Technologist Discussion Guide

Why Host a Discussion?

A profound shift is taking place in the industry, and many tech leaders are still looking for the right place to talk about it. COVID, a national movement against systemic racism and the upcoming elections all create the conditions for change that seemed impossible just a very long year ago.  

The Social Dilemma will help to frame this shift among technologists, policymakers and the general public, challenging the economic imperative to optimize for engagement. Whether or not leaders in the tech industry agree with the film, it can create a powerful opportunity to speak candidly about the rapidly shifting landscape that they inhabit.

About the Film

The Social Dilemma is a project of Exposure Labs, the team behind Chasing Ice and Chasing Coral. It focuses on the individual and societal impact of algorithms optimized to extract attention and influence behavior. The film features interviews from many of the tech leaders who built these algorithms and demonstrates their impact on the lives of a family, drawing a clear line between the economics of the tech industry and widespread impacts ranging from teen mental health to COVID misinformation. The film concludes by calling for change in the underlying economics of social media.

The film is available on Netflix. The trailer is here.

How To Host A Discussion

  1. Choose a date at least one week in the future
  2. Invite a group of 20-30 friends who might be interested, with a goal of having 8-12 attend. Sample language below.
  3. During the conversation:
    - Set clear expectations of privacy, such as Chatham House Rule.
    - Provide a brief synopsis of the film
    - Use the questions below to guide conversation
  4. If people in the discussion are interested in plugging into the work of the Center for Humane Technology they can:
    - Sign up for the Foundations of Humane Technology Course
    - Attend one of our regular conversations for technologists
    - Subscribe to our podcast

Who to Invite

Aim for 8-12 attendees who can speak directly to the way that technology is built and the impact it is having on individuals and communities. We do not expect everyone who sees the film to agree with it, but participants should be open to a candid conversation about the impact of social media and the work needed to address it.

Sample Invitation Language

I’m hosting a conversation on The Social Dilemma and wanted to know if you’d be interested in joining. The film

When: TIME
Where: LINK

What: The conversation will be like a book club, we’ll watch the film beforehand and then gather to discuss it.

Let me know if you’d be interested in joining. I’d love your perspective. I’m also in touch with folks from the Center for Humane Technology, who are eager to plug us into their work if we’re interested.



Here’s the trailer:

Netflix’s THE SOCIAL DILEMMA is  an exploration of the disproportionate impact that a relatively small number of engineers in Silicon Valley have over the way we think, act, and live our lives. The film tackles an underlying cause of our viral conspiracy theories, teenage mental health issues, rampant misinformation and political polarization, and makes these issues visceral, understandable, and urgent. Through a unique combination of documentary investigation and entertaining narrative drama, award-winning filmmakers Jeff Orlowski-Yang (Chasing Ice, Chasing Coral) and Larissa Rhodes
(Chasing Coral) combine the perspectives of technology insiders and experts to make a compelling case for systemic change.

What to Discuss

The film should provide ample fodder for discussion, here are a few framing questions that we’ve found helpful:

  1. This film encourages the general public and regulators to put pressure on the economic model underlying much of the tech industry. How might this pressure align with the change that you, personally, would like to see? How might it counteract that change?
  2. How does the race for human attention shape your work?
  3. The tech leaders quoted in the film are mostly white men. How might engaging with other voices address the challenges raised by the film? What are barriers to doing so?
  4. How have the issues portrayed in the film appeared in your life or the lives of your friends and family?

Facilitation Tips

Try to steer conversations towards:

  • Personal experiences either using or building technology brought up by the film
    - e.g. An experience with family members being susceptible to misinformation.
  • Complexities that people are running into in addressing the challenges brought up by the film within their organizations.
    - “We’ve tried to avoid optimizing for engagement, here’s the complexity that creates when we look for funding…”
  • Personally resonant visions of the change that people would like to see in the world.
    - “I’d love to see a world where instead of optimizing for engagement, we optimize for X.”
  • Intersections with other issues, such as election integrity, racial justice, climate change and COVID response.

Try to steer the conversation away from:

  • Polished, pre-existing solutions.
    - “My app/etc already fixes this, let me tell you how.”
    - Possible Response: “It’s inspiring to hear about your work, what roadblocks are you hitting when trying to make an impact?”
  • People speaking for their employers in soundbytes, rather than from their personal experience.
    - “My platform’s most important is to be a neutral platform for free speech. We believe that XYZ”
    - Possible Response: “I respect the standpoint of your employer. To the extent that you can share, how does that play out on the ground in your work?”
  • Villainizing institutions or individuals to avoid addressing systemic complexity.
    - “Tech CEOs are just evil. All we need to do is replace them and everything will be better.”
    - Possible Response: “Say you can do that. How would you want his power used differently? Distributed differently? Held accountable differently?”

Would you recommend this guide to a friend?