‘The Social Dilemma’ Chillingly Outlines the Dangers of Our Cyber Reality

There is a good chance you are reading this review on the screen of a smartphone, or if you happen to be using a computer your Facebook profile is open, just a few tabs away. The Netflix documentary “The Social Dilemma,” doesn’t just acknowledge this tech-driven reality of our daily lives, it’s a near dystopian warning about where it’s taking us. Per this overview of a social media-crazed society, we are deluding ourselves into thinking our attachment to our devices is mere distraction. The great irony is that its interview subjects are the very people who designed the whole cyber apparatus, detailing the science behind attempting to manipulate our desires, fears and consumer habits. Some of it goes over the top, yet a lot of it feels eerily urgent.

“The Social Dilemma” is the latest from director Jeff Orlowski, whose documentaries “Chasing Ice” and “Chasing Coral” chronicled the effects of climate change on the earth’s glacial and sea regions. This documentary is about a different kind of radical change, this one involving how we think and see the world through our social media obsession. If there is a main character here it is Tristan Harris, a former Google “design ethicist” who left to form the Center for Humane Technology. As Harris tells it, there is a major lack of ethical backbone in the way major corporations like Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, you name it, are targeting users by pinpointing their very psychological makeup. Other subjects like Justin Rosenstein, who invented Facebook’s “like” button, also issue detailed warnings about the way these brands use data and algorithms to seduce us into spending endless hours on our devices, consuming the content they determine we want. The great danger is that humans are now creating alternative realities for themselves, basing even their sense of self-worth solely on what their brains drink in while scrolling across pictures, videos, updates and ads. 

As a pure overview of where we’re going as a tech-addicted species, “The Social Dilemma” is always highly engaging. One could say there is an irony in seeing all these Silicon Valley-types parade across the screen, warning us to stay away from the programs they themselves created. One former Pinterest developer admits he became addicted to his own program, and nearly every former executive, designer or speaker informs us during the end credits that they keep their children away from social media. However, there’s little denying the social impact apps and sites have wrought. Millennials and older viewers still remember a time before high speed internet was the norm, when Facebook was nonexistent and just watching a movie trailer could take eons on that medieval system known as dial up. Harris and his colleagues are extremely concerned about the current impact on Gen-Z and those who will follow them. Stunning information reveals how suicide and depression rates have spiked among middle and high schoolers, who are composed of young people entirely overwhelmed by the way social media now imposes fads, aesthetic norms on appearance and even more intense obsessions with popularity (that friend who gets depressed because only 10 people “liked” their post). 30 years ago it would have been difficult to take seriously the idea that psychologists would be talking about “Snapchat Dysmorphia,” where people get plastic surgery to look closer to how a filter alters your appearance online. 

By simply letting his subjects share what they know and have seen, such as information how everything you search online is recorded and processed somewhere, thus enabling automated systems to feed you ads and click bait, Orlowski creates quite the immersive documentary. Where he falls short is in the unwise decision of intercutting between the interviews to a rather hilariously staged set of dramatized scenes involving a suburban family. It’s like a mini soap opera starring Barbara Gehring as the mother of two siblings, Ben (Skyler Gisondo) and Cassandra (Kara Hayward), who are soon wrecked by a phone. Ben is supposed to symbolize the typical teenager constantly checking his apps and profile. The inner workings of his social media are represented by an A.I. persona played by Vincent Kartheiser. Keen pop culture fans will consider casting Kartheiser a brilliant stroke for a needless character, since he played the snaky advertising executive Pete Campbell in “Mad Men.” But with everything Harris and the others share, does the director really need to get the point across with Kartheiser split into three A.I. personalities making quips while choosing what ad to throw at Ben? In one ludicrous scene they notice Ben hasn’t been on his phone for a while, so they decide to throw a relationship status update about a girl whose profile he’s looked at constantly. Ben’s phone is so nefarious that because of all the paranoid conspiracy theories he sees on YouTube, he soon transforms from a regular high school kid into a protester at a riot, thus his story ends in handcuffs!

And politics is also another one of the documentary’s sections where it gets half intriguing and half over the top. Per “The Social Dilemma” the rise of right-wing populist parties in Europe, the election of Bolsonaro in Brazil, the massacre of the Rohingya in Myanmar, and our growing social conflicts here in the U.S., can all be traced back specifically to social media. It is true that firebrands online, fake news, rampant conspiracy theories and propaganda can exacerbate tensions, but there are plenty of socioeconomic issues like inequality, long standing historical situations and unresolved cultural tensions that can easily lead to political clashes (Black Americans don’t need Facebook to tell them police brutality is real). More urgent are the sections where participants touch on the subject of cyber espionage and the way governments can now assault each other through the internet. 

Still, “The Social Dilemma” is more than worth watching for how it dissects the very shifts we are seeing in how we as a species see the world. As Harris points out, it’s not that technological advancement is bad. It’s about how we then apply it to our lives. Social media and the internet have provided some impressive leaps forward, but because this remains a society driven by consumerism, a lot of the emerging and established technology seems increasingly designed to just keep us as compliant addicts to things that are far from even essential. Orlowski poses the question of, what kind of future are we building if happiness will mean the difference between some faceless user liking or disliking our posts?

The Social Dilemma” begins streaming Sept. 9 on Netflix.