An Answer to the Question from The Social Dilemma Intro.

In the first minutes of The Social Dilemma, the narrator asks Tristan and everyone else what exactly is the problem with Tech? Everyone chuckles at the enormity of the question. I have a simple answer. Do you agree?


Hmm, I am not convinced. TV isn’t free, people are watching it for long periods (still do), and it is full of commercials. My Samsung is not free, yet the default software contains ad trackers, and the thing overall is a privacy nightmare.

Suppose that the social media weren’t free from the very start, but had reasonable (for the service provided) subscription fees. With the companies maximising profit, wouldn’t they put in the same ad-based mechanisms on top to increase revenue? Let’s suppose they did not, and they remained completely ad-free, would there still be algorithms at work behind the scenes creating filter bubbles and dividing people. Maybe to a much lesser extent.

Would there still be an incentive to collect our data, analyse and profile us? Take Facebook. It is full of business pages, special interest groups that want push an agenda. Platforms would have appstores with paid apps vying for your attention. The FAANG’s themselves would still value this data. Governments would, any commercial entity. There would still be the interest to get you hooked, because if you’re not you might stop your subscription, maybe go to a competitor.

And in the above I just addressed the social media aspect. They increasingly use AI which come with their own host of problems (e.g. biases) that are unrelated to whether the product or service is free.

I’d say that stuff being free was a big cause of things turning very bad very quickly. It is not the complete answer to what exactly the problem with Tech is.


Good discussion. Broadcast TV is on the free model, I have an antenna on the top of my house and the content is free / ad-supported. Consumer phones & computers are full of bloat-ware; which is a more interesting case. The consumer isn’t the ONLY customer, the makers of the bloat-ware are paying part of the device cost so it’s cheaper for you. It’s still a problem of “who’s the customer?”.

The problem in the movie intro is that none of the experts can distill the problem into one sentence - or preferably something that fits on a bumper sticker. That kind of slogan or summary will have to leave some things out, but we should be able to get to the heart of the problem in just a few words. My best attempt: Free is Evil.

Would love to hear slogans, #Hashtags, bumper sticker summaries from anyone else!


For TV it is not entirely true. In The Netherlands you can only get the 3 public broadcast channels that way (funded by government subsidies). In the case of paid platforms with multiple stakeholders operating on it, you could still be ‘the product’ in some of these relationships.

Phrasing as “Who’s the customer” is already different than “Free is evil”, but ensuring one is always the customer is still not a sufficient answer to the whole tech problem. I think that the massive scale and speed of information exchange also play a role. And with that human nature comes into play. Some rumour / fake news / disinformation spreads rapidly, and we are inclined to go with it. Especially if we perceive the person (maybe an influencer) who spread it as having authority / good reputation.

But the bumper sticker exercise is interesting. Maybe “Free is evil” does fit. But then you should enlarge the meaning of the word ‘free’ in the context. It is not only ‘free’ as in “free beer”. Freedom for any information to spread unchecked? Hmm, that’s a difficult one immediately. We come to ‘free’ as in “freedom of speech”. Does that mean censoring, limit to free speech? Terms of Services of any platform, and also the law itself places limits on free speech already: racism, hate speech, etc. Not allowed, and rightfully so. But with disinformation / propaganda / conspiracy theories, etc. things are not so clear.

After I watched the documentary I read this great article, which could be read as a follow-up problem analysis. I heartily recommend reading the referenced piece by @gctwnl The Manifesto of Society Centered Design


When I saw all the technologists chuckle at the question (“so what is the problem with social media?”) during that opening scene in The Social Dilemma, I too was concerned that there wasn’t one, solid, cohesive answer. My take: The problem is that the internet killed reading.

Really great piece, @JHercules. Keep writing. You’re barking up the right trees.

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If the end-user is paying for the AI, the AI works for them. If the end-user isn’t paying for the AI, the AI is working on them.

No. I think your intuition is right — the problem is primarily personal and cultural. Take a mass society of alienated, immature narcissists and subject it to all kinds of shocks, threats, and dismantling — then throw in some digital crack based around the more reactionary potential of “mimetic desire.” What did you expect to see happen?

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Anyone teaching a writing-intensive course in the 1980s to 90s will probably tell you reading was already dead. There’s a long line of books decrying that decline since the 60s and 70s.

“Every year on January 1, millions of people set out goals and resolutions for themselves.”

Yes, they do. And on January 2nd they let all go. But for the sake of the text, it’s ok to believe in that.

“Most people are sleep deprived. Why? They’re using UI’s that want to maximize waking, media-consuming time. Most people find it hard to save money and stick to a budget. Why? They’re using UI’s that want to maximize their spending.”

