Documenting the Terrors of Tech: The Dilemma of Narrative in The Social Dilemma

Curator's Note

At the turn of the twenty-first century, Facebook (2004), Twitter (2006), Instagram (2010), and several other social media platforms were launched. A few years later filmmakers began to explore the theme of terror in tech [1] by narrativizing people’s distress of digitization. Movies began to scrutinize teen bullying; notably Odd Girl Out (2005), Cyberbully (2011), Cyberbully (2015), After Lucia (2012), and Unfriended (2014). Movies about scary online dating encounters began to appear, e.g. Bad Match (2017). Dark Web (2016), Silk Road (2017), and Unfriended: Dark Web (2018) narrativize the dismay of the dark web. Trust (2010), Disconnect (2012), and Searching (2018) discuss the dangers of online strangers.

After the tech terror genre was established in the early twenty-first century, documentaries began to examine issues regarding the overuse and misuse of tech. One issue with tech being a topic for a documentary is that it is difficult to create a “realistic” visual aid for chaotic online interactions and complex algorithms. The Great Hack (2019), and The Social Dilemma (2020) are two texts that do this by including primary sources–interviews with the pioneers who designed the platforms that we use. In an interview with Muse TV, Jeff Orlowski, the director of The Social Dilemma, stated, “algorithm…what does that word mean? It’s so confusing for most people. There was this realization that we can bring this [narrative] to life.”

Jeff Orlowski narrativizes the harm that social media/the web can cause by inserting a family drama into his documentary. This storyline recalls tech terror subgenres such as cyberbullying, threats from online strangers, untrustworthy A.I., and surveillance. Michael Renov, writes that, “With regard to the complex relations between fiction and documentary, it might be said that the two domains inhabit one another” (emphasis his). [2] Although documentaries often use narratives to emphasize the points that are being made in the film, they are concise. For example, to showcase the United States’ violent past in the documentary, Bowling for Columbine, Michael Moore includes a short cartoon that crudely recreates the history of the firearm in America. I would like to emphasize the word “short” in the previous sentence. Most of Moore’s movie showcases himself inspecting gun laws and security footage of the Columbine High School massacre. Moore does not inject an action narrative like Die Hard (1988) into his documentary to discuss America’s gun crisis.

Jeff Orlowski does not have the same visual aids that documentarians often do (e.g. Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me experiment: he eats McDonald’s fast food for one month to show a visual trajectory of his alarming weight gain) to discuss the problems of twenty-first century tech. According to Orlowski, the combination of acting and talking heads in his documentary helps to illuminate “how…Facebook and Google are worth so much money when they don’t cost anything, and when you just think about that like you know something dark has got to be going on behind the scenes.” According to the fiction films that discuss tech, tech is indeed dark. The tech pioneers who are interviewed in The Social Dilemma confirm this.

In The Social Dilemma, New York University Professor Jonathan Haidt discusses the upward trend of young girls committing suicide due to depression caused by social media. To display this, The Social Dilemma showcases Isla (Sophia Hammons) (a young girl addicted to her smartphone) posting selfies of herself on a social media website. One user comments that her ears are too large. Isla is then shown self-reflecting in the mirror; her blocking and facial expressions convey her despair. She begins shedding tears. This scene parallels the pathos found in the cyberbully films.

In another scene, computer scientist Jaron Lanier discusses how social media and search engines manipulate users and program them to stay on online platforms. The Social Dilemma visualizes this by showing a three-headed tech monster named, Advertising A.I. / Engagement A.I. / Growth A.I. (Vincent Kartheiser), pulling the strings of a media addicted kid named Ben (Skyler Gisondo), who in the film is also displayed as a puppet. In a scene where Ben is shown as a marionette, the camera zooms out to reveal that Ben is one of a billion users trapped in a box; this scene resembles Neo (Keanu Reeves) stuck in his Matrix pod in The Matrix (1999) (refer to slides one and two).

The movie poster for The Social Dilemma insinuates that it is a tech terror film. Akin with the movie poster for Unfriended, The Social Dilemma showcases a character surrounded by an ominous, washed-out white light–lighting that is emitted from a smartphone or monitor. The tagline on one of the versions of The Social Dilemma’s posters states, “the technology that connects us also controls us.” Another movie poster for The Social Dilemma reads, “the dark side of social media…from the people who created it” (see slides three through five).

The inverse of The Social Dilemma, is the “fake documentary.” The “found film” is a subgenre of the “fake documentary” as well as the horror genre. Jaimie Baron notes that “found films” appear to be real because the footage seems to be unedited. She argues that The Blair Witch Project (1999) is a textbook example of this, as the directors, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, never confirm that the footage they found of the Blair Witch is fabricated. They also created a missing persons poster for themselves to portray the film’s events as real (refer to slide six). [3] By doing this, they convinced viewers that their footage was untampered with and thus authentic. Matthew J. Raimondo states that, The Blair Witch Project is “believable” because it exemplifies, “observational horror,” which he defines as “horror films…that appropriate the aesthetics of observational documentary cinema’s handheld camerawork. In these films the camera exists in the diegesis; the camera is usually controlled by a character and is meant to move in a way that plausibly represents how this person would handle it if the situation were real.” [4]

Found films like The Blair Witch Project purport to be legimitate by appropriating the style of documentaries to construct a diegesis where actual people encounter real monsters. The Social Dilemma utilizes narrative aspects of tech terror movies to showcase relevant issues such as upward trends of teens hurting themselves due to cyberbullying. We know that the Blair Witch Project is fictitious, and we now know that the issues that are discussed in The Social Dilemma are prevalent in society. The Cambridge Analytica scandal is one example. Another is First Lady Melania Trump’s initiative, “Be Best.” The three pillars involved in “Be Best” are, 1. Well Being, 2. Online Safety, and 3. Opioid Abuse. Melania Trump’s call for “Online Safety” is as ironic as it is shocking because President Trump is an online bully.

In regard to using the medium of film to discuss the terrors of tech, a few questions remain: is the tech terror genre so embedded in narrative cinema that documentaries about tech will opt to appropriate the tech terror style to discuss the dangers of tech? Can complex things such as algorithms be explained to the viewer? If not, then maybe tech will remain a “terror topic” because we can’t prove/show what the algorithm is doing. We can only try to act it out.

Image Credits:

1. Neo is one of a billion bodies stuck in the Matrix

2. Ben is one of a billion people stuck on social media (author’s screen grab)

3. The movie poster for Unfriended

4. The movie poster for The Social Dilemma

5. Alternate movie poster for The Social Dilemma

6. Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez created a missing person poster to portray the film’s events as real


Endnotes and References:

1. I use the term “terror in tech” or “tech terror” rather than “tech horror” or “horror in tech” because the word “terror” does not solely insinuate that the films being discussed are horror movies in the conventional sense. Rather, terror tech movies are texts that discuss the pitfalls of technology in the twenty-first century which can include anything from cyberbullying to supernatural forces overtaking people’s technology as is seen in the film Friend Request (2016).

2. Renov, Michael. Theorizing Documentary. Theorizing Documentary. London: Routledge, 1993, 3.

3. Baron, Jaimie. The Archive Effect: Found Footage and the Audiovisual Experience of History. London: Routledge, 2014, 47-50. Also see: Duchaney, Brian N. The Spark of Fear: Technology, Society and the Horror Film. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2015, 157-158.

4. Raimondo, Matthew J. “Frenetic Aesthetics: Observational Horror and Spectatorship.” Horror Studies 5, no. 1 (April 1, 2014), 66.

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