Documentary Review: Addicted to devices, our health and our democracy imperiled — “The Social Dilemma”

“Blow up your TV,” John Prine sang, in one of his most famously whimsical songs, an early plea for abandoning media and focusing on what’s personal and important. “Throw away your paper.”

Half a century later, “media” is more insidious and omnipresent than ever. It’s in every person’s pocket, a mere click away — monitoring, enticing, persuading and manipulating.

And John Prine? He’s dead thanks to a pandemic whose impact has been magnified by our devices’ ability to prey on our doubts, manipulate our choices and magnify our foibles.

Those foibles are manifested in a “leader” who represents the very worst impulses in our culture but whose crimes fall on deaf ears to social-media-manipulated lemmings in “media bubbles” of their/our own creation. Our lives and our very democracy teeter on the brink, thanks to the irresistible algorithms of Google, Facebook, Twitter and the like, and the heartless, amoral and greedy technocrats who created all this and shrug off any responsibility for the crisis they’ve IPO’d into being.

“The Social Dilemma” is a very clever Netflix documentary that lays out the scope of the problem and the few real solutions for it in the words of scores of Silicon Valley insiders — ex-employees and honchos from Facebook, Twitter, Google, Firefox and their ilk.

It covers familiar ground, to anybody who’s seen or read of the “dopamine” rush that having a post shared or “liked” is engineered to deliver, the addictive qualities of the endless long-scrolling “feeds,” the “predictive” nature of “surveillance capitalism” where our Internet devices figure out what we like and are likely to want to buy or believe, and manipulate us by giving it to us.

In a flash, social media have created a world “where each person has his or her own reality,” we’re “2.7 billion (strong), each living in our own ‘Truman Show.'”

The anchor interview here is Tristan Harris, former Google “design ethicist” who left tech for a career as a TED Talk guru as “the conscience of Silicon Valley.” He remembers the “good things” this technology brought to the world, and frankly admits to “being naive about the dark flip-side of that coin.”

Many others echo those sentiments, and expand on them. And being insiders now outside “the beast” of Big Tech, they enlighten us on the “growth” that capitalism dictates that the companies need to survive, and break down the three “goals” of a Facebook, Twitter or what have you.

There’s the “Engagement Goal,” getting people to use your service, the “Growth Goal” where you and they persuade others to use it for that all-important exponential expansion in reach and influence, and the “advertising goal,” where you use those customers and what you know about them to sell to them.

A clever touch here is using actors to depict a family confronted with the addictive power of devices and social media (Skylar Gisondo is the most famous face in that group), illustrating the isolation, manipulation, relative deprivation (everybody else is having a better time/better life) that drives up suicide rates.

Just as clever? Showing us what’s going on inside “the cloud” or AI hive mind, with actors embodying the one-user-at-a-time attention that enables the algorithms to hook us and manipulate us. The face of this unseen, sinister force? Vincent Kartheiser of “Mad Men.”

As I say, a lot of this is material that’s been covered elsewhere. And the focus on only Silicon Valley insiders (with montages of news coverage, snippets of Congressional hearings) narrows the thinking to people who know the scope of the problem but can’t see the forest for the trees, when it comes to solutions.

And then VR expert, “computer philosopher” and Big Algorithm Jeremiah himself, Jaron Lanier shows up and drops a take-away truth on us all.

The Internet used to be more like Wikipedia — a version of (reasonably) objective truth, presenting the same “facts” (crowd-sourced, edited) to every person who used it. Google came along and abandoned any obligation to objective “truth.” Your search via Google is manipulated by the geographic location where you search from, your prior prejudices as revealed by your search history, and by Google advertisers who get their “search results” a place of priority in your “results.”

Google is “not the truth, it’s telling you the truth it wants you to see.”

“Social Dilemma” is a good film, probably too little too late to play a role in saving democracy or healing a nation so divided half of it won’t do the most basic things to stop a pandemic. But there you are, and there we are.

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some thematic elements, disturbing/violent images and suggestive material

Cast: Tristan Harris, Aza Raskin, Tim Kendall, Rashida Richardson, Jaron Lanier, Shoshona Zuboff, Skylar Gismodo, Kara Edwards and Vincent Kartheiser.

Credits: Directed by Jeff Orlowski, script by David Coombe, Vickie Davis and Jeff Orlowski A Netflix release.

Running time: 1:31

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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