By Poulomi Das Sep. 13, 2020
We all know we are addicted to social media, but Jeff Orlowski’s urgent documentary The Social Dilemma asks a pertinent question: Do we really have any control over our own trajectories on the internet being held against us?
“If you are not paying for the product, then you’re the product,” goes one of the most defining dialogues of Jeff Orlowski’s The Social Dilemma, a horrifying and urgent Netflix documentary on the perniciousness of social-media addiction.
For anyone spending even five minutes of their time on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or YouTube, the news about these social networking platforms thriving on eroding and simultaneously monetising humanity’s collective attention spans comes as no surprise. Cunningly crafted algorithms work overtime to craft a narrative out of our random actions on the internet, so as to influence our future ones. Day in and out, we use these very platforms to articulate just how much they have diminished our ability to concentrate on just about anything: For instance, reading a book for more than 10 minutes without giving into the temptation of reaching out for your phone feels almost like punishment.
The perils of willingly subscribing to a life constantly tethered to an online identity has been relayed back to us in our constant restlessness, inattention, and romantic impotence, long before a documentary on the internet came about to articulate it. So if it seems like The Social Dilemma isn’t that documentary which is invested in asking whether it’s possible for us to imagine a life without the internet, it’s because it already knows the answer: it isn’t. Instead, Orlowski recasts the titular dilemma at the heart of his 90-minute investigation as this: Do we really have any control over our own trajectories on the internet being held against us?
Structurally, The Social Dilemma is a fascinating case study in expanding on the conventional techniques of non-fiction storytelling, alternating between interviews and a dramatised fictional subplot involving an internet-addled suburban family and the bevy of AI bots manipulating their decisions. But it is at its most potent when Orlowski, who previously directed Chasing Ice, a haunting documentary that saw global warming as a ticking time bomb, expertly condenses an unending pile of information into digestible chunks of horror.
Cunningly crafted algorithms work overtime to craft a narrative out of our random actions on the internet, so as to influence our future ones.
The documentary opens with conscientious defectors from these social media companies – the co-founder of the Facebook like button, the former vice-president of engineering at Twitter – explaining how the tools that they helped develop for these platforms eventually ended up becoming an untamable beast. Most of these people decided to leave their cushy Silicon Valley jobs for ethical concerns and they’re all united in acknowledging that these platforms, now a cesspool of fake news, internet lynch mobs triggered by unsubstantiated information, and cyberattacks that have the power to manipulate election results, is in need of an intervention. Yet, there is also pin-drop silence when they’re asked to summarise what exactly the problem is, or for that matter who is to be blamed. “There is no one bad guy,” is all one of them can offer, claiming that the insidious outcome of the strategies adopted by these social media platforms is a wholly unintended consequence, even though it is the systemic laps by these companies that led us toward this path anyway.
Take for instance, the invention of the Facebook like button. Justin Rosenstein, who spearheaded the development of the button as an engineering manager during his time at the tech giant, reiterates that for the team working on it, the idea was to will the button into existence so as to “spread positivity and love in the world”. That it also presented the risk of titling the other way, one where an absence of a presumed number of likes could affect the self-worth and mental health of teenagers, may have been unforeseen. In that sense, The Social Dilemma does a fine job of emphasising on the double-edged sword of their culpability: these are also the same people who nurtured and perfected the Machavellian language of manipulation currently adopted by these platforms. The horror of it, argues Orlowski, isn’t that these people found their conscience terrified of a future that they set in motion but that even despite their best efforts, they, just like us, are ultimately helpless against these internet companies profiting off human behaviour.
By the end, the question that the documentary, an essential cultural artefact of our times, leaves you asking isn’t as much “Can we live without the internet?” as much as it is “Will the internet allow us to do that?” For anyone wondering, the answer is staring right back at us, as we continue to articulate the terror about the reality that The Social Dilemma presents us on the very social platforms that hold us hostage without blinking an eye.
When not obsessing over TV shows, planning unaffordable vacations, or stuffing her face with french fries, Poulomi likes believing that some day her sense of humour will be darker than her under-eye circles.