'The Social Dilemma': Film looks into the dark side of tech and why you should be worried


  • Entertainment
  • Saturday, 19 Sep 2020

How many times have you checked your phone today? Photo: Handout

It's the most important documentary you'll see this year, and also the scariest and hardest to watch.

The highest compliment that can be paid to The Social Dilemma (available on Netflix) is it will make you want to chuck your phone into the street. It's a fascinating, eye-opening look at not only the ways that social media has ripped us apart but the ways that social media is designed to rip us apart, told by those who have done the ripping.

It's chilling stuff, and it helps to frame and contextualise something we've all known for a long time. Our brains are not equipped to handle the rush of dopamine that social media provides, and the way that it has altered our thoughts and behaviors during the course of its short existence may be irreversible.

It has monetised our scrolling and maximised it for ad revenue – on social media, we're the product – in ways that are nakedly immoral, yet most of us are complicit participants in the way social media has eroded us from the inside out.

At its best, services like Facebook and Twitter have connected us with friends and loved ones both new and old. At its worst, it has torn apart the fabric of our society. The trade off for those Likes just isn't worth it.

Director Jeff Orlowski sits down with a group of (mostly white, mostly male) former workers from Google, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter and more, who discuss their experiences at their respective companies. They detail the ways technology is specifically geared toward making you log on and keeping you engaged, so that your time can be traded for ad dollars.

So what, you log on to Instagram, scroll through a handful of posts from your friends, and you get an ad or two in between selfies and vacation pics with pools artfully shown in the background. But those ads are part of a bigger economy that is tailored to your specific interests, because your data has been bought and sold and bought again by companies whose livelihood is based on your endless scrolling.

And in order to keep you endlessly scrolling, you're fed posts and stories and news items that are designed to make you feel happy by reinforcing your existing beliefs. This is how fake news is spread. And that fake news has led to what we currently see in United States and worldwide, with discord spiking and more division than ever before. And it all starts with those supposedly harmless Likes.

Of the film's talking heads, the most interesting is Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google, who is now the president and co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology, which is dedicated to re-imagining tech for good. He's the Al Gore of this Inconvenient Truth, the one trying to save us all from certain oblivion, who hopes he's not shouting into the void, his voice echoing through the darkness.

The film's weak spot is a series of fictional scenes about a teenager's addiction to tech that include virtual recreations of how social media works to control its users. The scenes come off as cheesy, but they at least bring levity to a film that is sometimes so frightening it's difficult to watch.

When it comes to social media addiction, we're all guilty; I checked Instagram at least six times while writing this column, and this was after I watched the movie. What The Social Dilemma does so well is explain the problems of social media and why they exist, and show the wide-ranging implications of our seemingly harmless online habits.

For us, it may already be too late. At least The Social Dilemma is here to explain to those who come after us where it all went wrong. – The Detroit News/Tribune News Service

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