Jeff Orlowski 2020 docudrama "The Social Dilemma" tries to raise awareness of the Attention Economy's collateral effects on society. But how much impact will it have?
Released in January in the 2020 Sundance Film Festival and made available this month on Netflix, "The Social Dilemma" was written by Davis Coombe, Vickie Curtis, and Jeff Orlowski. It's directed by Jeff Orlowski, known for the award-winning documentaries Chasing Ice (2012) and Chasing Coral (2017). According to Wikipedia, "The film explores the rise of social media and the damage it has caused to society, focusing on its exploitation of its users for financial gain through surveillance capitalism and data mining, how its design is meant to nurture an addiction, its use in politics, its impact on mental health (including the mental health of adolescents and rising teen suicide rates), and its role in spreading conspiracy theories and aiding groups such as flat-earthers and white supremacists."
I found the docudrama format appropriate to explain complex theories involving algorithms and neuroscience to a non-technical audience. It also feels effective to relieve the monotonous effect that spending almost an hour and a half listening only to former high-tech company top talent testimonials of regret and "I messed up badly and want to make up to society" would have to the audience. For example, algorithms are depicted in the form of real people operating inside a control room, almost as if Star Trek and Minority Report had a crossover episode. It's a romanticized way of depicting code and data, but it works. Apart from its sci-fi tendencies, a small family-drama-story is going on between a testimonial and the next one to show how messed up family relations can become. How we quickly lose our mental health and end up joining the first stupid radical group we see online. Damn it! Technology sucks!
But NO, "The Social Dilemma" is quite evident in stating that the problem is not technology. But the people behind an empire of tech giants that are exploiting us.
And I agree with that. But there's another issue that "The Social Dilemma" forgets to mention. It's the economy, stupid!
Yes, the economy. The real social dilemma is that our economy, also known as capitalism, is flawed since day one (like everything we create). The system has been exploited more and more by a group of people. Yes, people again. Powerful actors inside companies and governments.
Social media is a crappy tool right know. But it also reflects how crappy the economy has been for decades. Our society is a mess. People don't have time and energy to think about digital well-being or even any form of well-being, as most people struggle to make it through the week, living from paycheck to paycheck. THIS (economy) is why some people are watching "The Social Dilemma" on Netflix and wondering how the hell we got here and for how long this (economy) will keep going.
Technology is a tool imagined by our incredibly (dumb or clever; you choose) mind considering our society's values and having goals in mind to achieve the current cultural materialization of success (make as much money as possible). If someone thinks "I don't care about your well-being," they will act, reflecting that value and develop technology that makes people miserable.
So, the real dilemma here comes down to one thing. For how long the influential, rich people running mega-corporations and governments believe they can keep going with this fortune growth-hack madness with the illusion that they are not screwing up their own lives in the process?
"The Social Dilemma" was wary in touching this point, focusing on the effects rather than on the root-cause. In my opinion, the impact on the audience will be to raise the motivation bar on "I need to delete my Facebook in the future" by some percent. But I'm afraid I'm sorry, Jeff, I don't think people will change their digital habits after watching your show.
I'm still waiting for "The Social Dilemma." The real-deal, this time.