In case you haven't heard, there's a documentary on Netflix about how social-fabric-shreddingly dangerous social media has become. It's called The Social Dilemma, and it's as alarming as a 3am tweet from Donald Trump about a new coronavirus cure.
We already know the headlines, of course: our phones are giving us insomnia, feeding us ignorance, deadening our self-esteem and ruining our capacity to interact IRL, etc. But, through the testimonies of a glittering cast of guilt-ridden ex-tech-titans, The Social Dilemma burrows towards a far darker reality: we may think of social media as a product we consume, but the truth is, we are the product. And our lives are worth a lot of cash to anyone who knows how to hawk them.
"It’s the gradual, slight, imperceptible change in your own behaviour and perception that is the product," says tech guru Jaron Lanier in one memorable scene. "That’s the only thing there is for them to make money from. Changing what you do, how you think, who you are.”
So, if you're one of the millions of Netflix viewers who watched The Social Dilemma and are twitching to know more, here are some books to take you deeper into the “attention economy”.
All the essays in this wonderful collection by one of America's rising stars of heavyweight zeitgeist commentary areworth a flutter. But the first chapter is the one The Social Dilemma fans should read – one of the most incisive accounts of a woman's journey from the heady, hope-saturated days of the Early Internet to the toxic and alienating realities of today.
“Where we had once been free to be ourselves online,” Tolentino writes, “we were now chained to ourselves online."
It is an astute and eye-opening deep dive into web culture, chronicling how it grew, did many wonderful things (#MeToo, for instance), then began to sour after Silicon Valley's svengalis finally worked out how to collect their winnings.
This book, by the head of MIT’s Social Analytics lab, zooms out on social media to look at the way it is being use to influence, and in some cases control, mass human behaviour.
Humans have always been social animals, but the internet has set our interaction to hyper-speed, “injecting the influence of peers into our daily decisions, driving the products we buy, how we vote and even who we love."
Backed by reams of original data, he tells readers they are right to worry about foreign powers sliding under the skin of our elections to influence opinion and foster division. And, as the US presidential election looms, this book could not be more timely.