Social media and its middle-class dystopian narratives elide more critical conversations with technology and society. Image Courtesy: under Creative Commons License.

he novelty of big data may have worn off, but fictions of its autonomous role in crafting socio-spatial relations, paying homage to earlier frameworks of technological determinism, have been surprisingly resilient. Representations and critiques that subordinate socio-spatial relations to digital ones are deployed to celebrate digital technologies as well as spell the end-point of humanity’s innocuous relationship with technology. Policy responses to “digital divide” continue to function on the assumption that an absolute division between digital haves and have-nots can be bridged through technological interventions, overlooking how technologies were often used for imposing hierarchies rather than creating horizontal networks of egalitarianism (Warschauer 2003). A similar approach prompts us to mount standalone critiques of digital technologies, especially when it fails, but the ways technologies are embedded in societal processes and thus are co-constituted rarely get our attention.

This narrow view of technology-society relations afflicts Netflix’s anxious documentary The Social Dilemma. Its characters, a majority of them White ex-Silicon Valley tech guys, appear extremely concerned about the monster social media platforms have become, upending democracies and wrecking social lives. These narratives are potent with both problems and possibilities, and social media and digital technologies legitimately demand critical spatial analysis. After all, we have all reached for our phones time and again, reacted in horror at the bile spewed on social media and swore never to log in again. But, if we take stock of all the wrongdoings that evoke anxiety — Google nudging its users to become addictive, Facebook selling reactionary and xenophobic political opinion, Instagram leading to “body image issues” among young people — what does this offer us that we don’t already know? What stories are elided when we adopt this tone of alarm and anxiety? How does our positioning, both social and spatial, influence our dilemmas with the digital?

I argue that by focusing on middle class technological anxieties in the global North, The Social Dilemma inadvertently reinforces the spatial hegemony of technological optimism and ignores the socio-spatial contingencies through which social media and its artifacts are constructed and imagined. I am not suggesting that social media or digital platforms do not pose a problem for the global South — indeed, social media’s role in elections and political processes such as in India, as also elsewhere, need critical attention. But by privileging the global North consumer-citizen on the graphical end-user interface, and ignoring the web of relationships and attendant politics that underpin the governance of social media, we tend to lose sight of what are essentially competing scales that derive their logics of operation from highly flexible strategies. By scale, I not only refer to countries, or the worn-out framework of global North/South, but also the bounded and unbounded spatial configurations, which are illuminated by the strategies of various actors across the platform-society relationship. By employing a relational and spatial lens, I denaturalize the material and discursive construction of “users” and “technologies” in digital platforms and reveal why, even as it is tempting, “(the) social dilemma” should not be mapped exclusively to the nefarious actions of social media platforms or governments.

Social media platforms act within a matrix of social and spatial relations. Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons.

Constructing Technology as Dystopia

If we go back to the late 1990s, we will see how technology corporations and the media, primarily in the United States but also elsewhere, interpreted the public internet — the reigning technological artifact of those times — as challenging and erasing physical markers of difference and heralding a new democratic public sphere. A response to the technological pessimism of the Cold War-era nuclear doom, this optimistic note on technological advances producing social justice was writ large on the famous MCI 1997 commercial “Anthem” which featured mostly “raced” and marginalized people extolling the virtues of the ‘virtual’ internet as a panacea to the disempowerment they felt in the ‘real’ world. The internet, held to be the principal solution to political problems, was supposed to enable virtual flexibility to structural rigidities by interpreting race as “skin-deep” and thereby, providing valence to technology’s conceptualization as “screen deep” (Chun 2005).

There are uncanny continuities between this discursive framing of the internet as technological utopia — “a nice, simple business” in investor Robert McNamee’s words — and the anxieties accompanying the uncontrolled roguish enterprise that is the technology industry now. Both framings are sustained in part by overlooking the immediate socio-spatial context of the United States’ tech industry’s backyard — Silicon Valley and San Francisco. As the frontrunner of “open innovation,” the city is the principle site of the so-called creative economy, where social life produces value through the commodification of urban space (Stehlin 2015). The tech companies have long been subject to criticism in Silicon Valley — activists and residents of San Francisco have mounted sustained protests against tech companies, including blocking their private buses from using public bus stops, and have argued that stakeholders in the private corporate infrastructures of technology companies, the real estate industry and politicians who benefit from the tech industry, are prompting gentrification at the cost of public resources (Maharawal 2014). The intricate logics of the techno-capitalist imaginaries of the real estate industry and technology platforms has led to an “eviction epidemic,” mainly displacing poor persons of color (Maharawal and McElroy 2018).

