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Kelly Evans: The social dilemma

CNBC's Kelly Evans
CNBC

There's a hot new documentary everyone's talking about on Netflix. Usually, that's an automatic sign for me to skip it. But this one turns out to be perfectly timed for the release of Congress's "blockbuster" antitrust report on Big Tech this week, and one of the main players is joining us on Power Lunch today. So, I watched it.  

I was hoping "The Social Dilemma" would be shocking and revelatory enough to make me want to immediately delete all my Big Tech apps and services. Instead, I was left largely unmoved (and it could have been half the length, without the "dramatic" vignettes). Maybe I'm just too jaded; maybe I don't actually feel "addicted" to social media; or maybe I'm just naive.  

In a sense, we're all too jaded about the dangers of social media, which are familiar to most Americans by now: personal data collection, tricks like "infinite scrolling" to keep you engaged, "push" notifications that leave you craving your phone, and content that plays to our basest, not our noblest, qualities. 

On that note, I thought the best moment of the docu-drama was when former Facebook executive Tim Kendall said his biggest short-term worry about social media is "civil war." I would have liked to have seen that aspect, especially ahead of the elections, explored more. It was ironic to finish watching the movie and be greeted by the headline that "Facebook will halt political ads after the polls close" on Nov. 3, obviously concerned about riots breaking out.  

Instead, the film focused primarily on social media's addictiveness and intent to make us all drawn more to our phones, where we can be served ads, than to real-life interactions. And of course this is true; I've seen it first-hand when people literally can't stop staring at their phones, and it's alarming. Younger people are especially vulnerable, and in truth they're the real audience for "The Social Dilemma." If watching it really does prove a wake-up call to change their behavior, then I'm glad the film is so popular. 

But much like gambling, where a lot of people can bet on sports without developing a problem, but others lapse into addiction, "fixing" the addiction to social media is less about the product than about our deeper social malaise. Like I said, I don't really feel addicted to it. We don't take our phones into the bedroom, or upstairs at all at night. I wish Facebook worked better since I find it extremely clunky and annoying to use. Twitter's algorithms for the headlines they think I care about are clearly pretty bad. 

And I thought it was revealing that Tristan Harris, the former Googler we'll be speaking with today, said his biggest addiction was "email." I would say that's mine, too; but (a) I'm in a round-the-clock industry; (b) email on my phone has been a Godsend, allowing me, especially in my younger years, to leave the office without having to hang around all evening; and (c) email, especially my work Outlook where I spend most time, is not serving me ads or designed to be addictive; I'm usually lucky if the search function works.  

Or maybe I'm just naive. If the film had revealed some stomach-churning ways that Big Tech is using the data in ways I didn't realize, or that third parties have much more access to my phone history and real-life voice conversations than I knew, I'd probably be freaking out. And maybe it's all happening, just without our knowledge; in which case that would be a truly compelling documentary, or at least an episode of "60 Minutes."  

Which brings me to the Big Tech report from Congress this week. Much like the film, it was big on dramatic declarations, but short on solvable specifics. To quote analyst Ben Thompson, "Monopolies were asserted with effectively zero evidence, and there was little to no mention of the positive impacts of these companies, even as basic business practices were described in the most sinister terms possible." The report, Thompson wrote, "is simply a new expression of an old idea; the details [of monopoly] matter less than the fact it exists."  

Little wonder the experts we spoke to in the wake of its publication largely shrugged it off--as have investors in these mega-cap stocks for years now. For starters, the two parties couldn't agree on a single report. "If they can't write a report together, they're not going to pass laws together," Alex Kantrowitz told us, adding that even if there were a "blue wave," and Democrats have Congress after these elections, Big Tech legislation would be way down the "to-do" list.  

And analyst Laura Martin of Needham added that in the case of Apple--which was also the only company positively singled out in the report's summary--most of the complaints are "business judgments (they charge too much, pre-load apps, etc.) that are not easily fixable by legislation." Hence investors would seem to have little to really worry about.  

Big Tech isn't going anywhere; it's up to us to find a way to live with it without tearing society apart.  

See you at 1 p.m!

 Kelly 

Twitter: @KellyCNBC

Instagram: @realkellyevans