22nd February 2024 3:53 pm
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Netflix’s The Social Dilemma has an important message with terrible dressing

Netflix documentaries are often some of the most compelling pieces of content to consume on the site.

Tiger King, Don’t F*ck with Cats and more have proved that often, reality is stranger than fiction and a highly enthralling viewing experience.

But the latest offering from Netflix, The Social Dilemma is a strange entry that combines some really hard hitting revelations with what we’d describe as B-grade acting.

The “star” of The Social Dilemma is Tristan Harris, former design ethicist at Google and co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology.

The documentary takes a look at social media and the various design choices made as the platforms have evolved. We meet folks like Aza Raskin and Justin Rosenstein. Those names probably mean nothing to you but those two people separately helped create infinite scrolling and the Like button.

More importantly, however, the documentary looks at how those design choices have influenced our way of thinking as we have become increasingly tied to the internet.

The core of The Social Dilemma sees many advocates for change in the tech industry voicing their concerns about the power big tech firms have found themselves with and how recklessly they use that power.

It’s a rare insight behind the scenes of major tech firms from folks who worked at said firms and at times the content will shock you.

But that’s if you make it beyond the incredibly cringe-worthy acted scenes.

Throughout the doccie you will get insight into a family’s day-to-day life and the “struggles” they have with social media.

Here, social media is represented by an AI (played by Vincent Kartheiser) which determines what each of the family members sees though for the most part we only ever see what the AI feeds the son Ben (played by Skyler Gisondo). And it’s these scenes that seem like an after thought.

In one scene we see the “AI” auctioning off Ben’s “attention” to an advertiser and within moments that “attention” is sold.

Now we get that the producers are trying to relay that advertising and content you see on social media is determined by an algorithm. We understand there is no easy way to showcase how algorithms recommend content based off of past behaviour or that an advertising profile has been amassed based on your behaviour online but there is a better way – tell people exactly that.

The problem here is that for most of the documentary we’re treated to a high-level overview of how AI is used against us, how big tech has more power than any one nation and more very complex ideas.

And then we have Kartheiser playing with graphics that don’t really mean anything or convey the seriousness of what is happening.

The Social Dilemma would’ve been great if not for these fictional breakaways that showcase the worst possible outcome when using social media.

Is there a modicum of truth to these examples? Of course there is, but we feel these extreme examples only serve to detract from the real issues brought up in the course of the documentary.

What is the real issue? Tech companies have far too much power and think they can self regulate despite showcasing they have no idea how to do that.

And that is where the documentary shines. There are statements that will have you saying “what the hell” out loud and insights that even took us aback.

The Social Dilemma touches on some really important aspects of how the internet has changed the world for the worse but we think there is a better documentary that showcases that.

The Great Hack was released in 2019 and looks directly at the Facebook and Cambridge Analytica scandal. The content there is more focused on Facebook rather than the internet at large but we feel the message that The Social Dilemma is trying to convey is done better in The Great Hack.

Both doccies are available to stream on Netflix South Africa right now.

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