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Is the Netflix Documentary a Paean to Catholic Convert and Daily Communicant Marshall McLuhan?

Photo by Akshar Dave🌻 / Unsplash
The Social Dilemma uses the intellectual framework built by McLuhan, but the similarities stop there

The Social Dilemma documentary has broken records. According to its main star, Tristan Harris, 38 million households in the first 28 days saw it on Netflix.

That’s incredible.

What’s even more incredible?

The whole documentary is a salute to Marshall McLuhan.

Well, it’s a tribute to Neil Postman, who was a loyal McLuhan disciple.

Harris, who is largely responsible for sounding the alarm bell about what the social media industry is up to, appeared on “The Joe Rogan Experience” last week. He concluded the interview with these glowing words about Postman’s classic work, Amusing Ourselves to Death:

It literally predicts everything that is going on now. I frankly think that I’m adding nothing . . . Neil Postman called it all in 1982.

I appreciate it when contemporaries admit that they are standing on the shoulders of giants — and McLuhan/Postman were giants — but I think Harris’ comment is a little too generous.

The theme of the documentary

The Social Dilemma addresses the attention economy. The social media companies’ entire business model is to capture attention. They do this through algorithms that engage us by giving us what we want . . . without us asking for it.

And even without us knowing we want it.

The social media companies gather our information — what we’ve viewed, what we’ve purchased — and feed it into an algorithm with billions of other pieces of information to determine what we want to see, then feed it to us so we don’t leave their network.

At one point in the interview, Harris says you can practically feel the algorithms pulling on you.

It’s compelling stuff.

The Social Dilemma and McLuhan/Postman

But it’s dealing with issues and a media force that I’m pretty sure neither McLuhan nor Postman appreciated.

The basic truth applied by The Social Dilemma is vintage McLuhan/Postman: The medium is the message, which means, “The content conveyed by a medium (TV, radio, newspaper) doesn’t matter. The medium and its effects on us is what matters. Media affect us, regardless of their content. To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. The mere carrying of a hammer affects how a person thinks, even if he doesn’t notice it.”

Likewise, the Internet affects us, regardless of what we’re using it for.

And it affects us in ways we don’t notice or appreciate. If we think we’re floating higher than everyone else because we don’t use the Internet to troll or view porn, we’re just kidding ourselves. We’re being affected in the same way as the porning idiots.

All that is vintage McLuhan/Postman. Harris is right to give them credit.

But there’s a lot more to The Social Dilemma.

McLuhan didn’t see this coming or if he did, he thought it might, at a certain level, be a good thing.

At one point, Harris mentions that it’s almost like the algorithms are accessing our central nervous system. He obviously doesn’t consider that a good thing.

McLuhan, however, praised electronic technology because it had “outered the central nervous system itself” and had the potential of making us whole again. At other points, McLuhan expressed grave concerns, but for the most part, he was optimistic about our electronic future.

Not Postman.

Postman didn’t share McLuhan’s enthusiasm, to say the least. Amusing Ourselves to Death is a dire warning about the effects of the main electronic medium of his era: the television.

Postman’s main point in Amusing is that television can’t reach higher. It doesn’t matter what you watch: TV dumbs us down because it simply doesn’t engage us — our attention, our concentration — the way print does.

The printed word requires us to engage: to participate in the printed word by exercising our faculties of focus and thought, of stopping and re-reading, of thinking about what we’ve read.

Television takes away such engagement.

Social media bring back engagement and participation, but it’s not voluntary and, therefore, the participation is illusory. We click and think we choose; we read and think we chose to read.

But the algorithm knew before we clicked and read that we would click and read.

I think McLuhan and Postman would’ve both been sounding the alarm bells if they were alive today.

And that’s what The Social Dilemma has done and in that, it walks in McLuhan’s and Postman’s shoes.