The Social Dilemma

Ronaldo Lemos’ weekly column in the Folha de São Paulo newspaper

published in

19 de November de 2020


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Anyone who watches this documentary will hardly stay indifferent towards social media

One of the most debated topics of last week was “The Social Dilemma”, a documentary launched by Netflix. The film strikes a nerve. Anyone who watches it will hardly stay indifferent towards social media. Some are outraged by the tech companies; others, outraged by the documentary itself.

One of the critiques the documentary received is the message it passes: the problems created by Silicon Valley can only be solved by the people at Silicon Valley — all interviewees are directly related to the location.

This positioning by the filmmakers ignores that the internet has become fragmented over time, and is now the most important area of geopolitical tension of our times.

Naive recommendations such as “turn off your phone’s notifications” or “charge your phone outside your room” sound ridiculous considering the grave situation the network is in now.

The internet and its usage is now a structural issue. Global disputes over it impact people’s lives more than any attempt of personal change.

Another unforgivable simplification is to use an American middle-class family as a “case study” in the documentary.

The internet isn’t made up of people like that (who are the minority). It’s made up of people that fight hard to access the internet — people to whom connectivity is scarce.

Just look at Brazil, where 70 million aren’t online or have a bad internet connection. For many of these people, the connection they can get is a matter of survival.

The documentary also doesn’t tackle the root cause which makes the internet what it is today: complete domination of the internet by monetization practices.

Looking at the history of the internet, the utopia was to build a communication infrastructure that would be independent of capitalism, despite being embedded in it.

This way, the internet was developed as a multisectorial space, in which academia, the scientific community, the third sector (and other sectors) would be on the same level as the private sector.

It wasn’t by chance that the internet received domains such as .org, .edu, .net, and so on. Yet the utopia didn’t last. The private sector became the front-runner on the internet. The .com won.

This fate wasn’t foretold. The internet has already lived through utopic and dystopian stages. Before the first internet bubble, the network was still utopic, heading towards boundless commercialization.

In an article by Hermano Vianna, published in this newspaper (Folha de São Paulo) in 1999, the anthropologist complains that the internet was becoming a shopping center! (Entitled “Internet or the virtual swamp of garbage”).

When the bubble burst at the start of the 2000s, the commercial side of the internet collapsed. This cleared space for a new utopic era of the internet, with the development of blogs and Wikipedia.

However, commercialization of the network kicked back with force. It killed blogs and made many of the issues showcased by the documentary appear.

What can we do to regain the non-commercial side of the internet? Wait for another bubble? Leave your phone charging outside your room?


It’s gone: Brazil without any privacy laws

Now in: The Brazilian General Data Protection Law going into force

Coming up: Application of the Brazilian General Data Protection Law in the electoral process

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