Review: The problem with The Social Dilemma

Netflix’s new ‘must-see’ documentary is an alarming watch, but a bunch of woke tech bros commodifying fear is not enough to impress Anna Rawhiti-Connell. 

The Social Dilemma, Netflix’s latest “must see” documentary, opens with a line-up of gulping, nervous white men (and one or two women), who are asked to try to articulate “the problem” with social media. “It’s hard to give a single succinct…” says one guy, trailing off. Mate, I hear you.

“Have you watched The Social Dilemma?” an email from The Spinoff editor, Toby Manhire, innocently inquires. “No,” I reply. “I thought it hazardous to my mental health, but I could?” 

I started watching it and panic set in immediately. As a sometimes commentator on social media, I often find myself defending it. Is this why Toby asked me? Does he want me to try and defend the sociopathic monsters inside the Matrix who are putting things inside our actual brainstems and ruining the whole world? Foolish woman. I have walked right into his trap.

You could do a Google on me and argue I defend it because I make some of my money consulting on it. I don’t defend “it” (it being the homogenous, sentient blob villain it’s become) for those reasons. I often end up in a defensive position because it’s complicated. All too often, conversations about social media are all about the powerful, manipulative tech companies. They are seldom about society – what we want for ours and the role of technology in it – and I don’t see a lot of progress being made if we continue to strip ourselves of agency in this debate. 

Before we get into the festival of fear that is The Social Dilemma, it’s worth stating that I am 41. I had 28 formative years before having to endure the persistent pressure of social media and I didn’t get a mobile phone until I was 21. I think if I had a 10-year-old daughter and I’d watched this, I’d now be cutting the fibre cable to the house and wrapping her head in tinfoil. That is to say, it’s an alarming watch, there is a lot that’s right in it and there is cause for great concern. It’s also disempowering to the point of literally rendering people as pixelated voodoo dolls inexplicably controlled by Pete Campbell from Mad Men (actor Vincent Kartheiser, in case that reference is lost on you).

The documentary uses four main storytelling devices. 

First there are interviews with the redeemed, the former social media and tech company employees made good. Having seen the error of their ways, they are now on an apology tour via this film from, [insert utterly unoriginal, yet pertinently ironic note], streaming giant and the maestros of making algorithmic power sing, Netflix. 

None of them actually say sorry. “LOL, with no malicious intent, I accidentally invented this super manipulative thing that is making everyone mental and depressed.” And over that hump we go, straight into hand-wringing, a lot of statements that sound very scientific, and lofty speeches about the fabric of democracy. They round off with some helpful tips at the end on limiting screen time and turning off your notifications.

Woke tech bros are an easy target and it is definitely a coup to have so many former employees speaking out. We shouldn’t outright dismiss their insight. It is, however, quite telling when Tristin Harris, former Google employee, email addict and now founder of The Humane Technology Project, tries to put his finger on… the problem? A problem? Any problem? “There is this problem…” and then can’t spell out what it is. 

“Racism?” I yell at the TV. “Lack of diverse hiring policies?” “Wealth Inequality?” “Capitalism?” “The fact you’re all white and I could list 10 writers on this subject who’ve been clanging this bell for years that haven’t been listened to because they weren’t Silicon Valley technovangelists?” He also talks about technology as “a simultaneous utopia and dystopia”, one of the many simplistic dichotomies that plague the film. He uses “clicking a button and car turning up in 30 seconds” as an example of utopia. Not a world where racial bias isn’t built into algorithms, but Uber. OK, sure. 

There is also the issue of credibility. With no real discussion as to when or how the redeemed realised they were involved in the destruction of civilisation, and no expression of remorse; we are either asked to believe they were Pontius Pilate, complicit and did nothing, or super dumb disciples who didn’t realise it was happening. There’s a sort of “build back better” rallying cry at the end, a weak allusion to an insider or user-led revolution, but without any sense of their moral compasses, I am not inclined to want to follow them to the promised land of better, more humane tech. 

A fictional family is introduced to bring home the realities of how bad social media is for the real people. There is a sad boy who sadly ends up radicalised, a black stepdad (one of the few people of colour in the entire film), hip to the scene daughter, another daughter and a worried mum who locks everyone’s phones in a cookie container with a timer. It centres the whole thing in a very middle-class world, full of moral panic, where watching a documentary about bad things in the world and tweeting about it is a form of activism. It’s almost as if this very documentary has been designed for a social media audience, where lazily engaging with ideas on the couch and lazily exchanging them online is our preferred mode of action.

