It is often said in journalism that the best stories are those that were right before our eyes but missed being told and therefore stayed unknown till reported.
This line of perception works magnificently for the 2020 documentary The Social Dilemma.
We know its subject and core argument well but decline to examine them because we are too immersed in digital world to wish for an autopsy of that existence. You can blame the avoidance of close inspection on convenience, benefits (including monetary ones) accruing from networking, personal benefits outweighing concerns of damage – whatever you want. Fact is the avoidance of seeing our digital world as exactly what it is has created an even greater dearth of articulation around the problems it poses. It is a case of not desiring to talk and therefore, not possessing the means for it. All communication in this regard is still born or ritualistic.
Compounding the issue is the tyranny of life by business model. Business models bring their own compulsions partial to monetization and are often dismissive of humaneness and human interface. Not to mention, the generation bridging world without furious digitization and the one born to it, hasn’t arguably respected its intuition or spoken up enough. Later generations are therefore growing up with the phenomenon of digitization internalized; they are increasingly bereft of alternative perspective.
As some would argue, the core issue in the wake of world swept by technology and money is brutal dominance by one type of imagination. It has become such a plague that countering it is a massive challenge; the challenge begins with the very format for questioning dominance – it isn’t enough that you complain, you must speak the language of those inflicting the damage and present the case for correction in their idiom. This has for long been the gap between problem and solution; the ones experiencing the problems are wired one way, the ones authoring the problems and who are also expected to fix it, are wired another way. The gap has also eroded the merit of intuition, reducing what you feel in your bones to the status of an evolutionary discard. The only way out in this battle of competing convictions is if whistle blowers and other such concerned individuals in the technology-money establishment speak up. They know how their edifice works, what its wiring and jargon are. Getting such folks to speak up and anchor the documentary is this film’s biggest strength. You hear it from the horse’s mouth. Revelations like successful technology managers ensuring that their children have only limited access to mobile phones while the rest of the world bundled as market is encouraged to do the opposite, exposes the hypocrisy.
Not surprisingly, their articulation wouldn’t seem entirely complete in establishment’s eyes. The troubles dissidents nurse about the establishment and the absence of comprehensive solution they hint at betray potential dead end. We are too deep into the tunnel to withdraw; plus let’s not forget – the technology explosion provided real benefits too. So, where do we draw the line and how? Except in the case of one or two of those interviewed, solutions are not forthcoming. But that isn’t bad at all for the questioning and the reluctance to blindly toe establishment’s line that it inspires, are the missing link, the long awaited check. Will it work? Or will it be another call in the dark? Only time will tell. The Social Dilemma is one of the best documentaries in recent times about our digital, networked world and the problems it poses.
This is a very timely film; available on Netflix.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)