There are many ways to look at the word social – it can imply human characteristics (the social animal), events (social gatherings), and civic organisation (social politics) to give some examples.
In our times, the word social mosttypically has to do with digital connectivity and social networks such as Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest.
Conversely, the least popular connotation of the word social these days is the sense of the term that connotes “sociable”.
This paradoxical decline of a sense of sociability against the growth of social networks is what comes to mind after watching Jeff Orlowski’s ground-breaking Netflix documentary-drama hybrid, The Social Dilemma, where some of the world’s leading tech gurus sound the alarm on their own creations.
Among them are computer scientist Jaron Lanier who proclaims that social media has become an “existential threat”. Tim Kendall, former director of monetization at Facebook and former president of Pinterest, similarly says that his greatest fear about the same social media platforms he helped to build is that they are leading to “civil war”. Across the roster of knowledgeable voices who in the film ponder where social media is leading us, the same foreboding answer echoes: societal collapse.
Although the absence of sociability in social media is paradoxical, it is no accident. Yes, digital networking platformshelp to sustain friendships and forge new connections, but by large, social media platforms have become an impediment rather than a tool for harmonious co-existence.
Orlowski’s documentary does more than to critique the zeitgeist, however. It revelatorily lays bare exploitative profit models and surveillance capitalism that drive today’s digital technology. It exposes how the technology has become a fundamental part of a loop that together with climate collapse, inequality, prejudice and antidemocratic governance endangers the future of humanity.
The documentary makes a crucial intervention in this regard. There have been a number of books in recent years addressing the addictive nature of social media such as Deep Work by Cal Newport and Filling the Void by Marcus Gilroy Ware, but there isn’t much coverage of the larger global sociopolitical consequences of an antisocial social media. This makes Social Dilemma’s message radically urgent.
In exposing manipulative tactics behind the platforms we utilise to conduct some of our most meaningful exchanges, Social Dilemma does not set out to offer solutions. And there is no panacea for ending the accelerating division caused by social media but “Collective intentionality”– a concept put forward by philosopher John Searle builds in his book The Construction of Social Reality might offer a bridge for the increasingly threatening gap between social media and sociability.
Collective intentionality is the capacity to not simply engage in cooperative behaviour but to “share intentional states such as beliefs, desires, and intention,” as Searle puts it. “[T]he crucial element in collective intentionality is a sense of doing (wanting, believing etc..) something together, and the individual intentionality that each person has is derived from the collective intentionality that they share.”
However, collective intentionality is not simply a conceptual idea; what it connotes is an existential necessity. (Searle refers to it as a “primitive phenomenon, meaning it is an intrinsic part of being human). As the saying goes, a problem well stated is a problem half solved. Through the investigative exposure of the problem, Social Dilemma makes collective intentionality seem far less impossible.
The review was originally publsihed in Esperanto Magazine.
Photo by Jon Tyson