Why The Social Dilemma isn’t bringing anything to the table?
First, it’s using the exact same manipulative tricks it’s criticising. The soundtrack, the pace and cut of the movie, the very idea of not being a documentary but a «documentary-drama hybrid»… All this is used to create engagement, to keep the viewers in front of their screen till the end, competing for their attention with other media. Our cognitive biases¹ have been around (and useful, that’s why they’re around) for quite some time, and have been used against us for about the same. This fact is all too briefly mentioned and dismissed even faster. It doesn’t make for good drama.
Making some of the interviewees appear on screen to be borderline opinionated does however (but maybe not for good documentary). Where is the diversity of point of view²? Where is the fight against the (rightfully decried) polarisation of society? Covid is taken as an example to show how influential social media can be. But only one side (the darkest one) is shown. What about Twitter’s fight against fake news related to Covid³? What about Google Maps Platform Credits for developers offering an app related to Covid pandemic⁴? What about scientific polls and studies Facebook has been facilitating⁵ in order to help researchers in their fight against the disease?
I guess it’s better to predict the extinction of human race in a twenty years horizon! Nothing less! It’s nice to feel at the centre of the world, one can enjoy contemplating to be the puppet master, but the participants in the social-media merry-go-round are not as overarchingly powerful as they might believe (as they might want to be?). Tristan Harris says in the beginning of the piece that «two billion people will have thoughts that they didn’t intend to have because [of choices made by] a designer at Google». But, seriously, are these thoughts using so much of our brain power that they could change our lives and threaten our very existence?
Last example of cognitive biases (ab)use. The Social Dilemma is presenting common sense views as if there were a breakthrough discovery. At the end for example, several of the interviewees are laughing at the mere idea that their young children could be having screen time, let alone social media exposure. What a quantum leap in our understanding! As if the majority of the population wasn’t thinking the same and at least trying to do the same⁶. Being wealthy and educated is, as usual, a game changer. It’s easier to apply good practices when we know about them and when we have the time (and money) to do so.
So, here is a challenge for «documentary-drama hybrid» makers: create a 90 minutes movie (as catchy and gripping as The Social Dilemma) that will educate us, that will bring out the best in us and change our behaviours in a good way. The informed recommendations that are given almost dismissively at the end of the movie are empowering and enabling us to moderate ourselves. Spend 90 minutes on them (and others) to have a real, virtuous circle like, impact.
We (me and my imaginary cat at least) refuse movies that are gluing us to the screen and taking us on an emotional rollercoaster ride just for the sake of audience numbers. We respectfully request (demand) a movie that will boost our creativity and critical thinking!
(1) Do read Thinking fast and slow by Daniel Kahneman for a great overview
(2) Cathy O’neil, author of Weapons of Math Destruction, does mention she’s following on Twitter people with whom she disagrees.
(6) See this poll for example: https://www.hopkinsallchildrens.org/Patients-Families/Health-Library/HealthDocNew/Quick-Poll-Too-Much-Screen-Time