‘The Social Dilemma’ Review: Incisive Documentary Tackles “Existential Threat” Of Tech

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Tristan Harris in "The Social Dilemma." Exposure Labs/Netflix
Social media is an addiction that has been normalized. We are living in a digital age of mass consumption, and convenience may have taken precedence over empathy and face to face communication. The Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma addresses issues we may already understand, but looking in the mirror has an intrinsic value.
Sophia Hammons as Isla in The Social Dilemma (Exposure Labs/Netflix)

Thanks to the use of social media and our app driven culture, brands can often be built on a well strategized online presence. On a more intimate level, we can order food or be driven to our destination at a moment’s notice. Our newsfeed is personalized to our own specifications, and we might believe we are using technology to bend to our own whims.

The Social Dilemma flips that concept on its head, positing that we are not the real consumers in this transaction. Rather, we are the product that are ultimately the guinea pigs thanks to the data that continues to be collected on a daily basis. Our perception of independence, wherein our world is tailored to our specifications, is grossly inaccurate, and the ultimate key is to keep us plugged into our respective screens.

Tristan Harris in “The Social Dilemma” (Ph: Exposure Labs/Netflix)

The documentary has a plethora of talking heads drive the narrative, and each of the experts break down many things that we may already know. Framing the project through the eyes (and conscience) of former Google employee Tristan Harris was an excellent creative choice for director Jeff Orlowski. Harris stands out among his peers as the co-founder and president of the Center for Humane Technology.

Harris is advocating a sea change in the way software engineers and players in the social media space (Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Pinterest etc.) to turn these “digital Frankensteins” into something that is actualy beneficial to society.

As a Generation X member, I spent my youth sans the world wide web, and our actual phones were situated in our domiciles. The chance to connect to anyone around the world or collect information within seconds is a life changing aspect that continues to amaze. What started as a profound method of communication has led to the inevitable road to monetization at any costs.

In a pointed fashion, The Social Dilemma suggests that this “surveillance capitalism” approach should be transformed to a more humanistic method. That said, this documentary undestands that there are no easy solutions.

Skyler Gisondo as Ben in The Social Dilemma. (PH: Exposure Labs/Netflix)

The “social dilemma” understands that while there are a myriad of benefits from technology, we are a slave to our devices. As one expert mentions, we have become our own version of The Truman Show, and that can often have its detrimental effects. Several of the experts interviewed in the documentary mentioned that they limit their children’s screen time as much as possible, and hopefully this is a message many parents (including myself as a nanny to my niece!) will follow.

Orlwoski strays away from the talking heads scenario to give us a sneak peak into the lives of an American famly (members of the unit are played by Skyler Gisondo, Kara Hayward, and Sophia Hammons). Mad Men’s Vincent Kartheiser serves as a stand-in for the social media engineers who are manipulating Gisondo’s daily activities. While this narrative is not an integral aspect of The Social Dilemma, it gives a much needed variety to the proceedings.

Even if you know much of the material in The Social Dilemma, the documentary is a value added viewing experience for anyone who wants to take a closer look at their own relationship with technology. To think governments can be toppled due to “fake news” and advertising placement may have been a pie in the sky concept years ago, but now it’s just part of how some conduct their business.

Tristan Harris is not idealistic when he calls for a change in Silicon Valley, as he feels that a different way is necessary in these trying and divisive times.I spent over a half our glancing at my newsfeed after watching the sailent The Social Dilemma, but I actually did bat an eye over all that wasted time.

The Social Dilemma is offering us an option for stepping in a much more productive direction, and now it’s time for us to keep that momentum going (first step: turn off all those notifications on your phone!).

The Social Dilemma is now streaming on Netflix.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

For other films coming out this week, check out our reviews on the latest episode of CinemAddicts:

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