'The Social Dilemma': Film Review | Sundance 2020

Courtesy of Sundance
An exemplary explainer, made with wit and clarity.

Documentary director Jeff Orlowski ('Chasing Ice,' 'Chasing Coral') delves into the ethics and mechanics of social media and contemporary technology, asking whether we should just uninstall it all.

So relevant and of-the-moment it's practically already in the future, The Social Dilemma, the latest feature from ace documentarian Jeff Orlowski (who made early climate change consciousness-raisers Chasing Ice and Chasing Coral), basically nails explaining the question you've always wanted an answer to but were afraid to ask: What's so bad about social media?

Miraculously, it manages to unpack this perplexing issue with precision and intelligence but without any moral panic-mongering, condescension or dumbing down the complexity of the science stuff. Surprisingly effective dramatic scenes (co-written by Vickie Curtis, Davis Coombe and Orlowski) featuring a family atomized by social media addiction break up the steady stream of truth bombs from real-world experts and Silicon Valley tech titans who've come to Jesus and want things brought under control. This is documentary as killer app. Or perhaps "app killer" is the right phrase, given that the film's last 10 minutes build a devastatingly effective argument for unplugging from social media altogether.

Among the many impressive and articulate brainiacs featured here, Orlowski's one-time contemporary at Stanford, Tristan Harris, grabs the lion's share of the screen time. Formerly a design ethicist at Google, Harris leads the Center for Humane Technology, a nonprofit whose mission is, per its website, to "reverse human downgrading by realigning technology with our humanity." If that sounds like so much lofty jargon, on camera Harris comes across as user-friendly as a downloaded podcast as he explains why social media and other platforms can be so pernicious as they addict, isolate and misinform users while harvesting data about our daily choices.

There's a lot more to the argument than that, and Harris as well as others interviewed here patiently break down how the well-known saying about contemporary tech — "If the service is free, then you are the product" — is only part of the story. As polymath Jaron Lanier explains, the real purpose of this kind of tech is to manipulate and influence us by tiny, lucrative degrees. That's why the tailored feeds of Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and the like are so effective at radicalizing users and fomenting division. And that's backed up by many others here, including Justin Rosenstein, the guy who invented Facebook's "like" button but whose blast of rhetoric at the end of the film is so persuasive and passionate, viewers at the Sundance screening caught for this review burst into spontaneous applause.

Scenes from a fictional story about an affluent American family are interspersed with these information-dense interviews to illustrate the concepts at work. In a blended brood wealthy enough to have a cellphone for every member of the family, including tween youngest daughter Isla (Sophia Hammons, superb), the mother (Barbara Gehring) worries the kids are spending too much time staring at screens. (Spoiler: She's right.)

Already hip to the progressive arguments against social media made here, eldest daughter Cassandra (Kara Hayward) sides with Mom while her younger brother Ben (Skyler Gisondo) just can't kick the habit. Hearkening back indeed to Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (1972) — or, if that's too much of a boomer reference, Pixar's Inside Out — the film offers personified versions of the artificial intelligence linked to his platforms (all played by Mad Men's Vincent Kartheiser), manipulating his attention and desires to get him to keep using the various platforms on his cell. Eventually, Ben starts drifting toward watching extremist content online persuading him not to vote and other sinister ideologies. As the infamous Pete Campbell meme featuring Kartheiser would say, "Not great, Bob!"

Although Orlowski doesn't go all out and make Ben's corruption specifically a turn to either side of the political spectrum, most of the interviewees seen here are clearly against any kind of libertarian, hands-off stance that just leaves control to the companies themselves. That said, there doesn't seem to be a clear consensus about what should be done to get things under control, i.e., should the tech giants be regulated outright or just persuaded to adopt industry guidelines?

But as with climate change, there's no pat, easy answer to the colossal problems confronting us, and in the meantime the best thing viewers can do is inform themselves, try to limit their social media use and tell people to watch this film. But not by using social media.  

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Documentary Premieres) 
Production: An Exposure Labs Production, in association with Argent Pictures
Cast: Vincent Kartheiser, Skyler Gisondo, Kara Hayward, Catalina Garayoa, Barbara Gehring, Chris Grundy, Sophia Hammons, Tristan Harris, Jeff Seibert, Bailer Richardson, Joe Toscano, Sandy Parakilas, Guillaume Chaslot, Lynn Fox,Aza Raskin, Alex Roetter, Tim Kendall, Justin Rosenstein, Randima Fernando, Jaron Lanier, Roger McNamee, Shoshana Zuboff, Anna Lembke, Jonathan Haidt, Cathy O’Neil, Rashida Richardson, Renée DiResta
Director: Jeff Orlowski
Screenwriters: Vickie Curtis, Davis Coombe, Jeff Orlowski
Producer: Larissa Rhodes
Executive producers: Laurie David, Heather Reisman, David J. Cornfield, Linda A. Cornfield, Ryan Ahrens, Jill Ahrens, Ben Renzo, Lynda Weinman, Bruce Heavin, Hallee Adelman, Ivy Herman,
Cinematography: John Behrens, Jonathan Pope
Co-producers: Daniel Wright, Stacey Piculell
Production designer: Adam Wheatley
Costume designers: Suzie Ford, Melissa Karsh
Editor: Davis Coombe
Music: Mark Crawford
Casting: Jenny Jue

Sales: Submarine, UTA

No rating, 93 minutes