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‘The Social Dilemma’ review: Can we clean up big tech’s big mess?

Jeff Orlowski’s Netflix documentary delves into the insidious workings of Silicon Valley companies that manipulate human psychology. But does the world care?

A still from 'The Social Dilemma', streaming on Netflix.
A still from 'The Social Dilemma', streaming on Netflix.

Jeff Orlowski’s The Social Dilemma, a documentary which released on Netflix this week, follows a familiar plot. A bunch of Silicon Valley “whiz kids", who once helped establish and perpetuate habits of internet addiction on a global scale, come on record to express their horror at the beast they have unleashed. They admit to writing codes and creating programmes specifically targeted to feed the business model of the attention economy.

As former employees of big tech companies who nurtured this Frankenstein’s monster, they are contrite, penitent, disturbed—by the rise of fake news, the waves of violence triggered by misinformation, or manipulation of election results by bots on social media. But most of all perhaps—this is an unspoken theme of the movie—by their sheer helplessness in the face of these forces. Fearful of the future they have set into motion, they want to do better. Sadly, the consequences of playing god can’t be undone by writing a new code.

None of this isn’t news anymore—yet the truth does pinch that much harder when the minds behind these colossal blunders admit to their mistakes on camera. From Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google, to Roger McNamee, an early investor in Facebook, a glittering array of industry veterans come on board to do some serious plain speaking. They point out that we—the “users" of social media—are unwitting “lab rats" in the hands of big tech. “If you are not paying for the product, then you are the product," we are told. In case such abstract aphorisms bounce off our consciousness, Orlowski conjures up an average American family, in the throes of an escalating conflict between young children and parents over screen time, to drive home the point.

Smartly alternating between interviews and this fictional scene setting, The Social Dilemma exposes the fault lines between the aspirations with which big tech began—greater connectivity, increased accessibility, more social cohesion—and the schisms it ended up creating. In most cases, these divisions, whether political or social, were not even the result of crafty manipulation by so-called evil forces. As McNamee points out, Russia didn’t need to hack Facebook to influence the US elections that brought Donald Trump to power—it simply used the platform expertly, and the tools it already provided, to achieve its end.

While many of us are already aware of the insidious role played by artificial intelligence (AI) and algorithms to influence the content we see on our social media feeds, the mechanics of the process is explained in the movie through another device. Orlowski brings images three AIs in human forms whose job is to drive up engagement on Ben’s (the pesky teenage boy in the fictional family) social media accounts. They are ever alert to the shifts in his mood, always ready to throw excitable content into his timeline, or bombard him with news and views that would generate revenue. If the exact methodology of raking up business for advertisers is left a bit hazy, the viewer is no less shaken for it. The destructive potentials of social media are made chillingly real at the end of the movie—the serio-comic interludes with the humanized bots come back to haunt us as moments of grotesque horror.

The Social Dilemma is a necessary and urgent movie that alerts us to the perils of the internet using examples that hit close to the bone. Fake news and trolls are endemic to every nation in the world now. Citizens are signing away their privacy and data without any qualm, every second of the day, which are then being harnessed to keep the wheels of big tech companies turning. Yet, does the knowledge of these horrifying breaches and misuse of information make any difference to the masses? Can a bunch of well-heeled individuals, seated in rooms with sharp décor and reminiscing about their roles in setting a horrible chain of events in motion, make any difference to what’s in store?

Humanity’s attitude towards the information catastrophe is as ambiguous as it is to the climate crisis (Orlowski's other movies include one on climate change). Except for a handful of evangelical activists, how many people, with the best of intentions and fortified with knowledge, are truly worried about the fate of the planet? How does their actual lifestyle reflect their expressed concerns? How many of us, who would be horrified to be labelled climate-change deniers, are resigned to the fact that we are but tiny drops in the ocean of change that needs to happen and, for that reason, don't act steadfastly enough?

Like climate change, big tech is morphing the dynamics of our world bit by bit—some of it is palpable to us, others will become evident as time goes by. Either way, we can’t afford to wait for things to get worse.

The Social Dilemma is streaming on Netflix.

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