What are we to make of the feature length documentary, The Social Dilemma? I would start with the fact that it’s immune to contradiction. You have to go to Netflix, a digital streaming service, to get lectured for 94 minutes about the horrors of digital life. In fact, the documentary is a “Netflix original,” which means it must have received some portion of the $17 billion the streaming giant spends on proprietary content. So it’s the web exploiting the anti-web. But you can also think of The Social Dilemma as a slick, manipulative film production slamming the big digital platforms for their slick, manipulative algorithms.
The digital environment, it seems, is Plato’s cave—dancing shadows on a wall that confuse and distract you. Or it’s a twist on the Hotel California, where you check in whenever you switch on your smartphone but you can never leave. Or it’s an evolutionary death trap, into which you are seduced by the lure of algorithmic brain candy. So we are told during the film by a succession of neo-Luddites and repentant techies who have themselves risen above any such failings. They know better, and they will grab you by the shoulders and tell you why.
Formally, The Social Dilemma consists of a series of interviews with experts inserted in brief cuts, which alternates with a supposedly comedic docu-drama about an average family’s travails with the smartphone, also presented in snippets. The level of subtlety probably falls below that of Soviet propaganda, but the point is clear enough. Properly understood, the documentary is an extended rant about the 21st century, using the digital world as proxy.
Viewing the web as a political doomsday device is now mandatory among our elites. Barack Obama, who won the presidency in 2008 in part because of a brilliant online campaign, recently told The Atlantic that he considers “the internet” to be the “single biggest threat to our democracy.” Francis Fukuyama, that barometer of elite opinion, holds that “social media” has been “weaponized against democracy.” The Social Dilemma pitches to this unhappy audience, riding every argument over the cliff to the most extreme conclusions.
In it, we are told that the internet is “really bad” or maybe “really, really bad,” like “a drug” but also like a “rabbit hole,” a “totally new species of power” that uses “disinformation for profit as a business model,” controlled by “digital Frankensteins that are terraforming the world in their image.” The effects are said to be manipulation, addiction, polarization, and exile to a kingdom of lies. “This is overpowering human nature,” intones Tristan Harris, a former “design ethicist” at Google who is introduced as “the closest thing to a conscience” in Silicon Valley, “and this is checkmate on humanity.” As we shuffle through this hellish landscape, the Obama theme is sounded—there’s talk of “a global assault on democracy,” for example—but, by comparison, it feels like a minor complaint.
The film treats the concept of “persuasion” as a self-evident moral abomination on a par with child abuse or cannibalism.