Documentaries offer us a window into another world. Sometimes that world is beautiful with stunning, wide open spaces - like in Honeyland, The Biggest Little Farm and My Octopus Teacher. Sometimes, however, that world is small and dark - located behind a computer screen, within an algorithm and deep inside encrypted software.
Technology documentaries are fascinating. They can inform us of the benefits and dangers of an industry that has seen phenomenal (and largely unchecked) growth. As these 10 documentaries show, this world - the world of technology - can be both inspiring and terrifying.
During her first year at MIT Media Lab, Joy Buolamwini took a class in Science Fabrication. The class involved the creation of technology inspired by science fiction. Buolamwini decided to build a mirror that would motivate her in the morning. She called her concept the Inspire Mirror.
The mirror needed computer vision software to project another image onto Buolamwini’s face (something like a social media filter). Unfortunately, the project did not work - the software just would not recognise her face.
Investigating the problem, Buolamwini made a startling and disturbing discovery. A discovery that changed her life. A discovery that will likely change all our lives. Only when Buolamwini, an African American woman, wore a white mask did the software recognise the existence of a face.
In that moment, Buolamwini took her first steps on an incredibly important journey - a journey explored in Shalini Kantayya’s powerful documentary, Coded Bias. Buolamwini realised that most facial recognition software does not accurately identify darker skinned faces and the faces of women.
Examining Buolamwini's work, Coded Bias asks two critical questions. What does it mean when artificial intelligence (AI) governs our liberties? And, what are the consequences for the people AI is biased against?
You can watch Coded Bias on Netflix.
The Social Dilemma
What are the consequences of our growing dependence on social media? Do these platforms help us to stay informed and connected? Or are they the lucrative tools of manipulative technology companies - companies that are in the business of selling their users?
To varying degrees, I think we all know the answer to this question. Concerns about privacy and the use of personal data are far from new. What we have lacked, perhaps, is a call to action.
Enter The Social Dilemma. Jeff Orlowski’s documentary takes us on a disturbing journey through the evolution of social media. We learn how these platforms were developed, monetised and, after years of exponential and largely unchecked growth, how they now pose a significant threat to human civilisation.
Make no mistake, The Social Dilemma does not tread lightly. While the documentary acknowledges social media's “tremendous” advantages, it exists to present a powerful case against screen-based technology's attention extraction model.
You can watch The Social Dilemma on Netflix.
Filmmaker, Laura Poitras, had been working on a film about surveillance technology for two years when she was contacted by someone using the name “CitizenFour”. The contact knew Poitras because she had been the target of US government surveillance and had steadfastly refused to be intimidated.
CitizenFour revealed that he was a high level NSA analyst and that he could expose the massive amount of surveillance of Americans (and others). Poitras persuaded CitizenFour to let her film him. He agreed and Poitras along with Guardian journalist, Glenn Greenwald, flew to Hong Kong to meet CitizenFour - otherwise known as Edward Snowden.
You can rent or buy CitizenFour online.
Lo And Behold: Reveries Of The Connected World
That our lives have been irrevocably changed following the creation of the internet will come as a shock to no one. Since the first digital message was transmitted from a modest computer lab at UCLA to scientists at Stanford University in 1969, the world has witnessed a phenomenal digital revolution.
In lesser hands, Lo And Behold's subject matter could have felt tired and over-familiar. However, with legendary filmmaker Werner Herzog at the helm, the digital discussion feels fascinating and exciting once more.
Herzog is a so-called “technology tourist” - he does not even carry a cell phone. This enables him to view the internet without the burden of preconceived notions - exploring both the inspirational potential of the online world and the horror of its dark side.
You can rent or buy Lo And Behold: Reveries Of The Connected World online.
The Great Hack
Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim’s unsettling documentary looks at how a data company named Cambridge Analytica came to symbolise the dark side of social media in the wake of the 2016 US presidential election, as uncovered by journalist Carole Cadwalladr.
You can watch The Great Hack on Netflix!
