The title is misleading. “The dilemma with the social media” is what Netflix calls Jeff Orlowski’s documentary. But in just over an hour and a half, it is only for a few seconds how technology enriches life. The focus is on risks and side effects. The documentary shows no dilemma, it depicts a dystopia.
From Tristan Harris to Justin Rosenstein to Roger McNamee, director Jeff Orlovski has brought together the entire squad of Silicon Valley dropouts. Once they were high-ranking managers on Google or Twitter, they invented the Like button or developed Facebook’s advertising-financed business model. Then they began to question their work. Today they warn urgently about the alleged monster they created.
Many middle-aged white men look friendly into the camera, but Orlovski can’t help it, after all, middle-aged white men set the tone in the tech industry. The statements to which they are reduced are more problematic: Social media is addictive, algorithms manipulate humanity. Whether politics (authoritarianism, radicalization), society (polarization, conspiracy ideologies) or psychology (bullying, addictive behavior), the internet, cell phones and social networks should be responsible for everything. As the “greatest existential threat to mankind”, Facebook, Google and Co. are referred to several times.
Orlowski used to make documentaries about the climate crisis. In “Chasing Ice” in 2012 he showed how global warming glaciers were, in “Chasing Coral” in 2017 how they destroyed coral reefs. It’s understandable that radical tech critics like Jaron Lanier want to shake up. Of course, not every warning has to be followed by a qualification.
But the steam hammer damages the concern of the documentary. Some key messages are shortened or simply wrong. Psychology professor Jonathan Haidt lectures on falling self-esteem and rising suicide rates among US teenagers. As an explanation, the film presents cell phones and social media. The fact that more and more families are in debt, that many parents do not have health insurance and that children are already afraid of the future is left out.
Humans are portrayed as mindless “laboratory rats”
“Nobody got upset when bicycles became popular,” claims Harris. “Nobody has said that they harm children or destroy society.” Bicycles are just a tool, smartphones are a drug. He should have consulted his former employer, Google. He should have consulted his former employer’s search engine Google: 100 years ago warned cultural pessimiststhat bicycles were harmful and addicting to character. Progress provokes rejection: printing, electricity, rail travel, newspapers, radio and television were all once considered dangerous.
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Such inaccuracies are doubly annoying because the documentation does a lot of things right at the same time. It gathers people who say important and right things. It illuminates the dark side of the attention economy and contributes to questioning one’s own use of social media. Large corporations collect massive amounts of data and exploit the vulnerability of the human psyche to keep users staring at the screen for longer. Incidentally, this also includes Netflix, which produces and broadcasts the documentary.
Instead of showing possible solutions, Orlovski portrays billions of people as “laboratory rats” who are at the mercy of the tech companies’ manipulations and who gradually degenerate into “zombies”. Jaron Lanier has the last word: “Leave the system,” he says. “Erase! Get rid of that stupid stuff.” If you believe the film, there really is no other option. The reality is more complex.