What, exactly, is a “dilemma?”
According to Webster, it’s “a usually undesirable or unpleasant choice,” or “a situation involving such a choice.”
It might seem odd to begin a film review with a dictionary entry, but a clear understanding of the word itself might just be an essential factor in getting to the heart of “The Social Dilemma,” Netflix’s buzzy new exploration of our culture’s complex relationship with social media—and the unforeseen effects of that relationship that have snowballed into a crisis unlike any we have ever faced before.
Part documentary, part sci-fi-tinged dramatization, it’s a movie that plays like a presentation. Carefully assembled from on-camera interviews, whirlwind clips of news and other media, soothingly animated interstitial sequences, and “re-enactments” of a hypothetical scenario in which a typical American family is torn apart by its own phone addiction, some of it works better than others (the so-called “dramatic” sequences are frankly a bit embarrassing, like an “Afterschool Special” merged with a bad dystopian tech thriller).
Even so, it’s efficiently designed to lead you to a conclusion—namely, that the once-seemingly beneficent technological advancement known as social media has become a juggernaut that is fast destroying the very foundations of our civilization.
To get you there, it first explains how it all happened, as told by an array of tech insiders, all prominent former and current execs from the likes of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Google, and the other giant companies that dominate our screens for more time every day than we like to admit.
The tale they weave is ominous; young geniuses, driven (mostly) by idealistic naiveté, built and shaped an industry in which a world-changing service was provided free of charge and monetized by charging advertisers for access to potential customers, only to powerlessly watch as the genie they let out of the bottle slowly revealed an increasingly terrifying dark side.
“There’s a problem happening in the tech industry, and it doesn’t have a name,” says Tristan Harris, former design ethicist for Google and now co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology, who serves as the movie’s central voice. That may be true, but he does provide one for the behemoth that has made the problem possible: Surveillance Capitalism.
This distinctly euphemistic term was already coined to describe the financial engine which drives social media. In a nutshell, by charging advertisers for access to its billions of users, a platform can turn a profit while providing “free” access to its services. As another of the film’s prominent experts (computer scientist and “founding father of virtual reality Jaron Lanier) points out, however, “If you’re not paying for the product, then you are the product.”
He goes even further, saying it is the “change in your own perception and behavior” that’s the product—and that reveals the nature of the real problem being presented to us here.
The algorithms designed to shape our online experiences show us what we want to see, but they also leave us susceptible to manipulation by anyone who wants to use them to target us; aggressive ads are easy enough to ignore, when we are aware, but what about the influence exerted by bad actors who utilize these platforms to spread misinformation and propaganda? The 2016 election should surely have been enough to open the eyes of almost anyone not already wise to that danger.
Being aware, however, is not enough to eliminate this complex phenomenon. It’s not even enough to make us immune to it. After showing us how it all works, “The Social Dilemma” goes on to convince us, in no uncertain terms, that the subtle prompts from our phones and other devices – each consciously designed to achieve maximum dopamine-dumping efficiency in conditioning you to respond reflexively to their influence—reshape our behavior by rewiring our unconscious impulses. This is, of course, one of the same mechanisms which make drug addiction so hard to break, a parallel the movie explores.
It also helps to shed light on the uncomfortable reality to which the movie inevitably brings us—a world in which personal and political polarization, driven by “fake news,” social bubbles, conspiracy theories, ideological extremism, propaganda and worse have left us no concept of “truth” upon which we can all agree.
It’s a scary place, to be sure, in which the youngest generations, who have been raised with a constant flow of input from screens, suffer alarmingly high rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide, and Tristan Harris, along with the other industry alarm-sounders enlisted to participate, wants us to be scared. All of us.
For that reason, “The Social Dilemma” walks a fine line. It eschews any discussion that might be seen as partisan, presenting real-world examples from both the left and right of the political spectrum and taking pains to avoid pointing fingers at any particular side—though a stress on the threat of authoritarian abuse of social media platforms and the inclusion of several key conspiracy theories as examples (“Pizzagate,” anyone?) tend to tip us off as to which way the movie’s sentiments lie.
Whiffs of impartiality notwithstanding, the film’s intention is to draw the maximum number of viewers—after all, what good is a warning if only a small fraction of the people who need to hear it are willing to listen?
That may also be the reason why it contains very little direct reference to the LGBTQ+ community, but make no mistake, the call to action being sounded here is going out to everyone. The dire consequences faced should we ignore this exponentially growing threat will be more dire still for those in any disenfranchised or at-risk communities, and only the most naïve could believe that doesn’t include us.
As depressing as all this might seem, “The Social Dilemma” eventually leaves us with a surprising amount of hope. There are things we can do, it tells us, to counteract the control of Artificial Intelligence has over our lives, and reminds us, frequently, of the vast benefits that social media bestows.
Most reassuringly, perhaps, it shows us that there are voices within the industry—not just low-level observers, but individuals who move in the highest levels—calling for change; it is their commitment to spreading the message that ultimately keeps this smart but unsophisticated little movie from becoming just another doom-and-gloom propaganda video to be watched on the internet.
That’s good, because the purpose of the presentation is not just to help us understand the problem; it’s to help us understand the choice with which we are faced if we are going to solve it. Pandora’s Box cannot be closed, so we are left with only two courses of action—to ignore the pestilence it has released in the unlikely hope that we can adapt to it and survive, or to rise above our ever-magnifying differences and work together to bring it to heel.
Neither option is very pleasant, but one is definitely bleaker than the other—and we’ve been told from the beginning that this is a dilemma.
It’s right there, in the title.
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