The Social Dilemma review: Netflix documentary ventures into the spooky side of technology
The Social Dilemma shows us how captivated by the comfort of information at our fingertips and the ability to always stay connected, we often resign ourselves to the perils of technology.
The past decade has witnessed a growing dependence on the internet. Boomers, millenials, and zoomers — all have found a cozy spot in the vast expanse of the interweb. It is as if life before it never existed.
Every day either begins with checking updates on Twitter, scanning Instagram, binge-watching a show or a couple movies maybe, or even the latest video by your favourite YouTuber (mine is Mike Chen). Now, with the fear of the coronavirus keeping us indoors, social media and other digital platforms are the most convenient and safest diversions.
Captivated by the comfort of information at our fingertips and the ability to always stay connected, we often resign ourselves to the perils of technology. "Have we all fallen under some kind of spell?," asks former Googler Tristan Harris, often called "the conscience of Silicon Valley." The Social Dilemma, directed by Jeff Orlowski (Chasing Coral and Chasing Ice), ventures into the spooky side of technology, reaffirming the fact that yes, we are under a spell.
The irony is not lost on me that the documentary is available on Netflix, a platform that heavily relies on machine learning algorithms to optimise user experience.
The film begins with a Sophocles quote, "Nothing vast enters the life of mortals without a curse," priming the audience for the ominous testimonies of former staffers at firms like Facebook, Google, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest. The documentary is interspersed with a dramatised fictional narrative of a suburban family, lured into the social media trap by evil algorithm triplets played by Mad Men actor Vincent Kartheiser.
The Social Dilemma explains the sly game plan behind the unchecked influence of social media. The intent is plain and simple — the subtle exploitation of our biological need to forge social connections. Reading or watching a news report about the many boo-boos of social media platforms is completely different from firsthand disclosures from ex-techies. The fictional story juxtaposed against crisply chopped interviews and an eerie background score tries to replicate the tone of a true-crime documentary.
Google is not just a search engine, and social networking is only one facet of Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram. These platforms constantly engage with their audience, baiting us into spending more time online, with just profit as the singular goal.
"Our attention is the product being sold to advertisers"; "We are the product"; "Changing what you do, how you think, who you are," are statements echoed by almost every interviewee. It is no secret that the once niche internet companies are one of the wealthiest in all of human history (Forbes lists Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's net worth close to $100 billion). Constant tracking and storing of personal data is the only way; and no Big Tech company, no matter how ethical they may seem on the surface functions sans this practice. The amount of time spent glued to a screen is one problem, but there is also the real-world impact of the type of content consumed. Twitter may be the 21st century's newspaper, but the information every user receives is tailor-made to their preferences and usage patterns.
The biggest ramifications of social media discussed in The Social Dilemma are political polarisation and fake news. At the hands of governments or a state actor with immense wealth, social media has been successfully weaponised to create echo chambers of propaganda.
Whether its Russian interference of the 2016 US elections, hate speech against Myanmar's Rohingya Muslims or dissemination of propaganda by political parties in India, Facebook has especially come under fire.
The documentary recaps recent instances of unrest internationally with a montage of news clips followed by one interviewee declaring social media as a killer of democracy. Venture capitalist and early investor in Facebook presents an unsettling observation, "The Russians didn't hack Facebook. What they did was use the tools Facebook created for legitimate advertisers and legitimate users, and they applied it to a nefarious purpose." Recently, the platform was called out for failure to apply hate speech rules to accounts linked with the Bhartiya Janata Party despite being reported for promoting violence.
The Social Dilemma may seem like an ordeal at its length of one and a half hours, but it is an essential watch for novices and regular users of social media. That we are mere pawns whose habits and behaviours are being monitored and manipulated, is a cause for alarm. Maybe it is time to practice some restraint and go for that much-needed digital detox.
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