October 7, 2020

Thinking and Living Well | The Social Dilemma

By Rev. Hayden Butler

I learned about the new Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma by way of three people I respect from three different spheres of my life. That was consensus enough to get me past the trailer. Having now viewed it, I think there’s a lot to take away from it and that it’s worth watching with your families, especially if you have pre-teen to teenage kids. What I’d like to outline here are some of the strengths and weaknesses of the documentary with the goal of helping formative and Christian conversations to come out of the experience.


The Social Dilemma gathers a respectable group of former executives from all the major social media companies, who weave a testimonial tapestry, putting on display everything from the psychological foundations of social media from Stanford University’s persuasive technology courses to the large-scale computer engineering required to maintain an unthinkably vast amount of personal data from every user.  While much of this information has been available in bits and pieces if you like to watch C-SPAN recordings or read niche periodicals, The Social Dilemma does a great job of gathering these threads into a compelling narrative. It holds your attention pretty constantly, all without relying on sensuality, crassness, or profanity to liven things up. It’s a remarkably clean documentary for being about the seedy underbelly of online activity.

That narrative, though, is the key strength of the documentary. It tells the story of how both innocent and culpable motivations birthed a technological advancement that quickly got out of the control of those who created it, and now exists primarily to enrich those who are able and willing to sell personal data to the highest bidder. Corporate greed makes an appearance as a villain, but I appreciated how the documentary attempted to push past this low-hanging fruit to dig into the very nature of technological experimentation itself. One hears again the words of Dr. Ian Malcolm from Spielberg’s adaptation of Jurassic Park: “we got so obsessed with whether we could do something, we never stopped to ask whether we should do something.” 

The greatest moment, in my mind, was a collective lament from the experts interviewed that because of the radical increase of niche experience we’re having via social media, we no longer have a common sense of what is true. That really struck me to hear from this documentary. A loss of objective truth had produced a fractured reality occupied by warring groups asserting competing and contradictory realities. Their call to recover this truth was inspiring, but sadly remained under-explored, which brings me to some of the weaknesses of the film.


Things get a bit corny at times. Running parallel to the confessional-style interviews with the tech-experts is a dramatization of the concepts in action involving the life of a generic family. The parents and two out of three children are all addicted to their devices, while the third child acts as a voice crying in the wilderness on behalf of simple joys like a regular dinner conversation sans smartphones. The atmosphere of these dramatizations reminded me of the anti-drug PSAs I watched in middle school, depicting innocent youths being preyed upon by nefarious drug-dealers. This part of the documentary is admittedly cheesy, and seems dated even while being a recent production.

The more fundamental flaw in the documentary, though, was in its refusal to follow up on its own questions. For as thoroughly as the former tech-executives narrated their initially innocent intentions for the technology they developed, and for as corrupted as the experiment became, the documentary ends with a call to renew humanity’s collective drive to purge itself of greed and vainglory. As the credits roll, the action steps land on awareness campaigns, on political intervention, and on economic restructuring. It tries its best to end on the positive note to say that even though people were the source of the problem, that people who know better and are better can be the solution.

As a Christian watching this documentary…

The Social Dilemma walks a circle around this question: what do we do with the emptiness within us? The documentary gets close to a good answer in the forms of commending genuine community, of patience when hospitality is challenged, of asking hard questions and requiring good answers. It moves in the direction that we at Pacifica have been practicing since day one. But it stops short of probing the deeper interior problem. The documentary doesn’t get it wrong so much as it doesn’t take it far enough. It looks at that interior emptiness, then rebounds and focuses on the exterior. 

That’s kind of comforting at first. The problem is with amoral technology, with economic incentive to use it for greed, for a lack of governmental leadership as an ethical compass. But that’s kind of a tired story, isn’t it? If we just had better things out there or up there, we’d be better off in here and down here, right? Part of the problem is in the things outside of us, yes. But we live in a time when the exterior and systemic problem is used beyond measure in a way that obscures the equally potent interior problems. Hyper-focus on exterior regulation becomes an excuse to dodge a more uncomfortable question: what is my part in this dysfunctional system–where do I need to change?

And that’s the thing this documentary doesn’t answer. Sure, it makes nods to solutions like “have good conversations” and “ask hard questions” and “set reasonable limitations on yourself.” But those are disciplines that don’t just develop organically–they have to be learned and practiced over a long time with lots of failure and growth guided by coaching. But even those time-tested disciplines of soul will fail unless we want to change. A mentor of mine once said: “if someone is walking away from you, they’re not listening to you.” He was right. And until we turn again to see what we’ve become through our unhealthy dependence on this brand of tech, we will not pursue change when it gets hard. Unless we are willing to start the painful work of saying “no” to ourselves, we’ll just keep replacing the habit.

Until we can look steadily at the brokenness we all carry in our interior lives, though, we will always fail to reform the externals in a meaningful way. Without genuine interior transformation, the reformers are made of the same stuff as the offenders. Education alone cannot accomplish this. Even a liberal arts education can and will be put into the service of evil ends without a conversion of the heart. Sophistication without goodness is how we got to this point. And just knowing we have a problem is not enough. Merely getting angry and cancelling a few apps is not enough. Only a willingness to die to our addiction to gratification, only by cultivating the positive courage to resist social pressure can we begin. Entering into the lifelong process of being conformed to Christ in mind and heart is what is required. It is only the remaking of our entire life by the Spirit, the Giver of Life, that we can know genuine freedom. It is not something that politics or economics can fix. Only the Kingdom of God can resist becoming Babel. 

The Social Dilemma delivers on its title. It is a dilemma: either we permit or resist the reign of manipulative technology in our and our children’s lives. But we continue to be instrumental to the problem in either direction. Permission or resistance shares the same root problems and will be prone to disorder. The dilemma can only be resolved from outside of itself, the genuine rescue of which all participants in the dilemma are incapable. The Social Dilemma delivers on diagnoses but provides only palliatives and leaves us craving a cure. 

So go watch it for yourselves and ask these questions. Then watch it with your kids:

  1. Did the inventors of this technology know they were crossing an ethical line? Would I know if I were crossing the same line? How would I know?
  2. Am I able to say ‘no’ to my devices for prolonged periods of time? Do I have set days or seasons when I willfully abstain from things I like doing just to make sure I’m able to use them freely? Do I model that for my family? Is anyone in my life aware of how I’d answer those questions?
  3. If I’m being honest, what would I say I am really looking for when I spend time with my devices? What do I expect my tech to give me? When am I most inclined to overuse it and what else tends to be going on in my life at those times? 
  4. If I look over the history of my relationship with my technology, am I better off for having it? If the answer is no, am I willing to take steps to make a change in my relationship to tech? Who could help me do that?

This is something that comes up a lot in my pastoral work, so if you’d like to follow up on this and talk more about how to draw your tech use into the spiritual life, I’d always be happy to chat. Please reach out anytime. In any case, I hope this is helpful in shaping a life-giving conversation between you and your families. 

Hayden Butler

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