The Social Dilemma


The digital trap.

(2020) Documentary (NetflixTristan Harris, Jeff Seibert, Bailey Richardson, Joe Toscano, Sandy Parakilas, Guillaume Chaslot, Lynn Fox, Aza Raskin, Alex Roetter, Tim Kendall, Justin Rosenstein, Randy Fernando, Jason Lanier, Roger McNamee, Shoshana Zuboff, Anna Lembke, James Lembke, Mary Lembke, Jonathan Haidt, Cathy O’Neil, Rashida Richardson, Renee DiResta, Cynthia Wong. Directed by Jeff Orlowski

Like it or not, the Internet has become a part of the basic fabric of our lives. You are reading this on a computer or net-enabled device; there is no paper version of Cinema365 unless you happen to print out a copy of this review (and why would you want to do that?) so this is the only way to read what you’re reading. How’s that for meta?

But as much as we like to think that social media is a means of connection, it is also a means of division. This devastating documentary by the guy who brought us Chasing Ice and Chasing Coral shows us another way that our humanity is crumbling. It is ironic that much of this message will be contributed through the same social media platforms that have caused the issue in the first place.

Orlowski brings us interviews with former executives from such social media platforms as Facebook, Instagram, Google and Twitter as they discuss how what they thought was a force for good had a flip side. The monetization of the social media platforms led to the aphorism that “if the service is free, then you are the product” as algorithms determined what your interests are and tailored your experience to them. Certainly, that led to a kind of marketplace mentality – spend, spend, spend! – but also to something much darker as we began to build our own bubbles in which we are being fed misinformation designed to reinforce that bubble, leading us to the situation we are in now – so divided upon ideological lines that the results of the next election are likely to bring bloodshed regardless of who wins.

Illustrating this, we are shown a fictional family with three young children; a college-age daughter who has begun to reject what social media represents, a middle school age daughter who has become obsessed with getting likes for her posts, and a teenage boy who has begun to be influenced into extremist beliefs. It’s chilling how easily it can happen and so many of us have seen it happen within our own extended families.

The main interview subject here is Tristan Harris, the former design ethicist for Google who has emerged to become “the closest thing to a conscience for Silicon Valley.” He admits to being naïve about the possible consequences of his work for big tech, and as a result advocates now for regulating social media in the same way that broadcast and print media is regulated, or once was.

In fact, most of the experts interviewed here are for regulation and feel that a libertarian self-regulation solution isn’t practical. What is really telling is that when asked about letting their middle school-aged children having smart phones, every single expert said they would not allow it.

Social media has given us an increase in depression and suicide among teens, a rise in bullying (of the online variety) and most distressing, a rise in extremist hate groups emboldened to come out of the shadows and create an online presence that influences both the left and the right.

None of the information here isn’t available elsewhere, but I can’t think of another source that has put this information in a more digestible, logically laid-out manner. The whimsical “inside the kid’s mind” sequences showing how the algorithms work felt a little out of step with the rest of the documentary which does drag a little bit in the middle, but the last 15 minutes definitely pack a powerful punch. Every parent should see this and everyone who spends more than an hour a day on social media should as well.

REASONS TO SEE: Thought-provoking and eye-opening. Presented in a very logical manner. An inside look at how social media molds policy.
REASONS TO AVOID: Gets bogged down a bit in the middle.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images, suggestive material and some adult thematic elements.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The “like” feature on Facebook was designed to provoke a release of endorphins, which contributes to the addictive nature of social media.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/25/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews; Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Web Junkie
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles

Chasing Coral


As water temperatures rise the coral reefs begin to die.

(2017) Documentary (Netflix) Richard Vevers, Zackery Rago, Ruth Gates, Andrew Ackerman, Mark Eakin, Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, James Porter, Trevor Mendelow, Jeff Orlowski, Justin Marshall, John “Charlie” Veron, Phil Dustan, Morgan Pratchett, Neil Cantin, Manuel González-Rivero, Joanie Kleypas, Rupert Ormond, Luiz A. Rocha, Sue Wells. Directed by Jeff Orlowski

 

Despite the continued denials of those affiliated with various facets of industry and politics, there is no doubt that the planet is warming up. Warmer air temperatures also lead to warmer sea temperatures as well, despite the continual melting of the polar ice caps. Those warmer seas are having devastating effects on the ecosystems of the ocean.

One demonstrable effect is that the coral reefs are dying. Thriving living organisms that help supply the planet with oxygen and its inhabitants with food, they are losing color in a process called bleaching and turning into barren wastelands like an undersea lunar landscape at a terrifying rate. The largest coral reef on the planet, the Great Barrier Reef near Australia, lost 22% of its mass in 2016 alone. At current rates – which are likely to accelerate – the coral reefs will be dead in 20 years. All of them.

Richard Vevers, a former advertising executive, was moved enough by the situation to shift his focus into becoming an activist. Orlowski, the documentary filmmaker whose project on the shrinking of glaciers proved a powerful motivation for many who were on the fence about climate change, was enlisted to help document the process of bleaching.

