.” Picture this: you are driving along a wide American highway, there are billboards along the road and they advertise products that seem catered to you. The personalised advertisement, known to be a prominent feature of social platforms, leads you down a road that you don’t choose. You tend to instinctively follow it because that is where these mechanisms are leading you. At the same time, you have no idea what messages are being advertised to others. You are by yourself. The ease of feeling isolated, a theme Jeff highlighted in the documentary and during the conversation, reflects how depression, anxiety, suicide and other mental health issues are experienced not only among teenagers but also large portions of the population. It’s easy to turn to your phone when you have a second to spare. It’s easy to keep scrolling. It’s easy to compare yourself to others and never feel good enough. More insidiously, it is too easy to turn a blind eye and ignore the addictive elements embedded in the design of social media platforms. To Jeff, and I wholeheartedly concur, the most dangerous thing is ignorance.

More insidiously, it is too easy to turn a blind eye and ignore the addictive elements embedded in the design of social media platforms.

Why care about all these things if I have nothing to hide? This question often arises when discussing issues such as privacy and the regular security breaches of tech companies. What I took from the conversation among Jeff, Ella and Matt is that privacy cannot be an individual matter. We need privacy to be able to sustain democracies. We need the private sphere to be able to criticise our politicians and hold them accountable. Privacy will likely become only more salient and protecting it now is necessary to ensure that we continue to have that right as a community, not just as individuals. Ella was adamant in her claims that privacy as an issue needs to be reframed. Nobody is saying you have anything to hide, but there are massive advantages in protecting our right to privacy, which is a fundamental aspect of our democracy.

Ultimately, the conversation and the documentary reflected on how far technology has driven us away from humanity. “If you are not the client, you are the product.” Social media isn’t made for us – it’s made for advertisers. We have become the commodity in a business model centered around addicting us to endless Instagram pictures, Twitter rants and thousands of Facebook friends. It takes away many of the positives that tech-executives saw at the start of the technological boom. There is no human scale to our connections; they are rendered meaningless by superficial content and minimal conversation. The difficulty now is to make a technological transition. All it takes, as Jeff astutely pointed out, is for some engineers to change the code. The stakes are much higher: it is a whole business model that is obsessed with increased wealth. The multi-layered capitalism that we are all victims of is hard to dismantle.

As final words, Jeff painted a picture of a dystopia. Lots of people suffer. But it is a big enough wake-up call to spark change. At least that is the hope.