Society is living through an age in which technology dominates everyday life. Almost every decision we make is influenced by social media; during all of our spare time we check our Twitter or Instagram accounts; and advertising permeates every day of our lives. This digital environment saturates everything we do, and the new Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma investigates the serious negative societal implications of this saturation. The tech companies that design the applications people use every day (Google, Facebook, Instagram) may have started out with good intentions, but as this documentary shows, these conglomerates now run autonomous algorithms that leech off of every person who views their content. These algorithms cause us to think and act a certain way all so advertising companies and conglomerates can make a profit. For the most part, The Social Dilemma does a good job of spelling out the problems of the modern social media environment and serves as a sobering reminder to not only be careful about the online content one absorbs, but to put down the phone and not rely on algorithms to define one’s perception of the world.
The Social Dilemma is centered around a collection of interviews from former executives of the exact companies this film is exposing, making their opinions on the influence of social media valid and to be taken seriously. The interviewees have insight on this topic that few other people in the world have, and they are warning us that social technology is aggressively detrimental for society’s well-being. The concept here is chilling and at times the film gets its point across well, but the filmmakers also take some creative avenues that undermine the strong message. This is by no means a perfect film and at times it feels like watching a paranoid parent rant about how much their kids are “on that damn phone.” Director Jeff Orlowski chooses to include a dramatization of a hypothetical scenario that could occur because of the influence of social media, and this entire idea doesn’t work at all and should have been taken out of the film altogether.
At first, I was very much not onboard with the direction this film was taking, and it felt like another rant about how technology will turn our brains to mush. For the first twenty or so minutes, the film covers topics and issues that are only new to people who have never used the Internet before in their lives. Yes, most apps track your location and can know where you live; yes, algorithms know what preferences people have based in past activities; yes, people are too addicted to their phones — the majority of us know all this already. However, when the film starts talking about how teens and young adults are far more likely to have suicidal tendencies because of social media, that’s when The Social Dilemma got interesting for me. Orlowski then starts to get into the important details of how social media is making life worse for the newest generation, and the arguments get stronger and stronger as the movie continues. By the end, the interviewers are suggesting that if we continue to let social media divide us, then the result may be full blown Civil War, which is a concept that’s extreme enough to scare even the most hardened skeptics.
By the end, The Social Dilemma convinced me of the urgency of this issue and how it is progressively causing the end of civilized society and we know it, which speaks to the convincing nature of the interviewees. However, the road getting to the strong einding is a bumpy one, mainly because of the awful dramatizations I mentioned before. The writing for these scenes is terrible, to the point where it sometimes seems like a Saturday Night Live parody of a “woke” docu-drama. The acting isn’t too great either, so every time the film switched to the fictional theatrics I always found myself questioning Orlowski’s points. At times, these dramatizations even directly undermine the points of the real-life experts who were interviewed. If these scenes were completely scrapped from the movie, the messages would be much more potent and the pacing would be far smoother. I could have listened to certain experts talk for much longer, especially Tristan Harris, a former Google executive who makes many of the compelling arguments this film has to offer.
The second half of The Social Dilemma is shocking enough that the movie overcomes the clunky dramatizations and some pandering early on, creating an experience that will make audiences rethink how they use social media. I don’t think the effect of this film should be “technology is evil” or “my kids will never ever use a phone,” but it should caution each person to be aware of how social media can take advantage of the general population, pitting people against each other and creating a more depressed society. Is technology still useful and convenient? Of course, and there should and will be a place for it, but this film argues that if we take our current overreliance on technology for granted, then disinformation will take over public consciousness and issues like climate change will be ignored, destroying our way of life. Arguments like this are why The Social Dilemma is still an essential watch despite its over-reliance on mediocre execution, and is why people should treat the issue of tech regulation as an existential threat.
I give The Social Dilemma a B.