The Social Dilemma

The Social Dilemma

Dear friends,

Happy new year!

It’s kinda funny that one of the cultural products of 2020 was called The Social Dilemma, because the same name might easily be put to the ongoing deliberations (/straight-up actual fist-fights) around how we all live with the covid19 pandemic, wherever we are in the world.

The Social Dilemma’s personal tips for reducing damage—don't spend hours on the Internet looking for entertainment, wait until children are of a certain age before allowing them to use social media, be cautious about sharing personal information—are pertinent, says Brazilian journalist Beatriz Carvalho, but poor representation in the film leaves the whole thing hugely wanting:

“The film has no Black representation at all and women have almost no voice” Carvalho wrote me in an email interview last year, noting that most of the leading voices are white men and that, in the family through which the film plays out its theory, “there is no resolution to the self-esteem crisis of a Black girl who suffers bullying on the internet when she posts a photo [and her] ears are compared to elephant ears”, while “the father, a Black man, is just ignored throughout the story”.

“And it proposes a white, American hero saviour which I also find quite excluding”, continued Carvalho, who is from São João De Meriti in the state of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and is the founder of Mulheres de Frente (Women in Front), a digital empowerment initiative for girls and young women in favelas and peripheral towns.

“This guy writes a letter and changes the whole Google story? Very surreal” she added.

Our putative ‘hero’ is Google's former ‘design ethicist’ Tristan Harris—Carvalho hints that there may be other agents of change in addressing our shared, well, dilemma.

(Beatriz Carvalho has written a full appraisal of the film in this December 19 article for Agência de Notícias das Favelas, [Portuguese]).

To be sure, we’ve needed more accountability and creativity on the problems driven by the tech designers of Silicon Valley since immediately, it’s just that the film gives very little attention(!) to what a new publication launched in 2020 eponymously refers to as ‘Rest of World’. (Their mission is to “document what happens when technology, culture and the human experience collide, in places that are typically overlooked and underestimated.”)

Nigerian journalist Alexander O. Onukwue says that “for a documentary proposing big-picture diagnoses of social media’s effect on the world, The Social Dilemma barely takes the 1.2 billion people in Africa into consideration.” Writing in African tech newsletter Techcabal, Onukwue goes on to suggest specific instances in which calls for regulation of social media in African countries have or would likely result in the same kind of government control and censorship that the film might have us escape.

Internet rights advocate Tarun Pratap opines for India’s Digital Empowerment Foundation (to which Facebook is listed as a partner on their website) that “the American docudrama” places blame on the business model behind social media (i.e. unfettered profit-making), whilst “[ignoring] the fact that modernizing success of America and … western society was built on the same business model of capitalism and the free market. The same system and the success that was detrimental to the global South. The only difference here is the impact is visibly on the North as well” says Pratap—“hence the worries” about social breakdown in western (/ ‘global North’) society.

Which is all also to say that despite its blanketing of social life, the effects of global corporate social media—like the covid19 pandemic—are uneven due to domination and control of resources by elites, and also experienced and grappled with by people and communities within the particularity of their circumstances with results that can’t be predicted by those elites. And while profit metrics are prized and their loot hoarded across algorithms and date lines in the manner of the current international system, for many the co-ordinates of staying alive, working to eat, and building steady inter-generational foundations are not much different than before.

I wonder for example if the family of Victorio Hilario Guzmán, an indigenous Mè pháá man and migrant from the mountains of Guerrero, Mexico who was killed in a hit-and-run while working for app-based food delivery company DoorDash in New York, might see some justice in the reformed Silicon Valley. His story was published by my colleague Vania Pigeonutt in Mexican independent media outlet Pie de Página as 2020 drew to a close (English translation by Martha Pskowski, NACLA); his family were already laid low by a shortfall in income attributed to the covid19 pandemic and are raising the costs of his repatriation and their legal challenges via GoFundMe.


The pic below is of a hand-lettered sign in the corner of a street-facing window on a house in the central Mexico City neighbourhood of Roma Norte, where there are many medical clinics and the national general hospital is also nearby. Sincere words, publicly communicated, within an unmitigated, preventable tragedy.

Till next time,


Thank you thank you, doctors, nurses, orderlies, drivers, administrative officers, those who risk their lives for ours, honor them, respect them, care for them ~ Protect yourself, protect me, use facemasks, COVID exists.

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Jamie Larson