Sundance season is here, and the world's independent-film community is gathered in Utah for two weeks of breakout cinema. This year, Colorado filmmaker Jeff Orlowski — who was most recently at the festival in 2017 with Chasing Coral — has returned with his latest work, The Social Dilemma. Like Orlowski's previous films, The Social Dilemma visualizes an invisible force that's shaping the world around us. In his first two documentaries, Chasing Ice and Chasing Coral, Orlowski's unseen monster was climate change. Now he's set his sights on digital change, investigating the threat of social media and algorithms that are altering our behaviors — and our brains.
The Social Dilemma includes groundbreaking interviews with high-profile tech whistleblowers, many of whom worked for Facebook, Pinterest, and other giants since the early days of the social-media boom. Through a series of conversations, Orlowski captures the concerns that caused these experts to flee their corporations and pursue justice for online users.
This weekend, The Social Dilemma screens at Sundance on February 1. In advance, we caught up with Orlowski to talk about the film, his move away from environmental storytelling, the purpose of documentaries, the surprising influence Pixar has on his work, and what's next.
Westword: The Social Dilemma screened before audiences for the first time ever on January 26. How did people react?
Jeff Orlowski: [That first] Q&A was awesome. The questions were great. We've been here with three films now, and after this premiere, I felt like I was flooded by people in a way that I wasn't in the past. The response from the audience was really exciting.
Were there any questions that you remember, in particular, that you enjoyed answering?
I can't think of any specific questions, but there's one answer that I was glad to bring up. It was a reference to one of our subjects, [Author and Professor Emerita at Harvard Business School] Shoshanna Zuboff. She wrote a book called The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, and the way she talks about it is that industrial capitalism, and kind of traditional capitalism, turned nature into a resource that we learned how to extract from for profit. And now our new technology and surveillance capitalism have turned people into a raw resource. Human nature is now a raw resource that tech companies are mining and extracting from. That's such a powerful concept. This isn't just a blip; this is a totally new way of capitalism functioning. And that's what we're entering into now. It's a totally, totally new beast.
One of your subjects frames this, saying humans are the product in these transactions — that our time and attention are what tech companies are selling to advertisers.
The ability to manipulate us is what they sell. Facebook and Google are selling the ability to manipulate the largest network of humans ever assembled. And that's what the product of social media is.
You've said that you didn't go into filmmaking with the intention of being an environmental filmmaker, even though that's the direction your first two films took you in. You align your interest with sustainability. How do you see sustainability coming into play in The Social Dilemma's subject matter?
I look at myself as an activist, first and foremost. What are the big issues of our time, and what do we need to be addressing? I was just talking about this with a friend earlier today, about lessons learned from nature and how you have an ecosystem in balance. Right now, if you look at how a number of different aspects of capitalism are functioning, it is an ecosystem that is not in balance. Capitalism isn't following the laws of nature in a way that is sustainable. And the way we see our technology operating, [the film's] subjects are calling this an existential crisis. They're calling it a challenge and a crisis that is going to dismantle society and civilization. It's going to rip apart the fabric of society.
They're concerned about civil war. They're concerned about multiple civil wars at the same time. They're concerned about global war. This is what the people who built these technologies are worried about, because of how these technologies are designed.
One of the subjects, Tristan Harris [an ex-Google Design Ethicist, now the president and co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology], references this as "the climate change culture." We are invisibly changing culture all around the world, and we don't even see how it's being changed, because we're interacting with these screens on an individual basis. Nobody can see the big-picture impacts happening everywhere. Just like with climate change, you can't see the rise in carbon in the atmosphere, you can't see the rise in temperature in an easy way, and yet we're seeing the consequences. These are the biggest issues of our time, and that's why I've been drawn to telling these stories.
Do you think that documentary film, as a medium, should always be a call to action? Are your films a call to action?
I don't think all documentaries should be, no. I absolutely love and enjoy the countless, countless films that are not designed with this approach. I think for me, it's just something I've been drawn to in terms of where I've been wanting to put my time and my effort.
So what's the call to action for this film? If someone were to be moved by the picture, what would you tell them the best course of action is?