In contexts other than the United States, particularly in the global South, technological optimism deflated sooner as technologies kept “failing,” which, as postcolonial computing scholars remind us, is irreducible to good intentions supported by bad design (Philip et al 2012). The evangelical One-Laptop-Per-Child (OLPC) project, once touted to be the harbinger of opportunities and empowerment for the underdeveloped postcolonial child, was found to complicate existing socio-political concerns by ignoring questions of infrastructural capacity and technological interventions in long established forms of social reproduction. It also bypassed the very real question of what it meant, for children in mining-dependent African countries, to be part of a value chain that produced inexpensive laptops for children in other postcolonial contexts.

Digital Selves and Spaces

A glaring omission, or one should say, mischaracterization, in The Social Dilemma — and this takes away from its ability to engage in a critical conversation about technology — is of users. The word “user” raises alarm as we are told that the only other industry, apart from software, that calls its customers “users” is “illegal drugs.” It is true that customers are being “used” but this conversation will benefit from a richer understanding of the “user.” The parallel fictional track featuring three teenagers, whose social life seems to be straight out of a futuristic doomsday scenario, casts users as passive consumers and followers and thus, makes them look more like caricatures than actual conversation starters. Expectations and engagements with social media and other platforms are often filtered through one’s sociospatial positions making social media usage highly contextual and contingent. People use it in different ways, sometimes aligned with perceived expectations, sometimes in opposition to it, and at other times, even to game the system. The plethora of geocoded information available now helps us appreciate how social media users are constituted by a “spatial self,” i.e. selective representations of performances and socio-cultural practices within space and place constitute both lived and imagined social and spatial identities (Schwartz and Halegoua 2015). The “spatial self” is neither additive, in that it is not a summation of social media artifacts or geocoded data, nor necessarily coercive. For instance, Ayona Datta’s (2019) research in Delhi shows how young women articulate their “spatial self” on social media by uploading selfies and staking a claim to the “right to the city.” This is in contrast to the popular understanding of young women’s relationship to both offline and online spaces, often exclusively refracted through the lens of spatial anxiety and articulated through violent metaphors. The fragmented curation of their offline activities in specific spots of the city, with whom they have a complex relationship, not only reconfigures how they negotiate with the city, but also reconfigures how they build their identity as social media users.

Unfortunately, The Social Dilemma takes the definition of the “user” as given, and does not help us understand even a tiny fraction of these users’ social or spatial contexts. There is no ‘one’ social media user as users are highly differentiated along various axes and have divergent interests, aspirations, concerns and persona. Besides this, the documentary overlooks the fact that in a platform environment, across the digital value chain there are many different types of users — the young girl sharing her photo on Snapchat, the data telephony companies, the advertisers, the geolocation software companies, the payment interface platforms, the server maintenance companies, and even the developers and designers themselves. Focusing on an expansive understanding of users would reveal the fractious and multidirectional ways in which most technologies are conceived and are performed, but in not doing so, The Social Dilemma ends up making designers look like code gods. Or, code devils, whichever way you’d like to imagine them.

When social forces are considered an appendage of technology, it makes us believe that if we find out the problem with the market model, weed out the bad guys, pull the right strings and fix the technology, the social upheavals unleashed by technology will be fixed. The magic of “big data” often makes it difficult to appreciate, let alone accept, that technologies rarely determine the nature of social forms on their own, out of context, without interacting with the ensemble of other social and spatial relations. Technologies and socio-spatial relations are simultaneously reconfiguring themselves in a contested terrain in which wider societal processes play both a material and discursive role (Dalton and Thatcher 2014). Rather than getting fixated in finding an overarching logic to these problems, we could ask, what are the social and political forces that allowed for the rise of technological utopianism with respect to social media at a given moment in time? This approach does not allow the social to play second fiddle to technology, and instead examines how they are mutually constituted.

I have no intention of whitewashing and deflecting attention from the damages wrought by social platforms — political manipulation, ideological polarization, algorithmic governance, surveillance capitalism — the list could go on. But, I see less value in interpreting a business model or the intentionality of a few personalities, devoid of the socio-spatial contexts and the uneven terrain of space on which it plays out. Exploring the recursive relationship of the social and technological will help us identify the inconsistencies therein, and prompt us to imagine the radical possibilities in tech, even as social media’s future appears to be bleak. How we define the problem matters. Otherwise we will end up in seminar rooms and Zoom sessions full of Silicon Valley nerds telling us what we always intuitively knew — social media is not our friend.  


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