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Film Review: “The Social Dilemma” Illustrates a Problem in Need of a Solution

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | September 9th, 2020

Film poster: “The Social Dilemma”

The Social Dilemma (Jeff Orlowski, 2020) 3 out of 4 stars.

We are doomed. As recent documentaries have shown, from The Edge of Democracy to The Great Hack to Kill Chain: The Cyber War on America’s Elections to Screened Out to Slay the Dragon and #Unfit: The Psychology of Donald Trump, something is very rotten in the state of our body politic, with the cause of the decay centered in the rise of social media over the past 10 to 15 years. With the mass collection of data that has resulted from billions of people exchanging personal information online, we have willingly turned ourselves into cogs in the vast machinery of opinion and behavior manipulation. And just when we thought we had made our peace with that dispiriting fact, along comes a new film, The Social Dilemma, from director Jeff Orlowski (Chasing Coral), to remind us of how little say we apparently have in our future. As one of his subjects dejectedly states, “How do you wake up from the Matrix when you don’t know you’re in the Matrix?” Indeed.

The gist of the argument here is that we have utterly lost control of our own invention, which once seemed destined to improve the world by bringing us together and fostering genuine connection. A Frankensteinian monster, the beast now rules us. Combining staged scenes – featuring actors Skyler Gisondo (The Binge), Kara Hayward (To the Stars), Vincent Kartheiser (American Hangman) and more – with in-depth interviews featuring Silicon Valley’s movers and shakers (i.e., the people who unwittingly put us here), Orlowski carefully builds his argument, supplementing well-researched detail with entertaining dramatizations. Some of his many experts include: Tristan Harris, former designer at Google; Tim Kendall, former Pinterest CEO; Jaron Lanier, computer scientist and VR pioneer; Anna Lembke, Stanford University psychiatrist and addiction specialist; Roger McNamee, a venture capitalist who was an early investor in Facebook; Shoshana Zuboff, scholar and Harvard Business School professor; and others. Sharing both personal experiences and hard facts, they urge a collective rethink of where we are now, if that is even possible.

Actor Skyler Gisondo in a staged dramatization within THE SOCIAL DILEMMA ©Netflix

For in just over a decade, we have, according to this documentary, opened a Pandora’s box of technological warfare on our primate brains, delivering into the hands of unsuspecting victims devices that prey on our most basic instincts and lead us down a path of absolute subservience to our unseen masters. Happy with our digital bread and circuses, we inhabit isolating virtual ecospheres that further ideological divisions, our newsfeeds self-selected to exclude ideas that run counter to what we already believe. No longer able to distinguish truth from propaganda, we jump deep into a rabbit hole of infotainment in which crazy conspiracy theories appear as viable belief systems. “Nothing vast enters the life of mortals without a curse” reads the opening epigraph from Sophocles. Once more, we are doomed.

Though Orlowski and his subjects are quick to point out that these kinds of arguments have been made before with each new advance in technology, from TV and mass media to video games, etc., and that, trust them, this time it’s different, it’s hard not to give into the reactionary impulse that their hysteria is just a fit of momentary madness and that somehow all will work itself out. But given the state of our globe right now, with the rise of authoritarian demagogues and clear evidence of election interference fueled by misinformation campaigns on Facebook and elsewhere, it’s also clear that they have a point. As always with these kinds of movies, the issue remains, after the overwhelming barrage of depressing facts, of what to do. The answer, were it only that simple, is to abandon social media. Hence the titular dilemma, as that is easier said than done in the integrated reality of today. Let me Tweet that out. Join me as we post our way to the apocalypse.

Technology ethicist and former Google designer Tristan Harris in THE SOCIAL DILEMMA ©Netflix

Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator, as well as Film Festival Today's Editor. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, Chris is, in addition, lead film critic at Hammer to Nail and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice.

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