What are we to make of the feature length documentary, The Social Dilemma? I would start with the fact that it’s immune to contradiction. You have to go to Netflix, a digital streaming service, to get lectured for 94 minutes about the horrors of digital life. In fact, the documentary is a “Netflix original,” which means it must have received some portion of the $17 billion the streaming giant spends on proprietary content. So it’s the web exploiting the anti-web. But you can also think of The Social Dilemma as a slick, manipulative film production slamming the big digital platforms for their slick, manipulative algorithms.
The digital environment, it seems, is Plato’s cave—dancing shadows on a wall that confuse and distract you. Or it’s a twist on the Hotel California, where you check in whenever you switch on your smartphone but you can never leave. Or it’s an evolutionary death trap, into which you are seduced by the lure of algorithmic brain candy. So we are told during the film by a succession of neo-Luddites and repentant techies who have themselves risen above any such failings. They know better, and they will grab you by the shoulders and tell you why.
Formally, The Social Dilemma consists of a series of interviews with experts inserted in brief cuts, which alternates with a supposedly comedic docu-drama about an average family’s travails with the smartphone, also presented in snippets. The level of subtlety probably falls below that of Soviet propaganda, but the point is clear enough. Properly understood, the documentary is an extended rant about the 21st century, using the digital world as proxy.
Viewing the web as a political doomsday device is now mandatory among our elites. Barack Obama, who won the presidency in 2008 in part because of a brilliant online campaign, recently told The Atlantic that he considers “the internet” to be the “single biggest threat to our democracy.” Francis Fukuyama, that barometer of elite opinion, holds that “social media” has been “weaponized against democracy.” The Social Dilemma pitches to this unhappy audience, riding every argument over the cliff to the most extreme conclusions.
In it, we are told that the internet is “really bad” or maybe “really, really bad,” like “a drug” but also like a “rabbit hole,” a “totally new species of power” that uses “disinformation for profit as a business model,” controlled by “digital Frankensteins that are terraforming the world in their image.” The effects are said to be manipulation, addiction, polarization, and exile to a kingdom of lies. “This is overpowering human nature,” intones Tristan Harris, a former “design ethicist” at Google who is introduced as “the closest thing to a conscience” in Silicon Valley, “and this is checkmate on humanity.” As we shuffle through this hellish landscape, the Obama theme is sounded—there’s talk of “a global assault on democracy,” for example—but, by comparison, it feels like a minor complaint.
The film treats the concept of “persuasion” as a self-evident moral abomination on a par with child abuse or cannibalism. As far back as the classical republics, persuasion has been the preferred approach to debate among free peoples, but now it’s been weaponized by artificial intelligence in its Matrix-like war against the human race. Probably the most grating feature of the film involves the mini-drama about a fictional family that is driven to the brink by addiction to digital devices. The preteen daughter smashes a glass jar with a hammer to snatch back her smartphone. The high-school age son gets arrested at a riot of the wacky, Trump-like “Extreme Center,” which had sucked him into its populist rabbit hole by means of persuasive web content.
Worst of all is the actor who personifies the algorithms and stands at a cheesy control panel straight out of the Starship Enterprise. AI Guy rules the world. Leering and sneering, he pushes buttons that feed content the high schooler can’t resist, while making inscrutable announcements like “He sold for 4.35 cents to a weapons manufacturer.” Near the end, with one last sneer, AI Guy looks at his victim and says, “Poor sucker.”
“Poor sucker” sums up the elite attitude toward the public. The questions this crowd must constantly grapple with are, “What is going on? Why do we keep losing? Where are all those angry people coming from?” The Social Dilemma offers a random and disconnected list of world troubles, from the “Pizzagate” episode to riots in Myanmar. Who’s to blame? Well, a perfectly reasonable explanation is that the public has lost all trust in the elites and their institutions, and its frequent eruptions express anger over failure at the top. In other words, it’s the elites who are to blame.
The elites, of course, reject this explanation. I should note that they rarely engage in argument or offer evidence to refute it. They never aim to persuade. To that extent, they are consistent. They simply assume that the world is organized differently. In their world, the public is composed of poor suckers. It’s gullible, self-indulgent, and easily manipulated. A “tool of persuasion” like Facebook can make the public believe that elite ideals are nonsense and elite individuals are pretentious failures. The public can’t help itself; it’s in the grip of an addiction. Or as one of the talking heads puts it, “It’s as though we have less and less control over who we are and what we believe.” But by “we,” the speaker actually means “they.” In the world according to the elites, the public are poor suckers but the elites are philosopher kings. They have escaped Plato’s cave, checked out and left the Hotel California, and somehow transcended their genetic endowment. They own scientific truth, and we really should listen when they talk.
If the public is so easily manipulated and the elites are masterful sages, then it follows that all the political turbulence and street insurgencies of the last decade must be the work of sinister elite figures. This is a tremendously reassuring belief. The villain might be Vladimir Putin. It might be Donald Trump or Steve Bannon. Or it might be, as the film proposes, authoritarian governments perpetrating persuasion on Facebook and in this way bamboozling their citizens.
