‘The Social Dilemma’ Review: Sharing a Sense of Dismay
Jeff Orlowski’s documentary “The Social Dilemma,” streaming on Netflix, looks at the myriad ways our minds are twisted and twirled by social media platforms. Most of the strategies were worked out intentionally, though their extreme efficiency may have been unforeseen. One unintended consequence has flowed from the invention of the Like button—yes, it needed to be invented, just like the period or the exclamation point—and speaks with special eloquence to the broader nature of the problem. While the button was under development, recalls Justin Rosenstein, who led the effort at Facebook as an engineering manager, the team’s only motivation was to “spread positivity and love in the world.” No one could have imagined that teens would become deeply depressed for lack of Likes. Seduced by technology, we are all at the mercy of dimly perceived forces. What the film tells us doesn’t constitute breaking news, but its value lies in pulling together some alarming if abstract concepts into a genuinely scary whole.
Mr. Rosenstein is one of several Silicon Valley defectors talking to the camera here. As young executives, designers and software engineers, they left vastly lucrative and influential positions for a variety of reasons: ethical concerns about addictive media that decline to confront their addictiveness; political concerns over the polarization of society and the promulgation of fake news—or general misgivings of the sort expressed by Tristan Harris, formerly a design ethicist at Google. “When you look around you it feels like the world is going crazy,” he says. “Is this normal or have we all fallen under some spell?”
The spell is cast for the most part by smartphones like the one I just used to check Twitter out of a sudden desire to find out what was going on, meaning a need to relieve my anxiety while I figured out a transition from the previous paragraph to this one. Social networks hook us countless times a day. That’s no accident, it’s addiction by design. We can change the way our phones ring, look, sound and feel as they deliver our data in a ceaseless flow. We’re delighted and flattered by photo tagging. “When Facebook found that feature they just dialed the hell out of it,” says one of the interview subjects. Another marvels at the magnetism of the vertical scroll. “Pull down, refresh, there’s always going to be a new thing at the top.” The interface operates, he says, “just like a slot machine in Vegas.”
In his previous documentaries, “Chasing Coral” and “Chasing Ice,” Mr. Orlowski was a passionate advocate for environmental causes. He’s no less passionate here, but the bleaching of tropical coral and the melting of Arctic ice are more readily definable issues than social media’s mixture of magical benefits and malign control.
That may be why his new film is an uncomfortable stylistic mix: conventional documentary techniques enhanced, or sometimes burdened, by dramatizations that are funny, even affecting, though sometimes glib and occasionally clumsy. The mother of a phone-enslaved high schooler promises to replace his cracked screen if he can separate himself from his most precious of belongings for a week. In sequences that evoke the sci-fi settings of “Minority Report,” or the deployment of emotions as comic characters in Pixar’s “Inside Out,” a trio of all-seeing and all-knowing controllers—algorithms incarnate—send individual users videos, photos, notifications, snippets of news or whatever trivia it takes to drive up their usage, keep them scrolling through ads and encourage them to invite friends who invite more friends to do the same.