I think a lot of people are coming in from different places, and I'd answer that question differently based on who the person is. At the big-picture level, I think we need to change the way the technology is designed, the way the technology is regulated, and the way we use the technology. And it's tricky, because, for the first two categories, most people don't have much influence over that. Most people don't know tech insiders or are not a programmer or engineer at one of the big tech companies. So it's really hard to put pressure on [those companies] to make change. And likewise, it's really hard for the average person to pressure Washington to do anything. But I think where there is an opportunity for the average person is to, first of all, educate yourself about the issue.
We're putting more and more resources on our website about the tech crisis, about surveillance capitalism, about attention capitalism. We're trying to make our website a real resource for people to learn more. And I think that's the first step: education and awareness. Beyond that, people can start taking more actions in their own life and changing their own relationship to their technology.
Personally, I've stopped using all social media. I've found it to be really helpful and therapeutic to get off of it. I've actually found that, after working on this project, I just kept wondering why I was using it. I felt so manipulated every time. I just started to feel really, really gross whenever I was using one of the platforms. So I scaled that back in my own life, and I think that for a lot of us, we need to reflect on why we're using the technology that we're using. Is it a tool that is helping us accomplish what we want out of life, or is it something that's trying to manipulate us?
Not that I'm aware of at this time, but I know a number of [the film's] subjects are trying to push forward to make progress on that front.
In Chasing Ice and Chasing Coral, it was apparent how you took things that weren't visible to the naked eye and portrayed those threats and consequences over time. You can capture a time-lapse of glaciers melting and reefs dying. But how did you decide to depict the danger of social media?
In this film, we had a similar goal and intention, to visualize the invisible. How do we show people what's happening on the other side of the screen? How do we give people an emotional experience with what our technology is doing to us? What we wanted to do was to bring that to life and give people a way to see that, so [we decided on a] narrative element, with the hope and intention of showcasing a different way to think about and to see the operations at play.
Was the use of the narrative — about a family with teenage children who were hooked on their phones, and three characters [all played by Vincent Kartheiser] in a control center behind the screen who portrayed the sentience of social media's algorithms — a storytelling tactic that came to you immediately? Or was that part of a longer creative process to figure out how to visualize the concept of these technologies?
That was a long process. We'd probably been working on the film for about a year when that idea started to surface. It really came from conversations with our subjects, about a way to think about what's happening on the other side of the screen. That was the main intention with showcasing the narrative aspect, with all of the stuff happening in this little AI control room, where the algorithms are trying to manipulate you. That was a really fun part of the process for me, to be able to think about it creatively and be able to bring it to life. It took a year for that idea to formulate, and it took months and months and months for us to write it. We kept editing the documentary, and every time the structure of the documentary changed, we had to change the structure of the narrative. It was a very interesting process for me and our whole team to get all of that to work.
Well, you pulled it off. It felt like the malicious version of Inside Out.
Ha, yes. That's perfect: the malicious version of Inside Out. Inside Out was a huge reference for me, because of the way it anthropomorphized the emotions in the brain. I can't tell you how many times I referenced it in terms of the feelings that it evoked and the brilliance that was Inside Out. People have said that The Social Dilemma is the Inside Out of technology. People have also described it as An Inconvenient Truth meets The Matrix, that it's like a Black Mirror episode of a documentary. Those have been some really cool references to hear.
Do you have information about a distribution deal, or a time that Coloradans will be able to see the film?
We don't know yet. We're having those conversations right now. We're really eager and excited to see where this film is going to end up, and we hope to make a really big deal out of it. I'm hoping to do screenings in Colorado, for sure.
How did you choose Colorado as your home base?
James Balog, the subject of Chasing Ice, he's based in Boulder. When we started working on the project together, I started spending more time in Boulder, and I just never left. I love living in Colorado. I live in the mountains just outside of Boulder, and it's been a really great place. I call it base camp.
So what's next?
We're focusing on an impact campaign for the film. That's the main objective right now. We've got a lot of ideas for other projects. I was talking with some other people this morning about new creative ideas. But I need to recover first from this one. We'll do something soon, I'm sure.
Update, May 26, 2020: The Social Dilemma will be available on Netflix in the months to come.