Sundance doc ‘The Social Dilemma’ issues warning about social media’s dangers
The Park Record
“The Social Dilemma” is screening in the Documentary Premieres section of the Sundance Film Festival at the following times and locations:
Tuesday, Jan. 28, 5:30 p.m., The MARC Theatre
Thursday, Jan. 30, 9:45 p.m., Broadway Centre Cinema 3 in Salt Lake City
Saturday, Feb. 1, 4 p.m., Redstone Cinema 2
“The Social Dilemma,” a documentary that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on Sunday, opens with an ominous quote: “Nothing vast enters the life of mortals without a curse.” The phrase may have been coined by an ancient philosopher, but it aptly describes what the film’s director, Jeff Orlowski, deems one of humanity’s most dire existential threats — the incursion of social media into our daily lives. And, judging by the standing ovation the film received in Park City over the weekend, the message hit home.
The film taps an all-star team of experts, several of whom helped to unleash the powerful social media tools they are now trying to tame. Together, former Goggle, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and Facebook designers and marketing executives issue a bone-chilling warning about the intentionally addictive nature of the social media tools that are being used to amass reams of personal data.
The data presented in the film is guaranteed to make audiences squirm — from a cellphone’s ability to track users’ movements to the increase in teen depression and suicide rates attributed to social media pressure. The film also highlights Google and Facebook executives’ refusal to shoulder responsibility for misuse of their platforms and their resistance to any form of outside regulation.
But Orlowski and his team, including producers Larissa Rhodes and Daniel Wright, have already proven their prowess at tackling documentaries about global crises that might otherwise be considered beyond movie-goers’ comprehension. Orlowski and Rhodes previous award-winning films “Chasing Ice” (2012) and “Chasing Coral” (2017) and Wright’s “The Cove” were all audience favorites at Sundance and beyond.
Still, Orlowski admits, this film was “orders of magnitude” more difficult.
Part of the challenge, Orlowski said, was helping audiences visualize how their data is being vacuumed up and sold to advertisers, and how those companies are trying to accelerate user consumption with seemingly innocuous reinforcements like emojis and “like” buttons.
They crossed that hurdle by weaving in a story about a fictional family facing those all-too-familiar conflicts over cellphone use: a fragile pre-teen obsessed with her image on Instagram, an older teen lured into a viral political group, and a mom trying to hold her fractured family together by banning cellphone use at the dinner table. Each actor credibly portrays issues that play out on a daily basis in homes across the country.
The subject matter is made even more poignant by the remorse offered in interviews with the platforms’ actual creators, many of whom now limit their own screen time and forbid their younger children from using social media. In the film, they recount the high hopes they once shared, that the platforms would be used to unify rather than divide communities — and their subsequent dismay over how they have been hijacked by greedy corporations and extreme political interests.
The most compelling warning in “The Social Dilemma” comes from Tristan Harris, one of the tech industry’s earliest whistleblowers. Harris once worked for Google as a design ethicist, but when the company turned a deaf ear to his concerns, he went to the media to raise public awareness and then to Congress to plead for regulation. He has since founded The Center for Humane Technology and cohosts a podcast about the issue.
While in Park City, Orlowski said he hopes the film will gain wide attention and spur people to take action. Specifically, he is encouraging audience members to carefully monitor their own social media consumption and to implore their representatives in Congress to regulate how their personal data is used.
For more information about the film, go to: TheSocialDilemma.com.
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