Using innovative time lapse cameras that can survive prolonged exposure to salt water, Orlowski and his team show the sobering process in which living coral ecosystems wither and die in a matter of weeks. One of the developers of the camera, Zack Rago, is a self-described coral nut who became interested – almost obsessed – with coral as a young boy in Colorado, is one of the more entertaining interviewees. His obvious passion and love for the coral shines through and even if at times he’s a bit bro-tastic, there’s no doubting his sincerity.

As grim as the subject matter is however, there is hope – organizations founded by Vevers and legendary marine biologist Charlie Veron (who is a hero of Rago’s) are working to protect and preserve the reefs that are still alive and possibly use coral from those reefs to seed new reefs. However, the continued rise of the ocean’s temperature will need to be halted before the latter an happen and that will mean cutting back severely on the use of fossil fuels.

There are plenty of charts and figures that are used to measure the damage being done, but the most damning and depressing footage is that which shows a reef going from alive and beautiful to dead and barren. Some of the scientists trying to explain what’s happening get a bit jargon-happy which can lead to confusion but at the end of the day this is an essential documentary that everyone who loves their planet – or hopes for their descendants to actually live on it – should see. The sad truth however is that those who truly need to see it probably won’t.

REASONS TO GO: The underwater footage is stunning. The message is terrifying.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the scientific explanation was confusing and difficult to follow.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The film won the audience award for Best Documentary at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/27/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 86/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Chasing Ice
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Shiner

Chasing Ice


Ice, ice baby

Ice, ice baby

(2012) Documentary (Submarine Deluxe) James Balog, Svavar Jonatansson, Louie Psihoyos, Adam LeWinter, Kitty Boone, Jeff Orlowski, Tad Pfeffer, Suzanne Balog, Dennis Dimick, Emily Balog, Simone Balog, Sylvia Earle, Jason Box, Synte Peacock. Directed by Jeff Orlowski

The world is changing. That’s a given – our lives are sometimes too short a span to really notice it but I think most of us have noticed that the climate has been changing. Storms are becoming more severe; the summer of 2012 is one of the warmest ever recorded. Wildfires are becoming hotter and more frequent.

James Balog is a nature photographer with the National Geographic Society. He is one of the best in the world at it, having won numerous awards for his work which have for the most part dealt with deforestation and endangered species. He has recently become intrigued by ice and on a photo shoot in Iceland watched a massive glacier calve before his eyes.

Aware that scientists were recording that the glaciers were melting at a faster rate than previously recorded, he decided to document the event. To that end he set up the Extreme Ice Survey which raised funds through grants and Balog’s own personal  funds to set up cameras in Montana, Alaska, Greenland and Iceland (and eventually the Himalayas).

The challenges of doing this are severe. The equipment is delicate; setting up cameras designed to shoot photos once an hour for six months at a time in conditions that are as severe as any on the planet requires some innovative engineering (which doesn’t always work). Setting those cameras up requires sometimes precarious mounts which required some climbing skill. To make matters worse, Balog had some serious knee problems which eventually required four surgeries just for him to function.

But the results are worth it. Balog takes some stunning still photos of the ice which are just breathtaking while the video footage shot of the EIS team in these various locations show the stark beauty of the ice. Most importantly the time-lapse photos of the glaciers are terrifying and convincing – if you didn’t believe the scientific warnings before you will now. Of course if you listen to the airheads on Fox News you still might not.

Even more convincing is a massive calving sequence that was caught on videotape by the EIS of a glacier losing ice the size of Lower Manhattan and ten times the height of the Empire State Building. Watching the sequence literally took my breath away and left me with a pounding heart. It’s beautiful yes, but the implications for our world and our species is disturbing.

This is a movie that needs to be seen, to be shown in high schools and shown to government officials. The commentators at Fox News need to be nailed down into chairs and forced to watch it. America is the only industrialized nation on the planet that hasn’t adopted stricter carbon emission laws and it is our job as citizens not just of this nation but of the world to demand our congress do so. It behooves us to remember that we are stewards of our planet – not for those who came before but for those who come after. James Balog and Jeff Orlowski are well aware of that – and the evidence is on the screen.

REASONS TO GO: Incredible photography. Presents the argument for reducing carbon and carbon dioxide emissions concisely.

REASONS TO STAY: Only if you’re making a fortune in the oil industry and others that benefit from emitting carbons into the atmosphere.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a few bad words uttered here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Balog was the first photographer ever to be commissioned by the U.S. Postal Service to create a full set of stamps.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/18/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100. I would call it a critical success.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: An Inconvenient Truth

ICE AT NIGHT LOVERS: There is a sequence near the end of the movie when Balog takes pictures of ice on a bright moonlit night (he cheats a little with some well-placed lights) that is simply stunning.

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT: The Vicious Kind