The Social Dilemma


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Social Dilemma
"The Social Dilemma has so little to offer that's new that one wonders why anyone bothered to make it."

So you want to make a film about the impact of social networking on society. Who should you turn to for expertise? Why not tech experts? They'll know all about this, right? Wrong. Sociologists know about society. Anthropologists, psychologists, philosophers, artists - specialists of that order might give you some insight too. Tech experts know about tech. You might as well ask a scalpel manufacturer about brain surgery.

It's not that there are no ideas here. These are all (or mostly) smart people, and within their area of expertise they have smart things to say. The problem is that they are called upon to extrapolate way beyond that and the result is presented as some kind of definitive argument. Rather than exploring different perspectives on the subject, they pretty much all argue in the same direction. Social networking has its advantages - helping with collaborative projects and charity fundraising, for instance - but it's innately dangerous in ways that we haven't evolved to cope with and nobody knows how to stop it so we're all doomed. Stop me if you haven't heard this one before.

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The political dimension is almost absent. That is, there are, naturally, references to Cambridge Analytica and so forth - real problems - but after observing that one need influence only a few people to threaten the functioning of democracies, the film persists in failing to address the human aspect of the problem, and treats it as something for which there can be no structural solution.

Rather than exploring evidence, director Jeff Orlowski then selects evidence to fit arguments he has chosen to feature. The film is edited like a music video, with lots of fast cut-aways, so you'd be forgiven for missing it, but what we see is not always what it's implied to be, even when it really shouldn't be all that difficult to get hold of the right footage. He also spends a lot of time trying to dazzle us with cheesy special effects and layers on the dramatic music as heavily as the superlatives. The result is that even those parts of the film that have intelligent points to make come across like bargain basement propaganda of the sort mass-produced for clickbait YouTube channels.

The Social Dilemma has so little to offer that's new that one wonders why anyone bothered to make it. It's probably another product of the system that sees Netflix identify a certain type of film or television series as popular and try to make its own version, saying roughly the same things on half the budget. That, in itself, is an example of how trusting algorithms to please human beings is problematic. It might give most of the people something they're reasonably contented with most of the time, but it makes few people happy, and it makes a fair number of people want to scream. If social media were - in its current state - anything like as capable of understanding us as is implied here, adblockers wouldn't be so popular nor spam filters so quick to identify its messages as unwanted.

Though marketed as if it's speaking to an intellectual elite, this is basically a film trotting out familiar, poorly justified ideas for an audience already primed to lap them up. Is it, too, exploiting a climate created by social media? Hardly. Marx was writing about this in 1843. Revolutions were not always livestreamed. If you think social media knows how to exploit human weaknesses, let me introduce you to capitalism.

Reviewed on: 03 Dec 2020
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The Social Dilemma packshot
Consideration of the downsides of social networking.

Director: Jeff Orlowski

Writer: Davis Coombe, Vickie Curtis, Jeff Orlowski

Starring: Tristan Harris, Jeff Seibert, Bailey Richardson, Joe Toscano, Sandy Parakilas, Guillaume Chaslot, Lynn Fox, Aza Raskin, Alex Roetter, Tim Kendall, Justin Rosenstein, Randy Fernando, Jaron Lanier, Roger McNamee, Shoshana Zuboff

Year: 2020

Runtime: 94 minutes

BBFC: 12 - Age Restricted

Country: US


DOC NYC 2020

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