“The Social Dilemma” presents related data but fails structurally – The Sagamore
GRAPHIC BY PHOEBE KALLAHER
In a pandemic-ridden world where human interaction is almost entirely online, social media and the internet have played an even bigger role in our lives.
The Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma, released in January 2020 and directed by Jeff Orlowski, seeks to be a whistleblower in the way we use technology on a daily basis.
The hour and a half long film describes the commercial nature of any social media use. Companies like Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, and Google are making a profit, and with freely available applications like these, the product sold is not the app itself, but your attention. The longer you spend on the app, the more ads you see and the more money they make.
The point the film makes is not only extremely valid, but also relevant. However, the way the film conveys this information tarnishes its message and the possibility of a real change in the way our online lives work.
The main problem the film identifies is the power these social media companies have over our daily lives – and the disregard for the moral responsibility that comes with it.
This is illustrated by interviews with the author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Shoshana Zuboff, and former employees of the criticized companies, including Chamath Palihapitiya, former Vice President for Growth at Facebook. Interviews with members of these companies will validate their statements and reduce any doubts the viewer may have about the intentions of these companies.
However, such a consummate group of respondents with extremely similar attitudes towards the influence of social media not only makes the film a single note, but also manages to alienate its audience.
The main flaw in “The Social Dilemma” lies in the way it tries to influence its viewers. Most of the movie is spent explaining why social media is bad and instructing people to delete their accounts. With this in mind, the responsibility for this problem lies with the individual users of these platforms. The film strongly criticizes social media as a news source, but fails to recognize the necessity it has become in the lives of so many people.
The documentary is routinely punctuated with moments from the life of a fictional family whose tech-addicted son is used as a tool to demonstrate our wider social suffering. This subplot adds to the condescending tone of the film and, overall, does not help in the collective mission of creating a world where Facebook and Google do not own our psyche.
Additionally, the film embodies the computer algorithm used by Ben, the teenage son of the family, in a feeble attempt to make the docu-drama a little more interesting. In this way, it completely loses the fear factor that would ever have made this fictional act a powerful choice. The pretext that three men monitor people 24 hours a day, seven days a week and control their lives with alerts on their phones is scary. However, any real translation into reality involves the loss of these three human brains and with it every significant worry.
“The Social Dilemma” manages to recover slightly in the last few minutes. Under the credits, the same experts offer solutions to the problem they explained over the past hour and a half. Here, finally, they suggest “turning off notifications” or “getting your congressmen to regulate this industry”.
The documentary argues that social media needs corporate regulation just like the automotive industry. Legislation that would levy taxes on the information that businesses collect and store on individuals would leave the vast majority of people behind. This is one of the most legitimate arguments the film makes, but it only comes in in the last few minutes. If you stopped watching a moment before the credits roll, you would have missed it.
Ultimately, the problems with “The Social Dilemma” were similar to problems found in many of the companies the film criticized. As with climate change, poverty, body image problems and the incarceration of the masses, the individual is accused by default. Meanwhile, Facebook emitted 252,000 tons of CO2 equivalents in 2019, and Google’s customer service reps are earning less than the Massachusetts minimum wage in 2021.
So turn off your notifications, advocate taxing long-term personal data storage, and don’t waste time on this poorly crafted documentation.