Bicycles for the Mind

And that’s what a computer is to me. What a computer is to me is it’s the most remarkable tool that we’ve ever come up with, and it’s the equivalent of a bicycle for our minds.” ~ Steve Jobs

From Popova, M. (n.d.). Steve Jobs on why computers are like a bicycle for the mind. Brain Pickings.

This is a response to the media production “The Social Dilemma” that espouses to be the canary in the coal mine, sounding the alarm about the impact of social media on mental health, discrimination, and democracy. This film, ironically warehoused within the Netflix collection, is touted as a “must watch” docudrama bringing a critical view to the impact of social media on the cultural fabric of society. While this film has merit in building toward a tipping point in the conversation about the negative impacts on people’s lives resulting from social media usage, this is not a new conversation, nor is it particularly helpful in presenting a broader focus on the issues at hand.

A dilemma is defined as “a situation requiring a choice between equally undesirable alternatives. any difficult or perplexing situation or problem”. This film presents its own dilemma. It needs to be viewed critically as a media production. Viewers need to watch for the entertainment value, but also take note of the media devices used to mine your attention (cue ominous instrumental music). It focuses on the evils of social media, which may be the low hanging fruit that will bring people into this conversation.

The dilemma is not what you think it is. Ironically, one of the key characters in this docudrama asks “Is there a problem? What is the problem?” This is, at first viewing, a death knell for democracy, for individual autonomy, and for the greater goodness of humanity. While this may appear to be a new issue, or as suggested in the film that this is different this time, the discourse around the use of technology and how new technologies will alter the very fabric of society are not new. Human-kind has been arguing this dilemma for millennia.

With a critical viewing, this is a media production like any other. Meaning can be gained by applying the media literacy triangle and the associated questions (as outlined by the Association for Media Literacy) are applied to this film – focusing on the text, audience, and production.

My critical viewing was framed by a few of these questions

  • What might be its (implicit and explicit) messages?
  • What values are being promoted?
  • How and why does this text appeal to its target audience?
  • How does this text (not) appeal to me?
  • How is this text distributed or sold to the public?
  • Who profits from the consumption of this text?

The film begins with a quote: “Nothing vast enters the life of mortals without a curse ~ Sophocles”. The film concludes with a quote: “How do you wake up from the matrix if you don’t know you are in the matrix?” (cue ominous instrumental music, again). The creators of this media production use quotes, clips, scenes, sequences, and film ‘manipulation’ to ensure you maintain attention to the film. The media manipulation becomes evident with a critical eye. The colour red is used for moments of particularly nefarious technological manipulation of the teenage male character in the dramatic portions of the ‘text’. The camera angles change for dramatic effect when the two teenage characters are wrestled to the ground by the police. A ‘cut to black’ with an extended black screen is used for dramatic effect between sequences. Clips are juxtaposed or merged to hasten or slow down the story line. The interview clips range from static, seated poses to sequences of movement through hallways or onto a stage. All decisions of what to include or exclude have been made by the film’s creators for a purpose, audience, and specific message.

The ‘characters’ in the film have been selected for a purpose as well. Those who are interviewed as part of this production are listed on the website associated with this film. While it’s an interesting collection of individuals, many of whom are involved or responsible for this current dilemma – which still hasn’t been clearly revealed – what is interesting are the voices that are not included, those left absent from this conversation. Organizations and critics, who are suggested to be the true optimists and those who cry out that ‘we can do better’, are somehow absent or removed from this conversation. The dystopian views of the dilemmas surrounding our use of social media consumes eighty minutes in the ninety minute film. Presenting a balanced narrative does not have media value.

There are so many layers that can be unwrapped in this production, so it’s purpose of opening conversations has been fulfilled. Underlying the core dilemmas of mental health, discrimination, and democracy, as outlined on the website, are issues of surveillance capitalism, addiction, users as products, predictive analytics, exploitation of the vulnerable, unethical social experimentation, suicide, child protection, algorithmic control, manipulation, radicalization, destabilizing national economies, legislation, tribalism, and subjugation. But don’t let this film stand proxy for truth and reality or believe that this is a global version or the only version of the story. Don’t be fooled by the anthropomorphic views of social media technologies i.e. “Social media has it’s own goals and has its own means of pursuing them; Digital frankensteins are terraforming the world in their image.”

Yes, these issues are real. Yes, this is a concern for anyone using or managing social media for themselves, their families, or their work contexts. In my case, this work context is education for both teaching and learning. Yes, capitalism and the market economy dominate the decisions made by tech companies beyond just social media spaces. But that isn’t the only story here, nor does it result in the suggested or inevitable end of this narrative.

What was perceived by Steve Jobs as the bicycle for the mind can and does transform our collective reality. Bicycles have the potential to bring people together, but only for those who have been taught and have experiences with riding a bike. This was the vision expressed by Seymour Papert in the early days of technology. Individual autonomy and choice in technology use and social media use can support the human need to connect and share stories. It can be grounded in the human rather than dominated by the technologies. It can exhibit care and connect humanity, rebuilding and re-weaving the social fabric. What is missing in this film production is the human side of the story. Maybe that will be included in the ‘part 2’ sequel.

As hinted at the end of the film, it will be the critics and those with a critical eye who raise us up and call us to action. In the digital spaces and places where I work, within the field of educational technology and open education, there are many who are actively engaged in this conversation, and have been for much longer than the dawn of social media. There is a robust movement of individual and collective acts of critical questioning, kindness and conscientious care from those who continue to challenge the capitalist push for educational technologies (e.g. who is pushing the agenda for 1:1 technology in education? who is promoting the need for exam proctoring to ensure student honesty?). The visions of bicycles, turtles, and hospitality are dreams that can continue to shape the global conversations in physical and digitally enabled spaces. These conversations, like those suggested in the film, are both utopian and dystopian, both deterministic and not neutral at the same time. There is still hope in these spaces, but it is waning with the every present pressure from tech firms to build and take over these sacred spaces where children and vulnerable people are coming to learn, play, and share their stories. The news and media presents a grim picture. It’s time to take action.

The website for this film suggests three ‘take action‘ options. The first is, interestingly, to promote the message by sharing the film. The site includes promotional materials to support the planning of special events around this topic and this film, ironically available for the price of your email and contact information. The second action is to reboot your use with a digital detox or reclaiming screen time. Both would be of particular challenge in this time of global pandemic when physical proximity can be hazardous to self and others. The third action is to rebuild the system, with one option being a course offered by the Center for Humane Technology. (Side note: interesting to notice that many of those interviewed on the film are also members of the board of directors in this institution). This led me to the humane design guide which appears to be a helpful guide, not only for technology solutions, but for frame teaching and learning solutions with technology. While these three options will promote the film and the conversations, there are already spaces, places, and conversations happening in coffee shops, cafes, pubs, and public spaces. Amplifying these conversations is essential. Joining new conversations is critical. Reaching out to others is necessary. Let’s not rely on one film with three options to continue challenging and finding solutions to these ‘social’ and technological dilemmas. Let’s not end this story with a soundbite such as ‘checkmate on humanity’.

As suggested in these action items, I’m fighting fire with fire. I’m inviting you into some social media spaces to continue this conversation. Consider this your invitation. Please bring others into these conversations. Here are some suggested spaces and communities:

Today’s collaborative conversation on @TheMentoree will open this conversation to new participants using the hashtag #OnEdMentors. This conversation will continue with additional blog posts and podcasts – it’s a conversation that will make a difference.

Image attribution: Photo by Jilbert Ebrahimi on Unsplash

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