Are You Paying Attention? On ‘The Social Dilemma’ and ‘My Octopus Teacher’

I don’t have to go looking for synchronicity because it always finds me. This time it was on Netflix.

The other day I watched Netflix’s new docu-drama The Social Dilemma (trailer) based on the recommendation from a friend and a lively text thread about its implications.

The film’s thesis is that social networks are engineered to hack human psychology and prey upon our attention as a means to serve advertisers, which is detrimental to humans specifically and society generally. We learn this from the talking heads of former Silicon Valley executives, whose firsthand experience with the dark side of social media have motivated them to speak out against their former employers and advocate for reform.

Interwoven with the talking heads is the drama part of the film, which depict a family wrestling with the many ways technology can negatively affect our lives: the son slowly being radicalized by extremist propaganda, the tween daughter tormented by insecurity and social media bullying, the mother witnessing the fraying of family cohesion.

Though the dramatized storyline sometimes felt a little “anti-smoking PSA” to me, as a morality tale it was an effective companion to the talking heads. (This interview with Tristan Harris, one of the subjects and co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology, gives some needed context to his contributions.)

The documentary stimulated a valuable discussion between my wife and I about social media’s role in our family. But it wasn’t until later that night when its lessons sank into my consciousness in a tangible way.

Diving into the divine milieu

Later that same night, I decided to watch My Octopus Teacher, another new Netflix documentary featuring freediver and filmmaker Craig Foster. The banal description (“A filmmaker forges an unusual friendship with an octopus living in a South African kelp forest, learning as the animal shares the mysteries of her world”) belies the transcendent richness of what we see develop on screen—both between Foster and the octopus and between Foster and the underwater environment.

He describes how diving in the cold seawater makes you “come alive to the world” and focuses your mind intently on your surroundings. I’ve written about freediving before, and how the “divine milieu” of the sea—or any uncivilized landscape—can open us to transformation.

Foster’s own transformation happens over the course of a year as he encounters and befriends a common octopus. And thanks to his abundant underwater footage, we get to witness a series of moments—surprises, scares, sorrows, and simplicities—that teach so much about a reclusive and otherworldly creature. Due to Foster’s soothing narration, the gentle piano score, and the meditative quality of being immersed underwater, it’s a beautiful and emotional story that shows the stunning possibilities of what being present in nature can offer.

That also makes it a fascinating contrast to The Social Dilemma, chiefly in how it offers an antidote to all the ails social media can create. If we feel distracted, we should seek focus. If we feel fragmented, we should seek embodiment. (Brené Brown: “We move what we’re learning from our heads to our hearts through our hands”—a lesson I have to constantly relearn.)

Being in nature, in silence, or at least away from screens allow for both of those things if you let it. And recently I did.

My toddler teacher

A few days after watching both of these films, for undetermined reasons Mr. 19 Months was refusing to fall asleep. I brought him out to his play area and he started tinkering with a wooden train set we recently put into toy circulation. He usually doesn’t focus on one activity for very long, yet for at least 15 minutes he sat there quietly exploring and experimenting with this new contraption.

Usually my phone is with me in our living room post-bedtime, but it wasn’t that night. I could have retrieved it, but I didn’t want to break this spell as I knew he’d either want to follow me or jump to another activity. I soon realized that if I did have my phone, I would have missed so much.

I would have missed his subtle gestures as he figured out how to put the cylindrical blocks into their corresponding holes in the train car.

I would have missed trying to decipher his thought process of how to slot the various discs onto their poles.

I would have missed out on pondering how toddlers can be ferocious one moment and beautifully serene the next—not unlike octopuses.

Similarly, Foster’s unique story wouldn’t have happened if he didn’t dedicate himself to visiting the kelp forest every day, and if he hadn’t noticed the octopus beneath its camouflaged hideout, and if he didn’t intentionally seek to cultivate trust with a marvelous and mysterious creature.

My own marvelous and mysterious creature has taught me a lot in his short time on Earth. (See the tag Baby Comello for the continuing journey.) Just by living out his full self—and toddlers can’t do anything else—he demonstrates the rewards of using your attention wisely, whether it’s for a glowing screen or a wooden train set or an inquisitive toddler or a reclusive cephalopod.

You don’t have to choose one, but you do have to choose.

2 thoughts on “Are You Paying Attention? On ‘The Social Dilemma’ and ‘My Octopus Teacher’

  1. Thank you for the recommendations, these are so timely. I’m so glad I had my toddlers before I caved and got an iPhone. I know I’m in the minority in not allowing my kids an iPhone until they reach 18, but my “experimental parenting In the digital Age” is going well and my kids are perfectly fine keeping their privacy intact as minors. I cherish the memories of spending all that undivided and focussed time with my babies, reading to them and exploring the three dimensional physical world.

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