Sundance 2020: The Social Dilemma

There is that popular line about the online space. “When something online is free, you’re not the customer; you are the product.”

Most people who understood that line years ago have probably become very rich. Silly me, I have known the line for quite a while and still haven’t become Mark Zuckerberg or Jack Dorsey.

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In any case, its meaning is expatiated in the documentary The Social Dilemma. After seeing it, you might want to unplug yourself from the online space…if you could. There is a reason why there is the word “dilemma” in that title. The filmmakers grapple with the good and bad the tech industry has brought to the world. At the end, it seems clear they would rather throw the baby and the bathwater away because, somehow, the water outweighs the baby.

Through a series of interviews and a fictional story segment, The Social Dilemma conveys the problem with social media, which has become pertinent following the Trump election and the Cambridge Analytica scandal. But the film is also interested in the interpersonal changes the social media platforms have created in their users.

But because almost every person interviewed in this documentary worked with the social media platform at some stage, it seems inescapable to think about their motives for featuring in this documentary. The director, Jeff Orlowski, attended Stanford University, which boasts of being “in the heart of…‘Silicon Valley’”, host of several of the companies indicted by the film. Friendship with the filmmaker undoubtedly got a lot of the women and men interviewed to sit before the camera. But I wondered as I saw this at Sundance: is it the only thing?

Contrition is another reason these men might have been willing to come before their interrogator. But there is one other plausible reason: these guys have pretty much enjoyed a lot of the success that is possible with their inventions — one of them invented the “like” button, another was head of monetisation at Facebook — and it is a good time as any to say what they couldn’t back when they didn’t have the bank balances they have today.

This is perhaps an uncharitable way of killing the messenger, but how much better would it would be if these messengers hand unsoiled hands.

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