I’m sorry, but I have to disagree here because your approach is too simplistic. It’s much harder than that to find underlying causes to sleep deprivation. Let me give you an example: Bob lost his job, he’s not eating healthy, and he has a problematic relationship with his wife. Bob uses his smartphone before sleep. Why is Bob sleep deprived?

Also, the idea that everyone can save money no matter how much they earn at the end of the week is a myth. And that has nothing to do with UI.

“Most people find it hard to make time for offline priorities like exercise, quality time with friends and family, and time outdoors. Why? They’re using UI’s that want to maximize the time they spend glued to the screen.”

Depends. The question you need to ask here is what is important to people? Therefore, it could be important and a priority to be online at a certain point of someone’s life. This would mean the willpower to be online will be strong despite any UI design hacks.

“I see a different future awaiting us. Just as we send a robot in to clean up a radioactive nuclear meltdown, we are going to have a “robot” standing between us and the UI’s that are out to manipulate us.”

Do you think another layer of tech is the solution? How we’re going to make someone accountable for this? Amber Case always says during her talks, “We need better people, not better technology”. I believe she knows what she’s talking about.

But I do agree with you that the free model has a tendency to be more problematic because it’s business model is less transparent to the client. That’s why I prefer to buy apps than using the free ones. It’s not that I’m 100% safe using paid apps, but I can make more sense of their business model when they’re charging me for what they’re creating.

I loved reading your text! Please don’t take my comments personally, and keep on writing!


Thanks for the critiques! I agree that human behavior is over-determined, everything has multiple causes. So simplifying to the tech factor leaves out other factors. I am simplifying to focus on one factor I hope to change. I don’t know how to make sure the person gets paid a living wage or improves his marriage, but I do know how to build software.

I really do think another layer of tech IS the solution, because it’s something we can implement without needing permission or cooperation. We don’t need new laws, we don’t need to get the FAANGs on board, we can just build it as Plaid did. There is a small principal/agent problem where I need to hold accountable the software I’m paying for… but to me that’s a much smaller and solvable problem compared to trying to hold the “free” services accountable.

Ever looked into Mycroft? Looks like a promising open source “assistant” framework.

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Thanks for the pointer @penmanship. I encountered before, but for some reason did not add to awesome-humane-tech (probably because at the time I had no category for it). Will add it to the list now.

Edit: Mycroft added to Awesome Humane Tech :slight_smile:

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Your premise seems tied to the erroneous simplistic idea of “there’s no such thing as a free lunch”. In a sense, the saying is true, in that everything has effects, and every choice has opportunity cost, but that’s not how most people see it. They jump to saying that everything has direct cost, and if you’re not paying it directly, someone else is (and you are likely paying indirectly).

But public goods exist. Sunlight exists. Wildberries exist. The world is just full of abundance. The issues with ad-driven business and the rest of capitalistic systems is the opposite of free-being-evil. It’s that free is anti-capitalist, free has no profit in it, free isn’t controllable.

When Nestle takes spring water and bottles it in harmful single-use plastic for sale (driven by highly-paid, manipulative marketing), they are taking what would otherwise be free to whoever (not to mention to the non-human natural world’s uses) and putting a price on it.

The whole problem with tech is that things are not free. You pay with your attention to ads, with your personal data, your willingness to be manipulated by the systems for their ends. We should have tech actually be free, both in freedom and in price (even including eliminating the price of attention-to-ads!).

To do that and still fund the work of developing the free technology, we simply need economic arrangements that allow people to dedicate time to this. Those arrangements might include ending wasteful bullshit jobs (or aspects of jobs) or other harms that use up time people might otherwise have for creative work. It could also include UBI and similar. It could also be directly funded through grants (government or private) or microdonations (I happen to be working on as an effort to build the necessary critical mass that other donation approaches have not achieved, but that’s just one example).


Very well expressed @wolftune!

100% agree. I expect we will see the rise of many different sustainable businesses with innovative business models. Like your It is a candidate exemplar for delightful sustainable businesses.

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I have a different answer that Tristan and company seem to have missed:

People need to find things to do with their lives that don’t involve media use, in the following 3 areas:

  • the physical world - move your body and see things
  • interpersonal relationships - and social engagement (in person)
  • retreat and reflection - sleep and dream more

The negative message of Tristan is true, but the positive solution is having other things to do so you no longer care about media.

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Nathan Kinch and @m3me from Greaterthanlearning have created a very cool video that provides a follow-up to where The Social Dilemma ends. Well worth a watch:

Here’s where the video was sourced from. Nathan presented at Microsoft Portugal’s Building the Future event and it had 21,000 attendees.