Netflix’s documentary-drama hybrid, The Social Dilemma, tries to explore the dangerous impacts of social networking on human beings. Written and directed by Jeff Orlowski, the documentary dwells on the realm of what happens behind our screens.
The interviews of ex-techies come as whistle-blowers to the otherwise unaware masses. The documentary intends to highlight the harms of algorithms and techniques designed to increase our screen-time and keep us glued to our devices. It takes on the understanding of human manipulation by these big social networking companies, from technophiles to the public via Netflix.
The 1 hour 34 minutes docu-drama contains a dramatic story featuring a fictional middle-class American family, which is dysfunctional because of the increased usage of social media. The element of drama in the script brings in a sense of relatability, thereby making it palatable for the audiences. Moreover, the intense dramatic music does not fail to horrify and exacerbate this docu-fiction.
The legitimacy of the film can be derived from the woke, or maybe spiritually awakened, ex-techies’ interviews who have previously worked with the very companies that they now accuse. Having left these organisations due to ethical concerns, they try to articulate the problem that has no name and also what is not normal. They mention myriad grave issues, from data stealing, fake news, Snapchat dysmorphia and tech addiction to depression, manipulation as well as suicides and from polarization along with political extremism to religious fundamentalism.
The documentary is an exposition of the flip side of social networking. The dawn of the disinformation age is linked directly with the expansion of social media. The virtual communities encourage digital tribalism, wherein like-minded people can isolate themselves in echo-chambers. Then, the truth becomes subjective and poles apart. Everyone has their own truth based on the kind of content and one-sided facts they consume, which is fed to them by algorithms.
The docudrama critiques the business-model of tech giants, associating it to being one of the roots of the social media problem. They sell users to advertisers. We use these platforms for free, and as Tristin Harris (ex-Google employee and co-founder of Center for Humane Technology) in the documentary points out, “If you are not paying for the product, then you are the product.”
“It’s the gradual, slight, imperceptible change in your own behavior and perception that is the product,” says Jaron Lanier (founding father of Virtual Reality Computer Scientist). Manipulation and creation of a new market place is the product of social networking.
From technology to psychology, the dopamine rush that social media triggers is known to our senses. This lets social media exploit human vulnerabilities. The notifications and recommendations are designed as such to increase the attention span and put us in a rabbit-hole from which it is difficult to extricate ourselves.
Despite being an eye-opener, The Social Dilemma goes quite far in its stance such that it becomes rather extreme than practical in terms of social media manipulation. Especially, the personification of Artificial Intelligence through Vincent Kartheiser appears profoundly unrealistic and dramatic. An AI can certainly not push arbitrary notifications, of events not in its control, by itself randomly anytime. However, Kartheiser does send Ben (Skyler Gisondo) a notification of his ex coming into a new relationship.
The docudrama also overestimates the ability of these platforms to destabilize democracy, because, in actuality, they just amplify disinformation and fake news, but propaganda and evil notions are pre-existing in the society. Social media alone cannot overthrow democracy and its principles.
Surveillance capitalism and consumerism did not get the kind of attention as it should have in the documentary. Besides, it could have also worked to accumulate concepts like social media psychology, data privacy, data mining, big data among other things.
It is an irony that the documentary is a Netflix original production as the OTT itself works on algorithms, throwing suggestions based on our data. It keeps playing episodes, pushing us into rabbit holes.
Technology, at present, has undeniably overwhelmed human capacities. The Social Dilemma encourages open-end conversations and constructs an aware public sphere for discussions that can scrutinize what goes on behind the screens.
“Nothing vast enters the life of mortals without a curse.” – Sophocles