This year’s Sundance Film Festival was a hotbed of great new films from around the world as well as a chance for new and experienced filmmakers to showcase their art. This year, technology played a major role in the festival from an underwater VR experience to several explosive documentaries that focused on the challenges of privacy and technology. Additionally, while there were no hip-hop central films like last year, the hip-hop culture played a major theme in this year’s festival from soundtracks to Meek Mill’s widely acclaimed acting debut.
The legendary Will.i.am lent his voice to the narration of the Persuasion Machines, a virtual reality experience at Sundance’s New Frontiers exhibit. Through virtual reality, the user steps into a living room connected with all of today’s latest smart devices (phones, computers, tablets, personal assistants, etc.). The experience shows visitors how their data is being mined and how data, according to the Black Eyed Peas legend, “is a more valuable resource than oil.”
We sat down with Karim Amer, one of the creators of Persuasion Machines, to learn more about the exhibit and how he and Will.i.am are hoping to educate people about the dangers of data-gathering technologies.
“People have become the commodity,” says Amer. “Because people’s data is worth something. What is it worth? What’s happening is that there’s an online casino that’s operated by these platforms and people trying to bet on your behavior. What are you going to do next? Are you going to click here? Are you going to scroll there? Are you going to tap that? That’s what’s going to be constantly being bet on.”
He went on to explain how he met Will.i.am at a Dreamforce conference and how the artist expressed his interest to get involved in Persuasion Machines. “He was so into The Great Hack [Amer’s prior documentary] and he loved it and was so supportive of it. Then we had a great continued chat and I told him about Persuasion Machines and he was like ‘that’s so up my jam.’”
Amer went on to describe some of the challenges facing the internet and social media users today as well as the threats that unchecked fake news poses to society. “We’re living in a reality where the polarization of the American people has been an incentivized. People be making money… they’re making bread off of us getting more and more polarized… getting more and more down these rabbit holes and controlling your reality to keep you seeing. When you’re being targeted you’re not just being targeted. You’re being targeted with all the interactions that you’re connecting in the world,” said Amer.
The Social Dilemma, a documentary, explores the same issues as the Persuasion Machine. The film investigates how the use of algorithms went from analyzing user information for targeted advertising to promoting a culture that thrives on outrage, anger, and hate, pointing out that “fake news spreads six times faster than real news.” Interviews with former executives at major tech companies such as Google, Twitter, and Facebook, etc. describe how social media algorithms are inherently designed to drive engagement, whether that’s clicks on an ad, engaging with a post, or even remaining on a social media platform (after all, the longer that someone stays online, the more likely they are to be of value to paid advertisers).
The Source had the opportunity to interview Jeff Orlowski, the director of the film, as he shared his thoughts on the state of information sharing and dissemination in the algorithm age.
“I think there was consequences that nobody expected that are really detrimental to society and it’s not a matter of somebody making an animation or something and wanting to share it with friends- that’s not going to destroy society. We have a breakdown of shred truth and facts. We have to figure out how to differentiate this without technology- if that’s even possible.
“For me, the concern we need to be aware of, is when there are platforms that are using algorithms that shape the way that people think and understand truth and facts, we need to be sensitive into giving that into the control of algorithms.”
Comparing platforms like YouTube and Facebook to media outlets, Orlowski compares them to a newspaper that has no editor-in-chief, but rather hands over control to an algorithm that can not necessarily differentiate truth from fact.
“The goal is just quantity and money. Because of their business model, they have an incentive for quantity of content no matter what the quality is. They want more and more content and more and more people,” said Orlowski, explaining how the “free” business model essentially turns users into the product being sold to advertisers.
Even more so, while Orlowski notes that the algorithms might not be necessarily intentionally designed to promote outrage, fake news, or negativity, they might have mutated in such a way that they promote negative posts since that is what has the highest level of engagement.
Meanwhile, the explosive documentary Coded Bias (directed by Shalini Kantayya) follows former MIT student Joy Buolamwini, who discovered that many facial-recognition software algorithms couldn’t read her face because she’s black. The film examines how the algorithms that are integrated into every aspect of our society from commerce to crime-fighting are based on flawed data that ranks white males — the people who predominantly worked in tech when the data was first created — higher than women and people of color.
Yet not all focus on technology was of the doomsday variety. Director Linas Phillips debuted his series of quirky shorts with The Ride, a quirky episodic short series that tells the story of Wayne, an offbeat Uber driver and self-proclaimed spiritual coach, who (unsurprisingly) lives with his mom. Regular rideshare users can relate to his cringe-worthy life advice (after all, we’ve all had that driver at some point in our lives).
We sat down with Phillips, who himself had been a rideshare driver for some time, to discuss the inspiration behind the film.
“I just wanted to tell a story about this guy who was really struggling and him being a rideshare driver came from an authentic place too,” explains Phillips.
Phillips also discussed how the technology that has led to the rideshare culture has given people new ways to connect.
“It’s part of our culture now. You meet people. I miss living in New York because I miss being on the subway seeing all the different kinds of people. In LA, the segregation is worse. I know it’s a problem everywhere. That… that is the beautiful thing about driving because you meet people that you wouldn’t normally meet. You just find all kinds of stories from people and I think it makes people feel really more comfortable spilling their guts to strangers. My character is kind of an annoying exaggerated version of me in real life. But in real life, when I was driving, I would hear people talking about some problem or situation and I would just try to just listen, which sort of became the lesson and theme of the show: don’t give advice, just be there for people.”
And in the U.S. Dramatic Competition category, Director Radha Blank and editor Robert Grigsby Wilson showed audiences that you’re never too old to give up on your dreams with his directorial debut of “The 40 Year Old Version.” The movie tells the story of Radha, a once-promising playwright, who is barreling toward the stigma of being single and a struggling artist at the age of 40. Facing nonstop rejections from the theatre community while teaching a motley group of teens, she becomes creatively re-invigorated when she returns to rapping, her long-forgotten passion. When her play finally gets going, however, she puts recording a rap demo on the back burner and must navigate the awful tension of compromising her voice for career success.
Hip-hop music and culture plays a prominent role throughout the film, lending to its authenticity. Wilson points to the various uses of hip-hop throughout the film.
“We tried to wrap the film in a blanket of hip hop, which is really great,” he says. “We had talked about a lot of hip hop, music influences. We worked with a lot of old black and white hip hop videos, we tried to talk about the way that New York was portrayed in all the different ways in black and white film language, so this film is filmed in the aesthetics of the great New York filmmakers but also, the aesthetic of groups like Black Star and Tribe Called Quest, so there’s so many ways we can pour those influences into this film, so we tried a lot of different things.”
Whatever Wilson and Blank tried paid off in the long run as the film was acquired by Netflix for distribution last week.