A scene from The Social Dilemma

The rest of the documentary is filled out by some frightening montages where we watch many democracies being brought to their knees, some interviews with academics and NGO experts and Pete Campbell as AI. I can’t talk about this too much as it will give me nightmares but in short, there are three Pete Campbells in cardigans acting as the anthropomorphised pillars of evil: engagement, growth and monetisation. Minority Report-style, they control a lifeless avatar of sad boy, driving him to a rally for a political movement called The Extreme Centre by sending him a notification telling him his ex-girlfriend is in a new relationship (please, turn these notifications off!). Honestly, I don’t want to be glib about teenage despair and the very real consequences of having your young brain melted by social media, but these sequences are farcical and dehumanising. They relegate us to nothing more than rats in a cage. One guy literally describes us as lab rats and the Matrix references are none-to-subtle in one scene; the camera zooming out to reveal millions of us trapped in our technology pods.

The fictional political movement sad boy gets involved with, The Extreme Centre, highlights a reluctance to “get political” in this documentary as well. Not wanting to assign any “left”/right” bias, there is much talk of democracy and politics, but the whole thing remains strangely apolitical. They lightly prick consciences but seem afraid of waking the beast. 

This lack of “the political” positions technology and social media as a kind of eye of Sauron – the single source of misery and all that is wrong with the world. It lightly confronts the idea that it may be an amplifier of pre-existing problems and deadly in the hands of bad actors, but it avoids any discussion of these problems or the bad actors. It’s perhaps best summed up by some of the hysterical tweets about the film, with people describing social media as the cause of all our problems including racism, climate change, political unrest, sexism and disenfranchisement. There are absolutely chicken and egg arguments to be made about phenomena like fake news and disinformation. I am not diminishing the size and scale of the havoc wreaked, but if complicity is avoided with the redeemed tech bros, it is erased entirely when it comes to the systems and people that exploit the status quo and seek to keep the truly vulnerable down at heel.

Should you watch it? Maybe. There is very useful exposition about all of the little nudges and notifications that seem convenient or useful to us and the way they’ve been explicitly designed to build the attention economy. That’s news you can use and probably talk to your kids about. That grants us some agency. But it’s not generous or generative film-making. It is commodified fear. It locks the conversation within the realm of the elite and sets up a proposition that while technology is the problem, better technology might be the answer. Simple as dumb dumbs. 

Towards the end, in a brief “solutionising” segment, most of the interviewees offer up financial incentives and regulation as paths to salvation. Like the very things that allowed this multi-headed monster to flourish will be the ultimate modifier.

I couldn’t help but compare it to conversations about Oranga Tamariki here. “We will try and be a bit less racist and shit within this racist, colonial institution” instead of entertaining the prospect that mana motuhake might be the winning concept.  Audre Lorde comes to mind as well. “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

As to whether it will, as many people are claiming online, prompt me to “delete my accounts”, it’s obvious I probably should but probably won’t. In all honesty, if social media got turned off tomorrow, I would be fine. I’d keep studying, writing and perhaps learn to do something useful like welding so I could get in on some shovel-ready projects. I’d be momentarily sad that 13 years of talking utter shit online would vanish but there would also be the sweet relief of knowing that my lockdown tweets and early third person Facebook status updates would be gone forever. I could also take “digital will” off my list of pressing concerns. 

I welcome a read on my apathy about it. I think it’s because I am a person privileged enough to use it, as commentator Ben Thomas says, for “having a nice time online”. I do not rely on it. I suffer no real consequences as a result of using it (other than participating in the breakdown of society) and would suffer no real consequences if I couldn’t use it. 

This easy breezy upside is echoed in the documentary where the interviewees talk about just wanting to spread love and connection as their original motivators for working in the industry and accidentally designing sociopathic features. There is no mention of the use of social media as a legitimate political organising tool for those that seek justice or those who’ve been consistently denied a platform by mainstream media. No mention of online movements that have allowed people to assert themselves and find community and acceptance of who they are. More often than not these are also the people who have disproportionately suffered at the hands of social media. As pointed out by other people who’ve reviewed the film, black women have been talking about racist and sexist abuse online for a very long time.

This is the inherent problem with a documentary that rolls out the elite to issue (or not issue) a mea culpa, and the problem with a lot of our discourse about “big tech” in general. Perhaps if we’d listened to the people who issued early warnings, 10 years ago, we might have something that more closely resembles a utopia, sans Uber.

But, if you do nothing else or take anything from this piece, please, for the love of God, turn off your notifications. 



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