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Tilting the floor of human behaviour

The engineers behind social media are sounding an alarm.

A recent Netflix documentary titled The Social Dilemma interviews several engineers who initially 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 very people who created the technology behind social networks are expressing regret, 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 behaviour 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 to our 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 caused by algorithms that steer people towards them.

Tilted

Between interviews with former social media engineers, the film weaves in 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 bingeing on his social media feed. Gradually, manipulative algorithms target him, nudging him to behaviours that cause conflict within his family. Later, he is steered towards a rabbit hole of online conspiracies, until he participates 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 alongside the dramatic sketches effectively illustrate 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 behaviour 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.

Lost for words

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. Sin 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 platforms are not just neutral platforms to connect people, but include significant cultural, ethical, societal, economic and political aspects of our lives. 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 in hearing social media engineers voice remorse for their creations. I wonder how things might have unfolded differently if more computer science programs included the liberal arts. Computer science programs taught at most Christian colleges not only include liberal arts courses, but also emphasize how faith ought to inform our technical creations.

Abraham Kuyper talked of the perils of a utilitarian education simply to “acquire a steady position and a guaranteed salary.” He concludes that to undertake such a utilitarian education condemns oneself to become a “hewer of wood and drawer of water” rather than a “nurseryman in a consecrated garden.” 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.

  • Derek C. Schuurman is a Canadian currently living in Grand Rapids, Michigan where he is professor of computer science at Calvin University. Prior to arriving at Calvin he taught for many years at Redeemer University College and was a visiting professor at Dordt University. He currently holds the William Spoelhof Teacher-Scholar-in-Residence chair at Calvin. Besides his technical interests he is interested in faith and technology issues. He is the author of Shaping a Digital World: Faith, Culture and Computer Technology (IVP, 2013).

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