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The Social Dilemma’s Blind Spot

A scene from Netflix's documentary The Social Dilemma

A scene from Netflix's documentary The Social Dilemma.

The Social Dilemma, released recently on Netflix and getting lots of attention right now, is as important a documentary as we could have coming out before the national election. I believe in its message. I am an even bigger believer in using Netflix’s platform and reach to educate the millions of Americans who still don’t quite understand the devil’s bargain they accepted when they clicked “OK” to the terms and conditions for Facebook, Apple, Twitter, Amazon, and Google, and even Netflix itself.

This film will inform millions of worldwide users who still don’t understand that these platforms are not free, but are instead artfully profiting off of each of their personal data trails.  Dismantling the hold that social media has on every day users is urgent and important work. This film delivers that. Explaining how the systems work is critical baseline understanding for a public that is increasingly divided ahead of an election that clearly has way more complexities than normal. That said, the film, and the movement behind it, failed me, and so many others. In the first 60 seconds the filmmakers featured more than eleven white faces, and zero people of color. It did not get better after that. 

I am no stranger to this field, or to the issues presented in this film. I am a former advertising executive who helped deploy millions of dollars worth of programmatic ads upon the public (our intentions were good!). I then went on to found a startup which had more access to our millions of user’s personal data than we had intended. Most recently I have been working as an investor using data ethics and diversity as a diligence lens, and I also consult as a technology and data ethics advocate and educator to organizations. 

In 2017, in my first week as an entrepreneur-in-residence charged with helping to build out Omidyar Network’s tech ethics portfolio, I had a meeting with Tristan Harris. I was impressed with his message, and eager to fund his vision. Our team wrote Tristan his first check that day, and helped fund what would eventually become the Center for Humane Technology, a nonprofit focused on the ethics of consumer technology. A point of failure of the funders, the center’s work and the documentary is that they have not, except in a rare few cases, expanded outside of Silicon Valley’s own echo chamber of voices. It could have included many other voices along the way.  For all its virtues, this film comes off a bit as an infomercial for one person’s work. Critically, despite its effective explanation of several key issues, it leaves the topic of inequality, and how that particular problem is exacerbated by the platforms, on the cutting room floor. 

I think everyone should watch this film. But then try this: watch it from the point of view of a person of color. We are barely visible. While so much has been done to increase representation in film (with Netflix and HBO leading the charge) it still baffles me that this documentary crossed the finish line with such an obvious level of homogeneity. 

Other than actors (who were cast to literally hit every racial checkbox), only 2 of the quoted experts out of 24 (Rashida Richardson & Cynthia Wong) were not white, and only 6 of the voices came from women. It even took 45 minutes before the Center for Humane Technology’s own Randy Fernando appeared in the film. That’s how absent Brown, Black, and Asian voices are here. And there’s no lack of people who could have participated and spoken passionately on this topic: Safiya Noble, DJ Patil, Anil Dash, Baratunde Thurston, Jennifer 8. Lee, Joy Buolamwini (whose own documentary Coded Bias addresses these issues, but lacks a major streaming distribution deal) …and so many more.

Former FAANG product designers and engineers who are also people of color are plentiful, and many of them were within spitting distance of the documentary’s camera crews. I understand that not everyone they asked may have wanted to be featured, but I do know many who were not asked and would have happily lent their voice and expertise to this film. Why leave them out? 

And to make matters inexcusably worse, there were several quotations featured as interstitials, each of which was from a white man. Epistemological domains are often dominated by white voices, but with just a little effort these could have been much more diverse and interesting. 

Anil Dash pointed out in 2018 that exclusively focusing on one person to lead a movement this big and this complex would be problematic. He also said, “I’m very wary of media’s focus on anyone as a single face or name in the movement for tech ethics, especially as it’s always been women & nonbinary folks (especially POC) leading the effort and paying the highest price.” 

It also strikes me as misguided that those interviewed are given a chance for easy redemption by participating in the film, when some of them did real damage when they worked for the major platforms, and yet still have all the power and valuable shares that came from working for those companies. What rings most true here is something that also applies to climate change issues: The people who suffer the most are the ones who did the least to contribute to the problem. 

Black, Brown and Asian users bear asymmetric consequences of the data economy, and feel that pain first. In fact, many technologists of color had spoken out on this topic for years before Tristan came along. Nilofer Merchant pointed out how the platforms were letting hate win in 2017, during her interview with Brianna Wu who was one of Gamergate’s targets. Nilofer’s words ring true today, “Women were the canaries in the tech industry coal mine.” You simply can’t talk about the problems technology has created without exploring its effect on people of color. A lack of diversity inside the companies has always been and always will be the reason inequality grows at scale via these tech products.  And while anyone of any race can be a target for bullying, harassment, and doxxing, Black and Brown users often get a disproportionate amount of vitriolic responses. A good example is what happened to comedian Leslie Jones

Truly examining the problems tech has caused requires empathetically embracing diversity as a first step. 

The first question I ask when I coach organizations on ethical behavior is: Did you talk to your audience? Do you know who is watching? What have they told you about what they need to see? Empathy-generating interviews such as these are the baseline for all ethics, because without consideration of the people who are not in the room, you are only designing for yourself and people like you. And sadly, once something expands to a 10X – 1000X scale, it stops working as originally designed, and unintended consequences emerge. This film, sadly, did not follow a process for diversity, empathy or the inclusion of all voices. That is even more alarming, because the topics covered in the film are so deeply intertwined with issues of race. 

I expected better from the team behind this film, especially given their mission of exposing the ills of social media. If they had tried slightly harder with proper representation, the film would have been much more effective and meaningful to far more communities for years to come. 

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