If you are not already concerned about the exponential development of technology, you certainly will be after watching Tonje Hessen Schei’s terrifying documentary, iHuman. Featuring a host of knowledgeable talking heads, the film issues an urgent call to action - we need to talk about technology.
While acknowledging the incredible advantages offered by this industry, iHuman issues warning after warning. The film could not be clearer about what it believes is at stake if we fail to address the wider implications of data use, privacy, surveillance and the development of AI.
Indeed, iHuman begins with some particularly chilling words from the late Stephen Hawking: “Success in creating AI would be the greatest event in human history. Unfortunately, it might also be the last.”
I will keep you posted when I get details about where you can watch iHuman.
The Inventor: Out For Blood In Silicon Valley
The dangers of rampant entrepreneurship in the technology industry are exposed in Alex Gibney’s fascinating documentary. The film tells the complicated story of Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos - the health technology company that she created aged just 19 years old. In 2015, Theranos was worth an estimated $9 billion. Just one year later, the company would be worthless, with Holmes facing accusations of serious fraud.
You can watch The Inventor: Out For Blood In Silicon Valley on Sky or Now.
Kill Chain: The Cyber War on America's Elections
There is nothing like an emergency - be it local, national or global - to remind us that democracy is a precious and vulnerable thing. Now, more than ever, we need to choose leaders that we trust, leaders who will act in our best interests.
No democratic system is perfect, of course, and no political party is infallible. For this very reason, we have a powerful tool to use if we desire change - our vote. However, what happens if that tool is compromised? What happens if our vote is attacked?
Kill Chain: The Cyber War on America's Elections, a gripping HBO documentary from directors Simon Ardizzone, Russell Michaels and Sarah Teale, examines this disturbing issue and explores what we can do to protect global voting systems from being hacked.
I will let you know when I have more details about where you can watch Kill Chain: The Cyber War on America's Elections.
Cryptopia: Bitcoin, Blockchains and the Future of the Internet
Call it what you will - science fiction, nerd cash or, perhaps, the utopian future of money - cryptocurrency is fast becoming something we all need to explore.
Gradually, the likes of bitcoin, ethereum and litecoin are seeping into our collective consciousness. However, many of us still have a rather hazy understanding of what cryptocurrency is and how it could, potentially, change our lives.
Enter Torsten Hoffmann who, in 2015, made the documentary Bitcoin: The End of Money as We Know It. This film examined the history of money and looked at patterns of technological innovation to explain how Bitcoin actually works.
Hoffmann returns to this topic in his latest film Cryptopia: Bitcoin, Blockchains and the Future of the Internet. Five years have passed and he wants to put some of the claims about cryptocurrency to the test.
The claims are pretty bold. At the beginning of Cryptopia, we are told that developments in cryptocurrency and blockchain technology could challenge our financial systems and take down huge corporations such as Facebook, YouTube and Amazon. This, we are told, is ground zero in the battle for the future of the internet.
You can stream Cryptopia: Bitcoin, Blockchains and the Future of the Internet on Flix Premiere or rent this film online.
A Glitch In The Matrix
I confess that I knew little about simulation theory before watching Rodney Ascher’s documentary, A Glitch In The Matrix, apart, that is, from what the Wachowski sisters taught me in their 1999 sci-fi classic, The Matrix. As a result, I was fascinated to learn more about the various beliefs surrounding the idea that we are all living in a computer programmed reality.
Using a speech from prolific author, Philip K. Dick, and a variety of sci-fi movies (including several key moments from The Matrix itself), A Glitch In The Matrix dives into the science, philosophy and conspiracies behind simulation theory. Like in Ascher’s previous film, Room 237, we spend much of our time in the company of ‘believers’. Their physical identities are masked by digital avatars - making their stories all the more startling.
The arguments in support of simulation theory are fascinating. Did you know that deja vu is actually a glitch in the matrix? Have you ever wondered if life’s synchronicity is evidence of a simulation programming error? I actually haven’t. However, it is fun thinking about this stuff… up to a point.
You can watch A Glitch In The Matrix via Dogwoof On Demand