Now facts supporting this Evil Genius Theory are, to put it generously, thin on the ground. From the Arab Spring to Black Lives Matter, virtually every revolt of the last 10 years has been anti-establishment, anti-government, and anti-system. Authoritarian rulers in Egypt, Sudan, Algeria, Bolivia, and elsewhere have been toppled, Facebook and all. The Chinese regime, supposedly brilliant at manipulation, has faced a running challenge in Hong Kong. There’s zero evidence that fake news has ever changed many minds, and lots of evidence to the contrary. It doesn’t matter. Faith in an elite master manipulator is therapeutic to fragile elite psyches, and The Social Dilemma is happy to sing in that choir.
The cast of nonfictional talking heads in the film ranges from annoyingly earnest preachers to schoolmarmish know-it-alls. Some seem sincere in their concern. None betray a spark of self-awareness: in effect, they are telling the audience that they want protection from us. The leading voice of the group is the aforementioned Harris, who is shown pausing, hesitating, frowning, saying things like “I’m nervous,” to establish his authenticity as Dalai Lama of High Tech. Then he emits judgments like “If we don’t agree on what is truth, on that there is such a thing as truth, we’re toast”—and that’s as deep as The Social Dilemma gets.
The single exception to this is the appearance of psychologist and author Jonathan Haidt, one of the most original and honest thinkers today. Watching Haidt during his allotted minute or two, you suddenly realize what this documentary might have been. He has something to say about the influence of the digital world on the post-Millennial generation, those who grew up after the arrival of the smartphone. This group has shown significantly increased levels of anxiety, depression, suicide, immaturity, and risk-averseness.
Haidt actually shows us data, even if, given the film’s choppy directorial style, the charts flit out of our field of vision before we can digest them. As Haidt observes in The Coddling of the American Mind, which he co-authored with Greg Lukianoff, post-Millennial pathologies have a number of causes, with “helicopter parenting,” for example, among them. But there can be no doubt that the identity-fracturing effect of the web, and the omnipresence of the smartphone, play a major part. I would have loved to see this topic pursued in depth. If The Social Dilemma had been 94 minutes of Jonathan Haidt, I would have paid to watch it—twice.
Instead, we get a portrayal of the 21st century as a zombie movie in which “we probably destroy our civilization. … We probably don’t survive.” Possible alternatives are “civil war” or “a fast track to dystopia.” So what is to be done? Well, chiding the public is a good place to start: “This is stupid. We can do better.” “We need to change all that,” we are told. But how? Failure to specify the path of reform to prevent destruction and cure dystopia converts the documentary into the thing it purports to hate the most: a web-like rant propelled by rage rather than thought.
There is, among elites, a powerful longing for what I have called the “Mubarak switch.” In 2011, the 82-year-old Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak tried to quell a street revolt by switching off the internet and killing mobile phone service for the entire country. The move backfired, and Mubarak was gone within two weeks, but the mere attempt symbolized that craving for lost control, that nostalgia for the industrial age, that motivates elite minds to this day. At the top of the hierarchy, everyone is dreaming of some equivalent of the Mubarak switch.
In his interview with The Atlantic, Obama calls for vague “government regulations” to be imposed on the web. That’s his version of the Mubarak switch. Sen. Elizabeth Warren ran for president on an equally vague promise to “break up” the giant tech corporations. That was her version. In the documentary a frustrated expert exclaims, “They should be outlawed,” and we’re uncertain whether she means data markets, social media, the entire digital universe, or maybe the mutinous public. They should be outlawed is a generic expression of elite distemper. They itch to pull that switch.
Harris and others speak of regulation and increased taxation, but it is unclear how these imprecise proposals would change anything. What is painfully clear is that they are too meager and inconsequential for the magnitude of the “dilemma” as presented by The Social Dilemma. To save our civilization, a revolution would be called for. The affluent, well-established heads in the documentary peek into that abyss then look away.
Elite technophobia inhabits the kind of informational bubble the public is always accused of being trapped in. The evidence from the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, hasn’t made a dent on it. Where would we be at the moment without Amazon to bring us the necessities of life, Zoom to enable us to work from home, Facebook and Instagram to keep us in touch with Granny out in Wichita Falls, Netflix and Hulu to amuse us and prevent us from descending into stark raving lunacy? This is the golden hour of the internet. Anyone with eyes to see can attest to that. But in the world according to the elites, none of it is visible.
The documentary concludes with a half-hearted attempt at optimism. Things will improve if we just join a “conversation” about the web. We are asked to “delete social media accounts,” “turn off notifications,” “get off the stupid stuff.” But if it’s quite that easy, where’s the dilemma? Either digital life is addictive, manipulative, and controlling, in which case it assumes the guise of a political question, or it’s a matter of personal preference, in which case it belongs in the province of private morality. The fault, dear Tristan, may not be in our devices, but in ourselves that are their users. Immune to contradiction to the bitter end, the film, after delivering the few semi-cheerful exhortations quoted above, fades to darkness with the sound of birds chirping happily in the background.
Martin Gurri is a former CIA analyst and the author of The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium.