Wednesday, September 16, 2020


As synopsized, Jeff Orlowski’s Netflix original documentary The Social Dilemma (2020) “explores the dangerous human impact of social networking, with tech experts sounding the alarm on their own creations.” 

In the 1970s, as one of the “heads” coming out of Twin Falls High School in Twin Falls, Idaho, I leaned into the poetry of Richard Brautigan and remember being particularly enthused about his poem “All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace”—what has since become his most frequently reprinted poem—for its utopian vision of a world where machines would improve and protect the lives of humans, leaving them free to commune with nature.

Needless to say, 50 years later, one has to ask: “What’s love got to do with it?”

Very little, unfortunately. It’s perhaps not surprising at all that documentarian Adam Curtis contributed three episodes to the television mini-series documentary named after Brautigan’s poem, and followed-up with his hard-hitting Hypernormalisation (2016)—which should have had some influence in the 2016 presidential election, but which was mysteriously (not-so-mysteriously?) thwarted in distribution (though generously awarded by Jonathan Marlow to participants of Camera Obscura). In Hypernormalisation Curtis proposed that the greatest blow to an informed citizenry protesting government policies was when—after the failure of the national protest against the Gulf War—everyone went online, thereby siphoning off the spirit of physical resistance, and instating a culture of barbershop mirror-gazing.

It has not only been their physical verve that adherents to social media have lost. Collective will has gone anemic in the age of surveillance capitalism. Orlowski (whose previous credits include the equally powerful documentaries Chasing Ice (2012) and Chasing Coral (2017) employs straightforward talking-head interviews with tech luminaries Tristan Harris and Jaron Lanier, among others, but reinforces their talking points with chilling animations that articulate visually how hands on a computer keyboard are equivocal to hands on the strings manipulating marionettes. Dramatized scenarios further illustrate the hazards presented on the screen. Vincent Kartheiser (Mad Men) especially does a grand job (in triplicate) of representing the A.I. algorithims of engagement, growth and revenue that have served as the business model effectively steering social media platforms. With disinformation for profit becoming a lucrative endeavor, the role of social media in bringing the experiment of democracy to "a crisis of confidence" is laid out clearly, let alone the statistical success of technology overwhelming human weakness in a grand strategic checkmate move.

Indeed, strategic manipulations abound. Orlowski cleverly uses the theatrical poster for Chasing Ice as set dressing in one of the film's dramatized episodes, making me want to watch it again. The Social Dilemma is available for streaming on Netflix. I’ve already watched it twice. We’re all in danger of having our attention spans usurped, but I can vouch for this film and hope I can steer your attention to where it might do you some good. If you're a Facebook friend, however, I won’t know if you’ve even read these thoughts as I’m turning off notifications once and for all. Imagine if we all did.


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