“The Social Dilemma” and the Politics of Horror

by Joshua Wilbur 

Last month’s most popular movie on Netflix is a horror show in the guise of a documentary.  In 2020, reality has turned scarier than fiction, and The Social Dilemma expends more dread per minute than any episode of Black Mirror. It’s a timely, manipulative film, built for one purpose: to scare the f*ck out of everyday Americans.

Directed by Jeff Orlowski, The Social Dilemma draws authority from an impressive group of Big Tech apostates—ex-employees of Google and Facebook ilk—who, in a series of pull-back-the-curtain interviews, lay bare the evils of social media and its attendant technologies. The fact that services like Facebook and Tik Tok are addictive by design will surprise few viewers. What’s unique to the film is its interweaving of a fictional morality tale, a gloomy mini drama about a suburban every-family caught in the throes of social media addiction.

The teenage son can’t resist looking at his ex-girlfriend’s Instagram. The youngest daughter, a middle-schooler, obsesses over the perfect selfie while the oldest daughter, a college-aged know-it-all, criticizes the rest of the family for succumbing to “surveillance capitalism.” The watchful mother does what little she can to connect with her eternally distracted children. These are cardboard characters, but the fictional scenes counterbalance the Ted Talk feel of the interviews and allow for a nimble back-and-forth between explanation and illustration, telling and showing. It’s an effective formula.

Let’s call it docu-horror. Collectively, the repentant tech experts fill the role of Dr. Frankenstein. “We knew we were exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology, and we did it anyway,” says former Facebook president Sean Parker. The story’s monster is a data-created golem—a 3-D “voodoo doll”— representing the models used by social media companies to render, shape, and predict the behavior of two billion users. The philosopher and aesthetician Noel Caroll defines horror stories as “dramas of proving the existence of the monster and disclosing (most often gradually) the origin, identity, purposes and powers of the monster.” In horror, “the narrative is driven by the question of whether the creature can be destroyed.” In The Social Dilemma, the creature is you and me, or at least the tech-addicted, algorithmically-modeled version of ourselves disclosed by big-tech behaviorism. So the film’s horrifying question is this: are you willing to destroy a part of yourself, that Twitter-refreshing creature within?

Above all, I was struck by the film’s political aims and how it works to achieve them. The Social Dilemma sets out in earnest to win over hearts and minds. It wants to convince suburban parents and conservative boomers and socially-conscious teens of a few implicit ideas: that Americans have fallen under a technological spell; that we’re amusing ourselves to death; that we’ve allowed our information addiction to obscure our lived values. “I feel like we’re on the fast track to dystopia,” says Justin Rosenstein, a former engineering lead at Facebook. “And it’s going to take a miracle to get us out of it.” The situation is analogous to that of climate change, in which an existential threat is understood by experts and must be made comprehensible to the public. (The film’s director, Jeff Orlowski, previously made Chasing Ice, a documentary about the effects of global warming.) Alongside melting glaciers, our sense of a shared reality is crumbling.  If we truly are on the fast track to dystopia, then how do we make plugged-in people actually care about the problem? How do you wake up the woke?

You scare them. This is what the film’s technologists learned from their own platforms: fear works. Some reviewers have criticized The Social Dilemma as alarmist, simplistic, or banal. These charges are warranted, deserved even, but perhaps they misunderstand the film’s purpose. If your feeling is that The Social Dilemma states the obvious, then it’s simply not for you. This is horror for the good of the uninitiated, a shot of pathos administered to the masses. From the filmmaker’s perspective (and I suppose from my own), we’re doomed if the American public isn’t terrified of our continuing retreat into ourselves and away from each other. Given the stakes, isn’t it acceptable to exaggerate, to distort, to cherrypick if it means saving society from collapse?

Certainly, the politics of fear has a long history. It’s how Donald Trump won the White House in 2016. But he’s far from the first demagogue. Scaring people into compliance dates back millenia. As long as there have been democratic communities, manipulators have interceded to sway public opinion and shape collective will. What’s different now is the extent to which the propagandists are not fascists but rather the “good guys,” men and women who express concern for the fate of the world and seem to mean it.

In short, the politics of horror is the theme of 2020. It’s fear amplified, that pit-in-the-stomach feeling all the time, the in-your-face knowledge that the world is filled with monsters (in the form of presidents, viruses, bad cops) and that the monsters must be confronted before the credits roll. If a social issue doesn’t provoke this feeling of deep-down dread, then it’s simply not important. If one wants to be heard, s/he must traffic in the horror of the moment. These are the rules of the game. Of course, the danger of sustained, fever-pitch horror is that it becomes impossible to discern legitimate emergency from manufactured pseudocrisis. In a state of unending confusion and disaster, the monster that gets us is the one we didn’t see coming.

There’s a telling moment early in The Social Dilemma. Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google and the closest thing to the film’s protagonist, is struggling to describe exactly what’s so wrong with social media. He’s doing a practice-run for a big presentation, with the events’ planners looking on from seats in the auditorium.

“Today, I wanna talk about a new agenda for technology,” he begins. “If you ask people, ‘What’s wrong in the tech industry right now?’ there’s a cacophony of grievances and scandals. ‘They stole our data.’ And there’s tech addiction. And there’s fake news. And there’s polarization and some elections that are getting hacked. But is there something that is beneath all these problems that’s causing all these things to happen at once?”

Harris looks pensive on stage, hesitant. “Does this feel good?”  someone asks. “Very good. Yeah. I’m just trying to…Like, I want people to see…Like, there’s a problem happening in the tech industry, and it doesn’t have a name, and it has to do with one source, like, one…”

He trails off. He can’t quite put his finger on it, on IT, the actual dilemma underlying everything. What we as viewers of the film are left with is a collective spiritual crisis—a crisis of meaning—that is unevenly and clumsily explained by white-collar workers who lack the vocabulary to describe the full scope of the problem. They know something’s deeply wrong, but it’s hidden and hard to explain. And it’s very scary.

I watched The Social Dilemma on a sunny afternoon. After the movie ended, I needed to go for a walk. I eyed my smartphone with new suspicion— it had been denaturalized, made sinister—but I pocketed it anyway and went out the door. I put in my earbuds, freshly charged, and searched Van Morrison on Spotify. Robert Christgau once described the Irish singer-songwriter as “a man who gets stoned on a drink of water.”  I guess I was anxious to hear a voice tuned to nature.

“By the side of the tracks where the train goes by / the wind and the rain will catch you, you will sigh / deep in your heart / then you’ll come a-running to me.”

Listening to the first minute of “Come Running,” I had one of those private moments of significance—Virginia Woolf called them “moments of being”—that everyone occasionally experiences. It was an unironic, unguarded, unmediated appreciation of what this goofy Irishman was trying to express.  And it had nothing to do with fear.