A Documentary About How Big Tech is Controlling Your Mind
Apparently, Big Tech is abusing our privacy. That’s the head-slap takeaway from Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim’s The Great Hack, a chilling if too-familiar indictment of how billion-dollar companies milk and bilk their users. I’d say that’s obvious, but people obviously don’t seem to care enough to change their cocooned social-media lives.
THE GREAT HACK ★★★ (3/5 stars)
Directed by: Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim
Written by: Pedro Kos, Erin Barnett, Karim Amer
Starring: Brittany Kaiser, David Carroll, Julian Wheatland, Carole Cadwalladr
Running time: 113 min
Just because something’s been said a hundred times doesn’t make it any less true. The Great Hack is essential viewing because even if you think you’ve heard it all, you haven’t. And the stakes are too high. “This film is ultimately about whether we have free will,” say the directors in the press notes. Faithful readers of futurist guru Jaron Lanier’s tech-sceptic screeds will devour this documentary, since it confirms all of his Cassandra-level warnings.
Yes, Big Tech is controlling your mind. And yes, they will sell you out. “Your behavior is being accurately predicted,” explains media professor David Carroll, who is suing Cambridge Analytica for the right to see his digital profile. In a world where every American can be commoditized into 5,000 data points, Carroll wants to “see inside the beast” and try to understand the impact. You think 5,000 is a lot? Within the next two decades, our children will have 70,000 data points.
The Great Hack fluently articulates the way in which these “psychographics” transform big data. If data points define personality, then they can also influence it. And that can lead to data-driven behavioral change, as well as a few switched votes at the ballot box. Brexit, anyone? Cambridge Analytica was there, headed by morally slippery CEO Alexander Nix. And soon after was the 2016 U.S. election, during which Cambridge Analytica played a gleeful hand trying to influence voters with unattributable, untraceable “Defeat Crooked Hillary” ads.
Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Brittany Kaiser, former Director of Business Development, vouches for all the grossly unethical conduct. “We’re scraping people’s profiles,” she admits. She’s a millennial crusader, or at least wants to be: her political allegiances have changed from liberal to conservative and back again, and her smug righteousness smacks of opportunism. That said, you can’t unblow her whistle. So, hooray for freedom! At least for now.
Data has surpassed oil as the most valuable asset in the world, the lifeblood of an estimated trillion-dollar industry. It’s impossible to avoid its abuse at this point, and it may just be impossible to regulate its use in a free, liberal society. The best inoculation might be a healthy skepticism towards the virtual world, and a healthy suspicion of anything that purports to be free. Common sense needs to intervene in a so-called frictionless society.
The great irony of The Great Hack is that Netflix is releasing it. Anyone who wants to watch this documentary about the nefarious use of data mining must do so through a streaming company that keeps obsessive details about every one of its viewers.
So don’t trust Facebook, but trust…Netflix? In practice, the message does seem more than a bit muddled. Maybe this movie is biting the hand that feeds? Or is Netflix releasing a sly autocritique? Probably not. And it doesn’t matter anyway, since the big takeaway is unchanged: caveat emptor, digital natives. And maybe even: Abandon hope all ye who enter social media.