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Sundance: Horrifying doc says social media is ripping society apart, may spell our doom

Whitney Lewis 2.jpg
Jeff Orlowski director of the 2020 film "The Social Dilemma," and award winning films "Chasing Ice," and "Chasing Coral," above Park City's Main Street during the Sundance Film Festival. (Photo: Courtesy Whitney Lewis)

(UPDATE: The film "The Social Dilemma" is now available on Netflix.)

Only drug dealers and software companies call their customers 'users'

— Edward Tufte, statistician, professor emeritus Yale University

PARK CITY, Utah (KUTV) — "The Social Dilemma" premiered to at Park City's Sundance Film Festival with a powerhouse group of social media industry insiders — both on the screen and in the auditorium. These Silicon Valley moguls from Google, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and Facebook — including the man who invented the Facebook "like" button — are deeply worried about what the free apps most of us use every day are doing to us individually and collectively.

"Deeply worried" may be a vast understatement. They view it as an urgent, existential crisis.

The film's director Jeff Orlowski — known for his Emmy and Sundance award winning films "Chasing Ice," and "Chasing Coral" — worries that the world may not end by ice or fire but by divisions caused by social media and the bubbles it places us in on all platforms, including Google and other search engines.

"This is horrifying and when you extrapolate this out, this is game over humanity. And why isn't anybody talking about it?" he asked in an interview with 2News. "I was hearing from my friends from college that built this stuff, that it is ripping apart society, it is changing our understanding of truth, it is changing our relationship with information."

The film packs a lot of realities, fears and behaviors into its 90 minutes.

The film hopes to do for Facebook and Instagram what Orlowski's previous films did for environmentalism. Considering his background, the magnitude of Orlowski's concern over social media is shocking.

This is the biggest issue of our time, that comes from somebody who spent years in climate change thinking (that) is the biggest issue. This issue undermines our ability to solve climate change, and any of the other issues.

One problem is the business model of social media is to keep its users using. And devisiveness is a fantastically effect tool of that business model. It places users in groups where they only hear or see what they agree with, what they are likely to actively like. Even searches are radically different for users in different locations, giving wildly different results to precisely the same questions.

How alarmed should people on the street be?

"Scared s***less," Orlowski said. He said he hasn't deleted is profiles on various platforms, but he has quit using all social media; his sometimes frustrated friends can text or call.

The film also reminds viewers that if they aren't buying anything while using social media or even if they are, they are actually the product — being sold to advertisers. On the other side of every screen, including ones used by children, are AI machines looking back, learning and building profiles about every user. Your digital tracker will know you read this article, what device you used, where you read it, how you found it and what you did afterwards.

Tim Kendall is one of the Silicon Valley power brokers who appears in the film. He is largely responsible for Pinterest's jump in revenue from less than $25 million to an approximate $500 million in three years along with the company's $12 billion valuation that year. Like all, yes all, the tech builders interviewed, his children are not allowed to use social media. He also subscribes to the worst-case civil war scenario and was with the film at it's world premiere in Utah.

Orlowski related that off camera, Kendall believes it may not be just civil war but civil war around the world -- all at once. He said when the documentary started, Kendall wasn't as concerned about the problem as he was when the team interviewed him again, a year later. Orlowski believes lots of creators in Silicon Valley, like Kendall, are in the process of learning about their industry's unintended harms.

Key film subject Tristan Harris is a co-founder of the Center for Human Technology, used to work for Google and according to his Twitter account, he is "catalyzing tech's shift from race-to-the-brainstem attention economy."

But is this just all doomsday fear mongering? Many tech users, particularly those who grew up with them, feel they know the dangers and can wisely navigate them. This is who the documentary targets more than the Baby Boomers. Growing awareness of a danger that we can't see or shoot footage of for TV news is a key part of the solution, Orlowski said.

It is particularly frightening because our politicians don't get it and our tech insiders are so reluctant to acknowledge it. For me this anger we are feeling everywhere on all fronts, I look at it as a function of social media and this technology and these algorithms.

"Our social media platforms have optimized us towards these short form, black and white statements. Social media doesn't do well with grey zones, it is extremes on any end that do really well, that go viral. We are dismantling our ability to have nuanced conversation, to bring the left and the right together to share common values and to have difficult, critical conversations," he said.

The director believes the answers lie with the public and with politicians and with tech.

"We have to change how the tech has made, change the way the tech is regulated and change our relationship with the technology," he said. "My optimism and pessimism fluctuate on a regular basis; I want to believe we are going to solve this. I spent two years making a 90 minute argument, I don't know how to summarize it better than 90 minutes."

The film's official website, thesocialdilemma.com has much more information and resources.

The film is now available on Netflix.

This article was originally printed for Utah audiences with interest in the sundance film festival.