Updated: Mar 26, 2021
The subject of ‘big data’ is a tricky one, not least because of its ubiquitous and omniscient nature. Many documentaries have surfaced in recent years seeking to raise awareness and convince audiences of the importance of privacy in the so-called ‘information age’, yet many of these films seem to fall on deaf ears. Conversely, The Social Dilemma soared to the Netflix Top 10 title list for September, described by Forbes’ Travis Bean as being ‘the first time a documentary has ever been the most popular movie on Netflix in any given month’, also scoring an admirable 7.7 on IMDb. So, what is it that sets The Social Dilemma apart from other similar titles?
For me, the film’s success lies in the visceral narrative that unfolds, adjacent to the content discussed by the hand-picked experts who feature. During the title sequence, the audience is introduced to an American family of five, among which are the teenage son, Ben (Skyler Gisondo), and the eldest daughter, Cassandra (Kara Haywood). The two siblings clearly convey a close bond, exchanging light-hearted banter, subtly showing a very relatable rivalry. The archetypal “I’m telling mom!” energy oozes from Haywood’s performance as she shares their mother’s (Barbara Gehring) concern about the negative effects that social media has on children. Ben, the film’s protagonist is depicted as slowly being seduced by his mobile device, and by extension, the nefariously personified algorithm (Vincent Kartheiser). What had initially struck me as an unnecessary oversaturation that held an uncanny resemblance to Disney Pixar’s Inside Out, ultimately became the part of the film that resonated with me the most.
Other documentaries that attempt to explain how these algorithms operate tend to fall short of the mark by over-embedding with technical lingo and pointless CGI data streams, often running the risk of confusing its viewership. However, Director Jeff Orlowski’s choice to humanise the algorithm invites non-tech-savvy viewers to see the existential threat that these processes pose to humanity. This personification playfully touches upon the well-known rhetoric that has permeated science fiction since Alan Turing’s Imitation Game in 1950; the notion that AI may someday become sentient and replace humankind as the dominant species. Orlowski’s creative eye articulates that not only is this day closer than we think, but also that it will not take the form of a weaponised, mechanical robot. Rather, the robot is our mobile device, and the weapon is misinformation. Witnessing how the algorithm gradually snatches Ben’s attention with carefully calculated ads and notifications in an auction-like setting only intensifies the singeing felt from Mark Zuckerberg’s proverbial magnifying glass.
“There are only two industries that call their customers 'users': illegal drugs and software."
These words by Edward Tufte are, ironically, the most sobering in the entire piece. What Orlowski inventively draws from here is, of course, the addictive hold that our devices have on us. Tristan Harris enlightens the audience to the intricate design features adopted by tech companies to keep users hooked, which involves the release of dopamine into the brain. This is ultimately why, in spite of knowing how these systems operate, we still continue to use them. This is the social dilemma.
Reflecting this, the narrative continues as we see Ben strike a deal with his mother. She agrees to fix his broken phonescreen, provided he refrains from using his phone for a whole week. After a few days, the algorithm is thrown into disarray by the lack of engagement and ramps up its efforts to draw him back in, sending a notification detailing that his ex-partner is in a new relationship. In the early hours of the morning, Ben heads to the fridge and is distracted by a vibration coming from his phone on the worktop. Desperate for his fix, he reads the notification. The dopamine he had craved is quickly substituted by pain and anguish. It is at this moment that Nina Simone’s I Put a Spell on You begins to play.
Orlowski’s message is clear: so long as we continue to engage with these systems in our current fashion, we will remain susceptible to the spell cast by tech giants until we are no longer the identity to which we claim to be. After taking his phone to his room, Ben becomes cloaked in a cacophony of computer-generated screens as he endlessly scrolls through the night. This visually stunning sequence poignantly resembles a first-time Hollywood heroin encounter, signalling to the audience that the social dilemma truly is a matter of life and death.
Review by James Jardine