New docu-film presents our technology-dependent world and its consequences

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Youtube, Google, LinkedIn, TikTok, Snapchat, and yes, even Pinterest (sorry, crafty moms and wanna-be wedding planners). These social media platforms are being dragged kicking and screaming into the limelight in Netflix’s new documentary drama, The Social Dilemma. A ninety-minute docu-film that combines fictionalized narrative with crisp paced confessional interviews and occasional messy and hyperbolic political conclusions, The Social Dilemma demands our attention. 

That social media is addictive or creepy isn’t much of a revelation. We accept that Facebook hoards our data, that Instagram is designed to encourage an infinite scroll, and that push notifications are created to capture our constant attention. We grimace at our weekly Screen Time Reports and then continue to spend hours a day on our phones. The Social Dilemma breaks through this apathy to sound the alarm that new technological paradigms are manipulating, addicting, and even buying and selling the users for whom they claim to exist. 

Packed with reformed executives, designers, and even founders of today’s most popular social channels, The Social Dilemma speaks with an authoritative voice about the ways in which we are allowing big-tech to commandeer and destroy our world. These “Prodigal Tech Bros,” as one author put it, have defected from their lucrative Silicon Valley jobs; they’re Dr. Frankenstein fleeing the lab to warn us of the Monster they have created. In on-camera interviews, they laugh nervously, eyes darting across the room as if they are worried that Facebook is watching (which they probably are, as the docu-film would tell you). 

Tristan Harris, a former Google employee known as “the closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience,” is the center of attention as he details his rise and exit from the search engine monolith and the consequences he now sees unfolding from the technology he helped to design. “It really is this kind of prison experiment,” he says, “where we’re just, you know, roping people into the matrix and we’re just harvesting all this money and data from all their activity.” 

This prison experiment is hyperbolically demonstrated in the film’s second narrative: a fictionalized model of the algorithm which co-opts and controls a teenage boy. While overdone — three men stand inside the super computer, scheming and monitoring every post; the boy is presented as three Instagram swipes away from far-right political rallies — the dramatization ups the stakes of what might otherwise be a simple airing of grievances for techies turned to the good side.  

But as our teen attempts (and fails) to break from his technology, executives, presidents, and professors tell us of the consequences of our own addictions. Social media, we’re informed, is not a product that we buy or that the companies sell. As Shoshana Zuboff, author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, details the markets that have been created: “It’s a marketplace that trades exclusively in human futures.” Companies sell to advertisers, who purchase us: “it’s the gradual, slight, imperceptible change in your own behavior and perception that is the product.”

It’s a chilling claim, but an effective one. Companies monetize when they capture our lives: when they can effectively predict and sell our behavior to the highest bidder. As Sandy Parakilas, a former Facebook employee, puts it: “all of this data that we’re just pouring out all the time is being fed into these systems that have almost no human supervision and that are making better and better predictions about what we’re going to do and who we are.

Must we accept this reality? What are the consequences of doing so? Who is responsible for creating this choice? You cannot watch this film and avoid those questions. As one critic put it, somewhat crudely, director Jeff Orlowski is out to “bring compelling new insight to a familiar topic while also scaring the absolute shit out of you.” 

In his 2017 Encyclical Laudato Si’ Pope Francis writes of the new technological paradigms that are  affecting how we dwell in and relate to the created world: “The technological paradigm has become so dominant that it would be difficult to do without its resources and even more difficult to utilize them without being dominated by their internal logic.” 

The Social Dilemma emphatically agrees. 

The Pope continues: “It has become countercultural to choose a lifestyle whose goals are even partly independent of technology, of its costs and its power to globalize and make us all the same.” 

Again, The Social Dilemma presents technology that has pervaded all that we have and all that we are, making even the thought of a life divorced from it appear absurd.

“Technology,” Francis says, “tends to absorb everything into its ironclad logic, and those who are surrounded with technology ‘know full well that it moves forward in the final analysis neither for profit nor for the well-being of the human race’, that ‘in the most radical sense of the term power is its motive – a lordship over all’.”

The Social Dilemma could be considered a demonstration of many of Pope Francis’ concerns in Laudato Si’ and in his most recent encyclical, Fratelli Tutti. While the documentary loses its focus as it attempts to analyze political polarization and climate change, the cost of our technology is indisputably laid bare. “Nothing vast enters the life of mortals without a curse,” a title card quips at the beginning of the film. Are we willing to accept it?

Maggie Garnett is a junior studying theology. After watching The Social Dilemma twice to write this review, she’s best reached via carrier pigeon or paper airplane. She’s not on social media, but you can follow her in real life (though that might be a little creepy), or find her at the email she can’t get rid of yet: