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Saturday, April 13, 2024

Hate Social Media? You’ll Love This Documentary

As a documentary filmmaker, Jeff Orlowski seems preoccupied with the destruction of the world. His 2012 film Chasing Ice captured the devastating effects of climate change on melting glaciers. In 2017 he documented the erosion of coral reefs in Chasing Coral. His latest film, The Social Dilemma, takes aim at an even greater danger: social media.

The Social Dilemma suggests, more than once, that social media represents “humanity’s greatest existential threat.” I first heard that phrase last April, at the SFJazz Center in San Francisco, where the technologist Tristan Harris unveiled a “new agenda for tech.” Harris, a former Googler, had spun his ethical concerns about social media and screen time into a new nonprofit, the Center for Humane Technology, which he formally introduced that day onstage. Many of us were sympathetic to the cause, calling to mind the devils we knew: misinformation, manipulation, virality, addiction, filter bubbling, FOMO. But Harris was here to crank up the concern. We were being controlled, like voodoo dolls in the palms of Big Tech. We were being chopped up and sold, like factory farmed meat. This wasn’t just a battle for our attention, Harris said. If we didn’t do something now, it would be the end of humanity as we knew it.

After the presentation, over hors d'oeuvres in the lobby, I talked to the founder of a large social website that was preparing to IPO. What did you think, I asked. Compelling stuff, he told me, really interesting. We chatted for a while, eyes wide as they adjusted to the light outside of the theater and the reality that we would have to return to work soon—his at the social platform, mine writing about social platforms. We both liked the presentation. But neither of us could really grasp it in a sentence to summarize what, specifically, had gone so wrong with technology, or how, exactly, we were supposed to fix it.

The same feeling arises after watching The Social Dilemma, which arrives on Netflix today. The documentary takes aim at the humanity-crushing effects of social media, with footage of Harris’ presentation at the SFJazz Center woven throughout. Like that presentation, the documentary carries an air of gravitas. It prosecutes its case like a trial lawyer, calling one witness after another up to the stand. They include many of the great architects of social media as we know it today—people like Tim Kendall, Facebook's former director of monetization; Justin Rosenstein, who invented the Like button; and Guillaume Chaslot, who created the recommended-video infrastructure for YouTube—all of whom denounce their former work.

But while The Social Dilemma establishes that there is a problem, it struggles to locate the source of the stink. The film begins with an offscreen producer asking technologists what, exactly, is wrong with social media. It ends with those same technologists offering their prophecies for the future. Mostly, it shows the technologists squirming in their seats, unsure of where to begin.

Eventually, though, they start talking. According to them, the problems are thus: We spend too much time on social media. We do this because, in essence, we have no choice. The people who work at tech companies have invested infinite money, time, and engineering power to design systems that keep us hooked, and which predict our every move. It’s how they make money: We are not the user, we are the product (such clichés are repeated frequently). Mark Zuckerberg and Susan Wojcicki are billionaires; meanwhile, everyone else has given up happiness, knowledge, intimacy, spontaneity, time with our families, free will. We are pawns in a horrible scheme. We are living in 2.7 billion individual Truman Shows. We are living in the Matrix!

A bit over the top, sure, but this is not a film of subtlety. Orlowski underscores these critiques with a bizarre dramatized narrative that runs throughout the film, in which actors portray one imagined family’s stereotypical conflicts with technology. There is no eye contact at the dinner table, a teenage daughter with social-media-damaged self-esteem, and a teenage son who starts listening to increasingly radical videos on his phone. At one point, while the teenage boy is glued to his phone, the film cuts to a metaphorical “control center” of people manipulating the boy’s feed, while “I Put a Spell on You” plays in the background. Just in case you weren’t paying attention.

Many things in The Social Dilemma, but especially this family’s arc, feel stale in 2020. Yes, our phones have changed the way we interact with our families and friends. And yes, kids are extra vulnerable. But none of this feels especially new, or even interesting. Harris, after all, has been making these points for years, and he is far from alone in that. Even social media executives like Zuckerberg have admitted that their platforms need more supervision, from parents and lawmakers alike.

Watching The Social Dilemma during the coronavirus pandemic adds a dash of irony. The film arrives at a time when many American schools have pivoted to online learning, record numbers of Americans are working from home, and reliable internet is more precious than ever. Even social media has new value, as a way to connect with the friends and family we cannot see in person. These platforms are enmeshed in our lives. Those who don’t have access to phones, computers, or stable WiFi may find, in 2020, that they have not achieved some kind of Zenlike nirvana, but are instead left out of work, school, and the rest of society.

The Social Dilemma gestures at the distinction between “good” technology and “bad” technology; at one point, Harris concedes that the invention of ride hailing apps feels like magic. On balance, though, the film muddies its criticisms, alternating between attacks on social media specifically and technology more broadly. At times, it also oversimplifies the impact of social media on society as a whole. For example, it advances the idea that a spike in teenage depression can be traced back to the rise of social media. This is the first generation of American kids to grow up with Instagram accounts, sure, but they’re also reckoning with the irreversible effects of climate change, wavering democracy, racism, decline of social institutions, helicopter parenting, and so many other things that might, perhaps, contribute to the blues. (Many experts have cautioned against drawing such a direct causal relationship between social media and mental health for that reason.) And while social media can exacerbate problems like bullying, loneliness, or unrealistic beauty standards, it certainly didn’t invent them.

Harris finally acknowledges this at the end of The Social Dilemma. Social media itself is not the existential threat. Rather, it’s the way that social media surfaces and amplifies the worst of humanity. The war, then, is not so much with Big Tech as it is with humanity’s horrible impulses. It’s a brief moment of sapience in a film that otherwise works to scare its viewers into awareness. Unfortunately, neither Harris nor the documentary offer much practical advice to those who are already awake. Anyone who spends more than a few minutes on social media knows that it’s a mess. What are we supposed to do about it? Responsibly, the producers ask that very question towards the end of the documentary. The technologists throw out a few ideas: Tweak the design. Change the business model. Make new regulations. Shut down the companies altogether. Mostly, though, they answer with blank stares.

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