Zanna Gillespie and her husband Greg Bruce debate the merits of new Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma
Moral certainty: 5
Cultural relevance: 5
Induction of existential terror: 5
It's weird to refer to a "social dilemma" in the title of a movie that suggests the best way to deal with social media is to burn it to the ground, set fire to the ashes, scatter them in international waters, then eradicate the ocean.
The thrust of the movie is that our brains have been hijacked by Big Social Media's supercomputers and powerful algorithms and their masters have no regard for the resulting negative impact on our lives. One interview subject explains the companies' attitude toward us thus: "We're more valuable when we're staring at a screen than when we're living our lives in a rich way."
The irony of this message, which most of us already know, is that it fails to have any impact because almost immediately on the completion of the film we're reaching for our phones and scrolling through the Instagram accounts of the original Broadway cast of the musical Hamilton, filled as they are with heartwarming song-and-dance videos and visual stories of inter-cast relationships. The circumvention of our ability to reform social media's business model has been built into the business model; our ability to focus on the task of reforming social media has been undermined by social media's ability to distract.
After the movie I told Zanna I thought Tristan Harris, the red-headed, soft-bearded former Google design ethicist and co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology - a non-profit organisation with the goal of reforming and repairing social media - was an extremely attractive man, to the extent I had initially assumed he was an actor. She said: "You only found him attractive because you thought he looked like you." This was an interesting observation, in the context of our having just finished watching a film about an industry that functions largely as a narcissism-development tool. My first reaction to her claim was to bristle but, on reflection, I came to believe, as I usually do, she was probably right. She then told me she didn't find him attractive.
In bed, not long after, I carried out a Google image search on Tristan Harris and spent a little while scrolling through the results, trying to disentangle my complicated thoughts and feelings. This surely wasn't the result Tristan Harris hoped for when he agreed to appear in this film but knowing what he does about the way these things work, it probably wouldn't have surprised him.
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The Social Dilemma isn't technically a horror film but I haven't been this disturbed by a movie in a very long time. Anyone who's ever entered the comments section of a public Facebook post knows the internet brings out the worst, most vile expressions of human existence. But, as the film points out, what's truly terrifying is that it's not confined to the internet. Increasingly, online hostility is showing up violently in the real world and appears to have us hurtling towards total chaos and ultimate destruction. If you think that sounds extreme, I'm sorry but it's not.
There's nothing particularly new or groundbreaking about the information disseminated in The Social Dilemma - most of us know we're in an echo chamber online and that algorithms ensure our worldviews are constantly being reinforced - but one of the primary problems we're facing is that while we know social media's quite bad for us, we're already so addicted we're willing to overlook the negative consequences, even the very worst consequences, in exchange for the regular dopamine hit we get from each new notification.
In an effort to bring some formal innovation to this otherwise bog-standard, talking head-style documentary, filmmaker Jeff Orlowski intersperses tech expert interviews with a drama about a teenager falling down an internet rabbit hole, becoming a slave to his phone and ultimately being brainwashed. The story isn't particularly good but I enjoyed the imagined inner workings of social media algorithms depicted as three men in a control room watching the teenager's every online move and adjusting the content he receives to maintain his attention indefinitely. It's as hokey as it sounds but it did a good job of visualising something as intangible as an algorithm at work.
In our post-film chat, Greg was very pleased with himself after a long-winded explanation of what the essence of the problem with social media is and said, "I'm extremely articulate and you rarely portray me to be that in your reviews. You just make me out to be this doofus." I didn't think that was really true but when I asked him how the movie made him feel, he responded "Horny … and aroused … and sexual ..." and if I didn't want him to sound like a doofus, I probably would have left that out.
The Social Dilemma is not going to be good for your anxiety but if we continue to turn a blind eye to the very real and horrifying effects social media is having on us, no big deal, but humanity will implode.