The title is misleading. “The Social Media Dilemma” is what Netflix calls Jeff Orlovsky’s documentary. But in just over an hour and a half, the focus is for just a few seconds on how technology enriches life. The focus is on risks and side effects. The documentary does not show a dilemma, it paints a dystopia.
From Tristan Harris to Justin Rosenstein to Roger McNamee, director Jeff Orlovsky has gathered the full lineup of Silicon Valley dropouts. They were once high-ranking managers at Google or Twitter, who invented the “Like” button or developed Facebook’s advertising-funded business model. Then they began to question their work. Today they warn vehemently about the supposed beast they created.
Lots of white middle-aged men look at the camera in a friendly way, but that’s not Orlovsky’s fault, after all, middle-aged white men set the tone in the tech industry. Most problematic are the phrases it is reduced to: social media is addictive, and algorithms manipulate humanity. Whether it’s politics (authoritarianism, extremism), society (polarization, conspiracy ideologies) or psychology (bullying, addictive behaviour), the internet, cell phones, and social networks are said to be responsible for everything. Referred to as Facebook, Google and Co. over and over again as “the greatest existential threat to humanity”.
Orlovsky used to make documentaries about the climate crisis. In “Chasing Ice” in 2012, he showed how global warming is destroying glaciers, in “Chasing Coral” in 2017 how it is destroying coral reefs. Understandably, radical tech critics like Jaron Lanier want to turn things around. Of course, not every warning has to be followed by a relativity.
But the steam hammer damages the anxiety of the documentary. Some basic data is short or simply erroneous. Psychology professor Jonathan Haidt talks about low self-esteem and high suicide rates among American teens. The film presents cell phones and social media as an explanation. Not mentioned is the fact that more and more families are burdened with debt, many parents do not have health insurance and children are already afraid of the future.
Humans are portrayed as stray ‘guinea pigs’.
“Nobody got excited when bikes became popular,” Harris says. Bicycles are just a gadget, smartphones are psychedelic. He should have consulted his former employer’s search engine, Google: 100 years ago Cultural pessimists warnedBicycles were detrimental to character and addictive. Progress breeds resentment: printing, electricity, rail travel, newspapers, radio and television were once considered dangerous.
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Mistakes like this are doubly annoying because the documentary does so many things right at the same time. It collects people who say important and true things. It highlights the downsides of the attention economy and contributes to questioning one’s use of social media. Large companies collect large amounts of data and exploit the weakness of the human psyche to make users stare at the screen for longer. Incidentally, this also includes Netflix, which produces and broadcasts the documentary.
Instead of pointing out possible solutions, Orlovsky portrays billions of people as “lab rats” who are at the mercy of the manipulation of tech companies and are gradually transformed into “zombies.” Jaron Lanier has the last word: “Leave the system,” he says. “Delete! Get rid of stupid things.” If you believe the movie, there really isn’t any other possibility. The reality is more complex.