Pick of the Week: The Social Dilemma - Apocalypse Right Now
Jeff Orlowski's zappy new Netflix documentary dives deep into the devious, uncontrollable side of the middleman of our daily communications - Social Media. AI Bots come to life and global shake-ups get an exposition in this nifty, imaginative fare which is bound to engage adults and teenagers alike.
The Sundance sensation and eventual Netflix hit, The Social Dilemma, doesn’t hold back any horrors when shining a spotlight on the most invisible & omnipotent organism of our times – Social Media – and launches a 360-degree scrutiny of its harmful effects. Just like its subject, the hybrid documentary is a finely crafted shapeshifter, perfectly imitating and appeasing our multi-platform, multi-identity lives, as well as our increasing appetite for engaging with multimedia consumption. It brings the technology gurus, philosophers and creators - basically the presenters at major technological conferences - out in public and into our homes and devices with a lucidity that is at once simplifying and enriching for its rational and practical look, at the firm grip this phenomenon has over much of the global population.
The film begins with playful breaking of the form itself - the interviewees clapping the scene-slate, Tristan Harris, who is a central force behind the awareness campaign, looking at his phone getting a notification, etc., easing us into its mélange of wide-ranging narratives and frantic change of gears. As the platform-makers, investors, statisticians & researchers weigh in with their opinions, which include personal confessions about Social Media, we are shown in parallel the slow breakdown of a family via fictional re-enactments. The story probes deep into the lives & emotional unravelling of its individual characters, particularly focusing on one teenager’s shocking progression into a social media addict, and the depression the ‘likes’ algorithm causes in his younger sister. Through events that feel unnervingly real, the story mirrors our own stages of dependency over these services.
Although at times, the documentary can feel overwhelming with so much information being thrown at us, director & co-screenwriter Jeff Orlowski’s exuberant control over a plethora of topics and the distinct audio-visual presentation he employs, using splendid, sharp animation & VFX, makes for a smooth ride. The choice to condense it all into a crisp 89-minute affair is a wise one, not just as consideration for our constantly decreasing attention-spans, but for the fact that it’s simply difficult to sustain through so many horrors.
Orlowski admitted in a Q&A session that he and his team even considered turning it into an episodic series at one point, since they had hours and hours of material, which isn’t surprising considering how widely spread and exponentially growing Social Media is, but ultimately decided not to, even though it meant they would have to cut out entire interviews from some participants. The anthological techno-drama series Black Mirror has been a major influence over Orlowski, which ironically, demonstrates one of the main points in the film – the blurring of the line between fiction and reality. The film goes on to suggest how this has resulted in increased polarisation of beliefs among individuals as well as the latest monster of Fake News. In most cases, such elements would work against the film's message, but here it’s a triumph, in line with the film’s emphasis on humanising its interviewees, who aren’t hesitant about sharing their own vulnerabilities to this problem - the makers aren’t going for subtle subtext here, they’re going for direct statements and propositions.
The criticism or backlash that the documentary has received for its lack of objectivity, fails to understand that the film is well aware of its target audience and is going full throttle in all directions to highlight the clear evils in the system. Of course, it falls into typical pitfalls due to its heavily subjective perspective, and certain creative choices - like representing three AI bots through a white male actor - leave room for misinterpretations, but it’s rather difficult to imagine an all-appealing or ‘balanced’ assessment of a service that has been the main stage for many a modern societal as well as individual battles. A media professor I worked with used to criticise the term ‘Social Distancing’. He suggested we call it ‘Physical Distancing’ because in these isolating times, there’s a necessity to be compassionate, caring and there for each other, especially when we have the means at our fingertips to practice that. He didn’t mean to ignore the scientific explanation behind the term, but it made me think how commonplace it is to consider ‘virtual’ communication as similar to a ‘social’ gathering.
It’s a no-brainer that these technological advancements were designed for comfort and that they have been tremendously helpful on countless fronts, especially with global movements such as Me Too or Black Lives Matter, so eradicating them altogether isn’t the right solution. What we need is to be aware of are certain intricacies that are built into their framework, which hold enormous potential for psychological manipulation as well as their insidious side-effects, which despite being so clearly in front of us, our minds choose not to acknowledge. The film deliberately refuses to give enough weight to the better side of Social Media because it assumes its positives as a fact, and is more concerned with exposing the other side, which many either aren’t aware of, or intentionally ignore. Personally, I feel it is an admirable, fierce and necessary stance.
The legislative system of the United States of America, for many years now, has identified and encouraged the role that the documentary platform can play in influencing policies and laws, as this comprehensive report, When Movies Go To Washington by Caty Borum Chattoo & Will Jenkins explains through examples as well as insider perspectives. A fine recent example is Amazon Prime’s All In: The Fight for Democracy which talks about the practices of Voter Suppression. In a similar vein, The Social Dilemma can be considered an accompaniment to Tristan Harris’ push for policies to enforce humane design considerations in Silicon Valley, through the Centre for Humane Technology. The Trans-media campaign launched alongside the film, also offers plenty of ways to educate yourself with the basics of sociology related to technological progress, raise awareness about the problems and help detoxify the harmful habits they perpetuate.
While the tone of the film remains divisive, like most things which set out to make a buzz nowadays, its technical fluency is, beyond doubt, breathtaking. Its fast-paced treatment keeps us hooked and the immersive visual texture multiplies the scare associated with its already deeply relatable content. The Social Dilemma is perfection on all fronts, and along with being an important call to action is a solid indication of the ever-flourishing golden age of documentaries we are witnessing today.
Now streaming on Netflix.
Jeff Orlowski is a 36-year-old American filmmaker best known for both directing and producing the Emmy Award-winning documentary Chasing Ice (2012) and Chasing Coral (2017). Born on Staten Island, New York he studied anthropology at Stanford University in California. Orlowski has worked with Apple, National Geographic, Stanford University, and the Jane Goodall Institute among many others. His work has aired on Netflix, National Geographic Channel, CNN, and NBC and has been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Time magazine, NPR, and Popular Mechanics. In 2009, Orlowski founded Exposure Labs, a production company geared toward socially relevant filmmaking.