Flamethrowers and Fire Extinguishers – a review of “The Social Dilemma”

“The myth of technological and political and social inevitability is a powerful tranquilizer of the conscience. Its service is to remove responsibility from the shoulders of everyone who truly believes in it. But, in fact, there are actors!” – Joseph Weizenbaum (1976)


Why did you last look at your smartphone? Did you need to check the time? Was picking it up a conscious decision driven by the need to do something very particular, or were you just bored? Did you turn to your phone because its buzzing and ringing prompted you to pay attention to it? Regardless of the particular reasons, do you sometimes find yourself thinking that you are staring at your phone (or other computerized screens) more often than you truly want? And do you ever feel, even if you dare not speak this suspicion aloud, that your gadgets are manipulating you?

The good news is that you aren’t just being paranoid, your gadgets were designed in such a way as to keep you constantly engaging with them. The bad news is that you aren’t just being paranoid, your gadgets were designed in such a way as to keep you constantly engaging with them. What’s more, on the bad news front, these devices (and the platforms they run) are constantly sucking up information on you and are now pushing and prodding you down particular paths. Furthermore, alas more bad news, these gadgets and platforms are not only wreaking havoc on your attention span they are also undermining the stability of your society. Nevertheless, even though there is ample cause to worry, the new film The Social Dilemma ultimately has good news for you: a collection of former tech-insiders is starting to speak out! Sure, many of these individuals are the exact people responsible for building the platforms that are currently causing so much havoc—but they meant well, they’re very sorry, and (did you hear?) they meant well.

Directed by Jeff Orlowski, and released to Netflix in early September 2020, The Social Dilemma is a docudrama that claims to provide a unsparing portrait of what social media platforms have wrought. While the film is made up of a hodgepodge of elements, at the core of the work are a series of interviews with Silicon Valley alumni who are concerned with the direction in which their former companies are pushing the world. Most notable amongst these, the film’s central character to the extent it has one, is Tristan Harris (formerly a design ethicists at Google, and one of the cofounders of The Center for Humane Technology) who is not only repeatedly interviewed but is also shown testifying before the Senate and delivering a TED style address to a room filled with tech luminaries. This cast of remorseful insiders is bolstered by a smattering of academics, and non-profit leaders, who provide some additional context and theoretical heft to the insiders’ recollections. And beyond these interviews the film incorporates a fictional quasi-narrative element depicting the members of a family (particularly its three teenage children) as they navigate their Internet addled world—with this narrative providing the film an opportunity to strikingly dramatize how social media “works.”

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