‘The Social Dilemma’ Review: Netflix docudrama fails to hold ‘tech bros’ accountable

Jeff Orlowski’s film glosses over Silicon Valley criticisms of data privacy concerns and commodifying human lives.

“This is why I spent eight months talking back and forth with lawyers,” one of the many interlocutors expresses at the beginning of the docudrama, “The Social Dilemma.”

The atmosphere is thick with trepidation and discomfort as these high-powered Silicon Valley defectors nervously stutter and deflect when asked to provide an introduction at the beginning of their testimonial. With the clock ceremoniously ticking in the background, these sweaty foreheads and the anxiety-induced incoherence foreground an anticipated cinematic exposé of something guarded enough to not only get one in serious legal trouble but also to send physical shudders down the spines of powerful executives who are on the pinnacle of success.

Jeff Orlowski’s docudrama, “The Social Dilemma,” extrapolates the overarching impact of social media and modern-day technology on human behavior, public discourse and democratic functions. The movie provides an in-depth analysis of the inner workings of tech giant Facebook by juxtaposing the testimonies of former executives from Silicon Valley with a dramatization of a suburban middle-class American family in the grips of social media.

The docudrama builds its argumentative chassis on the collaged testimonies of Silicon Valley defectors like Tristan Harris, former design ethicist at Google; Tim Kendall, Former President of Pinterest; Justin Rosenstein, Former Engineer at Facebook, amongst other former executives and academics.

By depicting the insecurities and mental health issues that social media fosters amongst today’s teenagers through the interwoven story of Ben and Isla, Orlowski humanizes the impact of technology’s incessant efforts to glue people to screens for-profit and turning them into commodities being sold to the highest bidder. This perfectly blended melange of insider testimonial anecdotes and fictitious dramatization serves the audience well by alternating between theorizing and humanizing the workings of 21st-century surveillance capitalism and the causal complicity of social media giants like Facebook and Twitter.

The dystopian image painted by the Orlowski in the docuseries does not focus much on the data privacy concerns that continue to surround the sociopolitical concerns surrounding big tech’s looming influence but rather chooses to zoom in on a different and more pervasive nightmare — one where social media not only competitively vyes for human attention to in turn sell to advertisers but also actively seek to alter human behavior to their own advantage. From explaining the algorithmic trappings in virtual echo chambers on social media platforms that polarize people into political binaries to scratching the surface of ever-widening virtual space for ‘fake news,’ Orlowski highlights the ways the monetization of human behavior and attention has birthed the modern epistemological crisis and the ways these faulty business models negatively impact the efficiency and functioning of democratic institutions across the globe.

The audience also witnesses a considerable amount of nostalgia about the humble beginnings of contemporary technology conglomerates like Google and Facebook in the interviews of former executives as they reminisce about the revolutionary spirits and goodness of hearts during the primary developmental stages of the companies that employed them.

While it is no secret that social media did change the world and increased connectivity, the unwillingness on the part of Orlowski’s socio-racially homogenous Silicon Valley ‘tech bros’ to acknowledge the issues of data-mining and surveillance as a congenital flaw of business models that they helped developed is hard to ignore. Misrepresentation of the surveillance and privacy concerns as something extremely recent is unacceptable as the human attention extraction models that these companies employ and rely on for revenue generation is fundamentally flawed. While many of the interlocutors in the docudrama do call on structural and systematic overhaul of the operation and business models of these platforms, they also do acknowledge that shutting down or banning platforms is not going to be effective as the foundational ideas of social media have already seeped deep into the public discourse and are easily reproducible. Therefore it is shocking that the prospect of governmental or other third-party regulation is not entertained by the aforementioned former tech bros and Orlowski also does not go the extra mile to insert that facet of the discourse into his work.

It is hard to believe that a multi-trillion-dollar industry that has built its entire revenue model around this highly capitalistic notion of commodifying human lives by propagating stereotypes and toying with democracies elections would be willing to rebuild from within, especially as one only witnesses a somewhat frail revolt against the status quo from these folks in the fringes. The movie does not put forth the ideas of dismantling and regulating, but instead, the narrative structure willingly backs the idea that the initiative for change must come from within the same industry that is shown to be corrupted in its roots.

It is no doubt that “Social Dilemma” serves to inform its audience while tolling the bells of a dystopia that is approaching faster than the rising sea levels or wildfires of fascism. However, it ultimately ends up emerging as a last-ditch effort for these prodigal middle-aged white men to superficially clear their conscience of the crimes against humanity that their inventions are continuing to commit across the globe. Even now they actively deter from acknowledging the fact that governmental and social relations will never recuperate from the aftermath of the ignorance of a whole breed of overenthusiastic and profit-thirsty Silicon Valley executives and entrepreneurs who overestimated their own far-sightedness and intelligence. It was sad to see Orlowski permitting the centering of this apologetic nonsense as these complicit parties offer no promise or even willingness for real systemic change and continue to self-indulge in TED talk banter to make themselves sleep better.