The Social Dilemma

The new documentary is pure moral panic from start to finish.


During this moment of intense tech skepticism, the conversation about the downsides of social media could benefit from nuance and expertise. The Social Dilemma—a Netflix documentary about technology addiction—has plenty of the latter but almost none of the former. The result is a paranoid film that treats virtually all people as helpless puppets of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, Google head Sundar Pichai, and the nefarious systems they oversee.

Though this is a documentary, it attempts to tell a representative, fictional story, casting the eccentric actor Vincent Kartheiser (Mad Men's Pete Campbell) as the voice of a nefarious algorithm that has brainwashed a typical American teenager. These scenes are uniformly bad, making Reefer Madness look subtle by comparison.

The rest of the film, which consists of conversations with various former tech employees, is little better. Most interviewees are wannabe whistleblowers with an inflated regard for their tech accomplishments. They think the systems they invented are so awesomely powerful, intelligent, and addictive that the human brain can't possibly contend. It's pure moral panic from start to finish.

A lone voice of reason in the film, the psychologist Jonathan Haidt, suggests that parents can address some tech issues by talking to their kids about social media and limiting their use of smartphones at night. Unsurprisingly, this practical and nonhysterical advice is relegated to the closing credits.