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Thursday, October 22, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Netflix documentary explains our current ‘Social Dilemma’

Dan Webster

Above: A scene from the documentary "The Social Dilemma." (Forbes)

Movie review: The Social Dilemma," a documentary directed by Jeff Orlowski. Streaming through Netflix.

While watching a movie at home the other night, I felt a familiar tug of desire.

No, it didn’t involve anything kinky. It wasn’t as if I’d been watching “Debbie Does Dallas” (something I haven’t done since, oh, the early 1980s). No, I found myself reaching for my phone. My smartphone, I need to add – though anymore that’s becoming a redundant qualification.

The desire I was feeling involved some questions that the movie I was watching – the Chilean hybrid documentary “The Mole Agent” – had caused me to ponder. Who exactly was the director, Maite Alberdi Soto, and what had caused her to make this specific kind of movie?

The Internet Movie Database, better known as IMDb.com, was the app I consulted. But when that didn’t satisfy me, I began googling the director’s name. And then, fairly quickly, I got sidetracked.

Because I noticed that I’d received a few emails and text messages. I noticed, too, that some notifications had arrived on my Facebook page. Instagram was inviting me to check out a couple of new entries, and I almost opened my Twitter feed.

Almost, I say. Because I then remembered where I was and what I was supposed to be doing. So, I returned to the movie, moved the cursor back five minutes or so, and resumed watching. Pretty soon, though, I again began to feel that familiar tug. My phone just wouldn’t leave me alone.

This is a feeling that plagues a lot of us who are connected to the Internet in so many of the various ways that are available to us in 2020. And aside from the obvious manner in which those connections derail us from our daily activities, the threat they pose is greater than few of us ever imagined.

That, at least, is the position that filmmaker Jeff Orlowski takes in his documentary study “The Social Dilemma.” Consulting with a range of experts, many of whom have worked for some of the world’s biggest tech firms and/or services – from Facebook to Google, Twitter to YouTube – Orlowski takes the position that what these group do is actively attempt to manipulate their users (in other words us) through a variety of machinations.

That’s not the surprising part. Madison Avenue advertising executives have been attempting to manipulate us en masse since television itself began as a cultural connecting point in the late 1940s. It’s the basis, actually, of our consumer economy.

What today’s Internet giants have done is use science to make the process far more effective. They have, as Orlowski makes clear, built such manipulation into the very products that they offer in ways that many of us aren’t even aware of. In the process of collecting data about what we like, what we don’t like, what our viewing and buying habits are, they adjust – or the algorithms they’ve written do – to offer us “recommendations.”

And those “recommendations” range from the kinds of toilet paper we buy to the social issues we follow. The result, Orlowksi says, is that our minds – our opinions, our very feelings – get shaped in the process. And only tangentially for the better.

Orlowski quotes Justin Rosenstein, a software programmer who worked at both Google and Facebook, as saying, “We're seeing corporations using powerful artificial intelligence to outsmart us and figure out how to pull our attention toward the things they want us to look at, rather than the things that are most consistent with our goals and our values and our lives.”

This “short-term” thinking, as Rosenstein describes it, has long-term, harmful effects on both the planet and on individual human consciousness.

Orlowski supports Rosenstein’s statements with comments from the likes of former Google design ethicist Tristan Harris, Harvard professor Shoshana Ruboff and computer guru Jaron Lanier, the latter of whom expressed his concerns this way:

“If we go down the status quo, for let’s say another 20 years,” he said, “we probably destroy our civilization through willful ignorance … fail to meet the challenge of climate change … degrade the world’s democracies so they fall into some type of autocratic dysfunction … and ruin the global economy. We probably don’t survive.”

Not everything that Orlowski does in his film works, the pedestrian fictional narrative of a family facing such crises firsthand being the best example. Still, he delivers his overall message with frightening efficiency. 

It’s enough to make you think that the movie “The Matrix” is no fantasy. Wait, who directed that again? The Wachowskis?

Where’s my phone?

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