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‘The Social Dilemma’ Review: Another compelling, urgent argument for questioning what shows up in our Facebook feeds

Are we living in a "Black Mirror" episode? The new Netflix doc makes a persuasive case.
Credit: Netflix

We’re quickly approaching 10 years with “The Social Network,” David Fincher’s enduring dawn-of-the-digital-age story that continues to prove its prescience as Big Tech bigwigs make the trek from Silicon Valley to Washington D.C. for congressional hearings. You might be familiar with the widespread clamoring for a necessary sequel, a perhaps-inevitability-turned-in-joke that some would like to think is necessary to confirm what Fincher and Aaron Sorkin were prophesizing about tech bros conspiring in fancy meeting rooms with the fate of information flow in their hands.

Even if we never get “The Social Network 2,” Netflix might have provided us with the closest thing to a spiritual successor. “The Social Dilemma,” a mighty uneasy new documentary now available on the streamer, has some funny, unexpected parallels to Fincher’s film, from the reflective nature of its title to the grim implications of unchecked ego to the Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross-lite electrosoundtrack that simmers underneath. But “The Social Dilemma” also has a playfulness and a causticity that go hand in hand. And it’s when the doc morphs from familiar don’t-check-your-phone-at-the-dinner-table lecture into an urgent appeal for understanding how our attention has become commercial product that “The Social Dilemma” begins to feel mighty important. The movie fully understands that “dilemma” may be too generous a descriptor for our times.  

We taste that urgency from the opening moments, as “The Social Dilemma” flashes through the faces we’ll be hearing from for the next 90 minutes. They don’t, however, belong to your standard university professor well-versed in Silicon Valley politics— rather, it’s the Silicon Valley expats themselves, former executives from Pinterest and Google and Facebook who get comfortable in the bunker-like interview spaces they’ll be addressing us from, as if Skynet is already ruling the world outside.

The sight is a bit surreal; Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey aside, we aren’t all that familiar with engineers of the apps that dominate contemporary life. You’d be forgiven for thinking they’re not operated by humans, but by automatons. But these folks – among them Tristan Harris, a former Google “design ethicist” who’s referred to as “the closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience” – share the same grave look of we-don’t-want-to-be-here-but-we-have-to-be. And as they provide firsthand knowledge about the commodification of our swipes and scrolls, the involvement of Harris and others (most of them white dudes) almost feels like an act of rebellion, if not a call to arms.

A lot of the subject matter that fills “The Social Dilemma” is the stuff we’ve been hearing about for years, particularly when it comes to the scars left on our mental health from obsessing over how many likes our last tweet got (guilty). Statistics are provided about the skyrocketing rates of self-harm and suicide among Gen Zers – the ones who haven’t known a time where they weren’t able to create idealized versions of themselves by slapping a filter onto a selfie – and the phenomenon of “Snapchat dysmorphia” that is as dystopian as it sounds.

But director Jeff Orlowski’s real interests are of even more immediate consequence: Disinformation, systemic polarization and how tech companies’ churn out profit by way of shoving users down conspiratorial rabbit holes that we don’t dig ourselves into so much as algorithms cleanly excavate them for us. “The Social Dilemma” is far from the first documentary to explore this material, but it may be the most coherent—that’s one benefit of having the people who pioneered our contemporary way of life being the ones to shake our shoulders. The movie doesn’t just clutch its pearls about the effects social media has had on social interaction; it clearly explains the capitalism-driven causes, and may very well make you all the more infuriated because of it.

That the rhetoric in “The Social Dilemma” is ruled by superlative is no surprise; “fastest” is only getting faster by the day when it comes to technology, and thus to the spread of online falsehoods. It’s one thing to hear all this. Thankfully, Orlowski understands it’s another task altogether to get through to the disillusioned viewer who refuses to examine their own lives. He’s fully aware we’re downplaying the screen-time stats on our iPhones.  

So, in order to keep us from nodding off to familiar refrains, the doc regularly interjects talking-head testimony with a fictionalized storyline centered around an American suburban family, with a trio of kids used to living their lives online. The cheeky story-within-a-documentary starts out how one would expect: With Mom’s disapproval of phones at the dinner table and high schoolers exploring their crush’s Instagram feeds while refusing to talk to them in person. Sound familiar? These scenes – revolving around Ben (Skyler Gisondo) and his sister Cassandra (Kara Hayward, of “Moonrise Kingdom” fame) – are furnished with a self-awareness that helps us laugh (awkwardly) through their alienation to the real world, if only to further ignore the fact our habits align closely with theirs.  

Credit: Netflix

But it’s when the story becomes a twisty version of “Black Mirror”-meets-“Inside Out” that the rug starts to be pulled out from under us. We catch on to “The Social Dilemma” right as it pierces our hide, the documentary showing – with piercing clarity – how social media’s amplification of Pizzagate and phony assertions of COVID-19 being a hoax is not accidental, but very much by design. By the time former tech executives begin talking about “manipulation” and “hacking our psychology,” it makes all too much sense how an ordinary kid like Ben has found himself showing up to a rally of angry, misled conspiracy theorists. “Nothing vast enters the life of mortals without a curse,” the film muses early on, borrowing from our pal Socrates. And nothing enters our YouTube “recommended” feeds without our need to interrogate how it got there.

Are the fictionalized sojourns of “The Social Dilemma” a bit manipulative? Perhaps. But, considering the subject matter, Orlowski doesn’t seem to mind it, and maybe we shouldn’t either. The way this unorthodox doc dovetails reality with light dramatization makes for mighty compelling argument about how the social networks constructed to connect us may be doing the exact opposite—the great irony of living in the 21st century. If the images of San Francisco’s hellish skies this week are a reminder that we’re already living in a dystopian world, “The Social Dilemma” suggests the bright screen in our picket is no trustworthy escape, no matter how much we might wish it to be. 

"The Social Dilemma" is rated PG-13 for some thematic elements, disturbing/violent images and suggestive material. 

Starring: Tristan Harris, Vincent Kartheiser, Skyler Gisondo, Kara Hayward

Directed by Jeff Orlowski

2020

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