When a Documentary Is Also a Horror Movie: The Social Dilemma

Our own Awareness Nerd Tom Pendergast shares his thoughts on the recent Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma. Grab the popcorn.

Netflix labels The Social Dilemma a documentary. That might make you not want to watch it.

But what if I told you it was a horror movie?

After all, it’s about a group of idealistic young people who, with the best intentions, unleashed a demonic force. They then watched that demonic force worm its way into our culture in ways that are so powerful and insidious that they threaten to steal our souls and destroy our democracy.

As the “documentary” label suggests, though, the young people who created this force are all real. Their creation animates the products that we use every single day: the social media platforms, search engines, and video sites created by big tech companies who use what they know about us to sell our attention to the highest bidder—no matter who that bidder is.

What is this force?

Even its creators struggle to name it exactly, but it is the force that makes our digital products so addictive, that compels us to return to these products again and again, sometimes hating ourselves for our inability to resist. It is also the force that allows the big tech companies who build these products to sell our attention to the highest bidder, turning us, the user, into the product.

Part Earnest Documentary...

The Social Dilemma is part standard documentary: people sitting in tasteful settings, speaking directly into the camera, with name and affiliation called out to establish their legitimacy. The talking heads try to describe this force they’ve created, but they are too close to see it with great clarity.

Tristan Harris, former design ethicist at Google and a man who proudly identifies as “the closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience,” is the most articulate of the bunch, and even he admits that it’s a problem he has trouble naming.

Luckily, Harris and the rest are helped along greatly by Harvard professor Shoshanna Zuboff, who has done more than any other to identify the mechanisms by which the tech giants have come to their current state of dominance. (In fact, people who couldn’t power through the dense academic prose of Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism will find a neat summary of the book in this movie—and in my review.)

Jaron Lanier, another guru for digital skeptics, rightly notes that “the gradual, slight, imperceptible change in your own behavior and perception” is the product that these companies are selling, and they are willing to do anything to keep selling that product—even if it brings about the destruction of democracy. (This is not my hyperbole, by the way, it’s in the movie.)

The startling similarity of the talking heads (mostly youngish white tech dudes, whose first jobs were in Facebook, Google, Pinterest, etc. and who are now executives somewhere else) and their sincere regret can sometimes come off a bit heavy-handed.

They meant well, all of them. They had such high hopes, and now it all seems to have gone so wrong.

But they’ve got ideas for how to put the genie back in the bottle.

One solution, the movie proposes, is stronger regulation, imposed on tech giants by the federal government. On this the filmmakers don’t hold out much hope; the shots of congressional hearings insinuate that lawmakers are ill-equipped to face the challenge.

Another proposed solution is that the tech giants themselves rewrite their code to quit being so damned addictive. It would be as easy, they show us, as having a group of developers rewrite a few simple lines of code. What they don’t show is the much harder tasks of corporate execs lowering their profit targets.

Us Regular People

But what about us? What can regular people do to fight back against the beast? Their suggestions are saved for the end, rolling alongside the credits. They go like this:

  • Turn off your notifications
  • Delete your social media
  • Don’t use Google
  • Don’t let your kids get hooked

I couldn’t help but think of the John Prine song “Spanish Pipedream”: “Blow up your TV, throw away your paper / Go to the country, build you a home / Plant a little garden, eat a lot of peaches / Try and find Jesus on your own.” But there are better suggestions at the Take Action portion of their website.

Part B-Grade Horror Movie

Talking heads alone couldn’t do justice to the human side of these manipulative data practices, so the filmmakers show us how social media platforms work by weaving in the story of a fictionalized family that is “torn apart” by the social media that they can’t let go.

There’s the tween daughter, Isla, who can’t stop fishing for likes for her filtered photos and is body-shamed to tears; the high school son, Ben, who gets pulled into the maw of a right-wing group when his awkward attempts at digital romance go awry; and the older daughter Cassandra (seen reading Zuboff’s book early on) who sees it all and tries to stop it. (Like most movie parents, theirs fade into the background.)

The central figure is Ben, who is depicted in some scenes as a flesh-and-blood teen and in others as a digital voodoo doll at the mercy of the three manipulative AI wizards controlling the social media platform the boy is hooked on. The wizards are identical triplets, played with perfect bland immorality by Vincent Kartheizer, best known for playing Pete in Mad Men. As the wizards turn the dials on their tools of engagement, growth, and revenue, the boy grows increasingly morose and distant from his family and friends.

Digital Voodoo

This voodoo doll image is one of the most evocative in the movie, giving life to a metaphor that Tristan Harris hatched years before. Each of us, he implies, exists as a voodoo doll in the eyes of the tech giants; they poke pins in us to get us to like this, share this, and buy that.

The problem isn’t that the companies hold our personal data, says Harris; it’s not a privacy problem. Rather, it’s the fact that they use what they know about us to command our attention, to turn us this way and that, to the point where it can seem that we lack free will entirely.

The drama of the voodoo doll ends with coders at the tech giant rewriting the addiction algorithm, banishing the power of the wizards, and giving Ben back his free will. He steps back into the daylight blinking and grateful—and it would seem that is what the filmmakers want for us as well, to have us all freed from the manipulation that lies at the heart of social media. This, they imply, is how we will drive the demonic force from our midst.

Our Social Dilemma

And yet, the movie says, we face an incredible dilemma.

As Harris puts it late in the movie, “social media is confusing because it’s simultaneous utopia and dystopia.” On the one hand, the data-drive tech giants make our lives so simple: they allow us to call a car to our door to take us anywhere, to see videos on any topic we desire, to connect with friends and colleagues all over the world. We want these things.

On the other hand, this tech drives us into information bubbles, isolating us from others and from the truth. It’s a force that enables a global assault on democracy, as the film documents.

This dark side is complicated, says Harris: “It’s not about the technology being the existential threat. It’s about technology’s ability to bring out the worst in society, and the worst in society being the existential threat.”

Lanier’s conclusion is darker still. Thinking about what will happen if we don’t change our relationship with this technology, he claims that in 20 years “we will probably destroy our civilization through willful ignorance.”

This movie, which weaves together documentary with fiction, forces you to consider the price we pay for the utopia of instant digital satisfaction. As a film it has its problems: the talking heads are too self-serving; the fiction is melodramatic; the solutions fall short.

And yet everyone who participates in the digital world should see this movie. The issue it raises are critical to our age, critical to our sense of self, and yes, critical to our democracy.

You can learn more about what the filmmakers would like you to do about our social dilemma on their website. Also consider checking out some other reviews of the movie here, here, and here.

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