Image: Netflix

Image: Netflix

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”.

Privacy is Power: Why and How You Should Take Back Control of Your Data by Carissa Véliz (2020)

What, really, do big tech firms want with our data? What exactly are they doing with it? And how can we take back control of our privacy? These are some of the questions Carissa Véliz answers in this pitchfork-waving assault on the attention economy, and how the “data vultures” of the Information Age use and abuse our personal information to make themselves rich.

More terrifying is what they actually know about us, from where we live to how fast we drive, our sexual fantasies to political tendencies, how much we drink to when we wake up. And that barely scratches the surface.

But there is light at the end of the tunnel: we can take back control of our lives and choices. Véliz powerfully and clearly explains how. And for a snaphot, you can read the article she wrote for this website, here.

Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World by Cal Newport (2019)

If you're beginning to worry that your face gets more screen light than sunlight, as you tumble deeper into social media's sticky web, this is a book that can cut you free.

“In my experience,” writes Newport, “gradually changing your habits one at a time doesn’t work well — the engineered attraction of the attention economy, combined with the friction of convenience, will diminish your inertia until you backslide toward where you started.”

Instead, he suggests a 30-day “digital declutter,” in which we impose a severe restrictions on our tech consumption, like a social media crash diet.

Through that, Newport claims, you will learn to “rethink your relationship with social media”, “prioritize 'high bandwidth' conversations over low quality text chains”, and “rediscover the pleasures of the offline world.”

No Filter: How Instagram Transformed Business, Celebrity and Culture by Sarah Frier (2020)

This, simply, is the “definitive inside story of Instagram,” from one of the most acclaimed social media journalists in America. Sarah Frier is Bloomberg's social media editor, so she knows her onions (and her Apples, Googles and Facebooks) when it comes to Silicon Valley.

But this is no interminable biz-lit snooze-fest. First, she has remarkable access to the key players – from Instagram's co-founders to super-influencers such as Kris Jenner. Second, she pixellates her narrative with no end of juicy anecdotes and behind-the-curtain peeks that bring the evolution of the world's most popular photo-sharing app to crisp, unfiltered life.

But it's not all Silicon Valley. She also lifts the lid on how Instagram has transformed global business, and birthed a new class of photo-happy entrepreneurs, changed our perception, not only of celebrity, but of reality as a whole.

Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino (2020)

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.

Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now by Jaron Lanier (2018)

If you watched The Social Dilemma, you'll remember Jaron Lanier. He's pretty difficult to miss, and very easy to listen to.

The Silicon Valley maverick is one of the most respected voices in tech, a visionary who was there when the internet was born and has since watched it grow into the beast it’s become. Now he’s on a mission to tame the monster he helped create.

The essence of his argument is this: social media makes us sadder, angrier, less empathetic, more tribal and, ironically, more isolated. Companies like Facebook and Google deploy constant surveillance and subconscious manipulation of their users. They monetise our online activity (which, in any other context, could be called labour), for which we get little, if anything, in return. His arguments are compelling and wide-ranging, witty and profound.

Chaos Monkeys: Inside the Silicon Valley Money Machine by Antonio Garcia Martinez (2016)

When it comes to tech greed and the digital gold rush, Antonio Garcia Martinez is a man worth listening to. A Silicon Valley entrepreneur himself, and former senior product manager in Facebook's ad team where he turned users’ data into profit for the company, he knows where the bodies are buried... and the data.

Here, he lifts the lid on what really goes down in Silicon Valley's glass-walled corridors of power, as he untangles the chaotic expansion of social media and online marketing into the data-devouring krakens they have become.

From sizzling personal anecdotes (like how he once brewed illegal beer on Facebook's campus and flooded Mark Zuckerburg's office) to tell-all corporate exposes, here is one man's journey into the belly of the Silicon Valley whale, and how he came out, half-digested but alive, the other end. And it's snappy, snippy and a gripping narrative to boot.

The Hype Machine by Sinan Aral (2020)

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.

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