The 400-Word Review: The Social Dilemma
By Sean Collier
September 12, 2020
It’s tricky, at this point, to interrogate the prominence of social media in our lives. In half a generation, the platforms have gone from diversionary to ubiquitous; odds are good, in fact, that you’re reading this review after clicking a link on one of a few such apps.
That’s not to say the likes of Facebook, Instagram and TikTok aren’t badly in need of scrutiny; rather, “The Social Dilemma” makes the case that oversight is an urgent imperative. It’s just difficult to try to imagine getting control of these runaway trains at this point.
To extend the metaphor, changing the way Facebook operates would be like trying to replace the track underneath the train’s wheels.
“The Social Dilemma,” a persuasive new documentary from “Chasing Coral” director Jeff Orlowski, interviews former employees of the tech giants to explore how semi-innocuous creations evolved into their current, behavior-altering state. The talking heads interviewed are some of the best positioned to comment — you’ll hear from the guy who actually invented the “Like” button — and their sense of alarm is concerning.
The movie can better make the argument, but in short: The algorithm is now running the show. As illustrated in dramatized sketches starring “Mad Men” alum Vincent Kartheiser, the artificial intelligence inside our most used apps isn’t designed to serve. It aims to ensnare and keep hold of the user’s attention, thus gathering more metadata and serving up more precise advertising possibilities to the companies that foot the bill.
As is explored in the back half of “The Social Dilemma,” this has an unintended but pivotal side effect: Fomenting social unrest. Turns out that people tend to stay connected to their apps when the algorithm serves incisive social and political content. Unfortunately, no one can yet teach those same algorithms to make sure they’re not radicalizing the users.
“The Social Dilemma” mixes its traditional moments with a loose narrative about a tech-addled family, using the perils of raising connected teens to illustrate its concepts. It’s occasionally effective — the segments with Kartheiser were enough to get me to turn off a lot of my notifications — but it can feel like an after-school special at times.
The style isn’t the point. The message is the thing, here — and it’s dire. If you’d like to be scared away from your phone for a while, “The Social Dilemma” is happy to frighten you.
My Rating: 7/10
“The Social Dilemma” is now streaming on Netflix.