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Climate Change, Technology, and the Role of Media Activism: An Interview with Jeff Orlowski

Image via Sundance Collab

Jeff Orlowski is the founder and president of Exposure Labs. Exposure Labs focuses on creating documentaries around areas that need change. He directed the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma and was nominated for seven Primetime Emmy awards. Previously, he was the director, producer, and cinematographer of Chasing Coral and Chasing Ice. Both award-winning documentaries have gained worldwide recognition. Orlowski won the 2017 Champion of the Earth Award and the UN’s highest environmental honor. 

Yuliya Velhan: What inspired you to start Exposure Labs? 

Jeff Orlowski: I grew up as a photographer. My dad taught me photography from a young age, and in college that transitioned into filmmaking for me. I always felt and saw the potential of using stories to inspire change, and that’s basically been the theme of all of our work over the last 12-plus years. How can I use my skill sets as a cinematographer and as a storyteller to advance the conversation on these big global issues? 

I also love film as a medium. We go into a movie theater, turn our phones off, and watch a movie with 100 percent attention. It’s very different from web streaming, but it remains a very accessible medium. Anybody can watch a movie, while books, for example, might be too dense or too challenging sometimes. There are countless times when you want to pick up a book, but then you just don’t get through it or you’re stuck with it. Film, on the other hand, is very accessible, and we get to play with it both as an art form and as a think piece. 

YV: How do you balance the realities of your subjects with inspiring and hopeful messages? Do they need to be balanced in this way? 

JO: There are days when I feel really optimistic and days when I feel really pessimistic. Ultimately, I want to leave an audience seeing the path forward and seeing an opportunity to move forward. What we tend to do is try to structure the story so that it doesn’t end on a down note. This allows us to get the dark realities in there, but that’s not how we want to close the film. We are trying to get to the truth, the full depth, and the nuance of what our subjects are saying and what they believe, while also leaving audiences with a sense that there is a path forward through the end of the film.

YV: With the movement-building power of film, particularly looking at your work in Chasing Coral and Chasing Ice, how do you see the role of film in activist movements

JO: There is a huge opportunity for film to be a part of our activism. We come across an issue and try to investigate it. This is mostly done through the interview process, meeting people, learning, and coming up with our own distillation and thesis, something which allows us to understand how we can represent and share all that knowledge in film. We go in with eyes wide open, and, in a way, get a mini doctorate in the subject of our choice. Whatever the next movie that we make is—and we can make a film on anything—we have to learn and get up to speed on the issue in order for us to make a meaningful and potent film. There are countless stories that need to be told, and there is a huge opportunity for artists and storytellers to work with activists to find them.

YV: How do you think that the stories that you talk about in your films impact society differently than stories you read in newspapers? 

JO: I think a part of it is that you find different audiences in different places. There are countless news organizations that have talked about climate change for years, yet we still have climate denialism. So what is it about those articles, pieces, or mediums that isn’t breaking through? One thing I love about film is that it’s such a great medium to share with people. You can invite your family and friends to watch a movie with you, and that shared experience is one of the ways that we can spread ideas more quickly. Movies, as mediums, allow for different types of audiences to come in. 

YV: Do you think people are more likely to respond to a movie, rather than a newspaper, on an issue like climate change? 

JO: Yes. We’ve had a lot of people watch Chasing Ice and Chasing Coral and be so transformed by that experience that they leave the theater no longer denying climate change. The structure of those two films was centered around visual evidence of climate change, something you don’t easily get in a newspaper article. The pictures do the work. In the case of those projects, time-lapse images show before and after shots which hit at a visceral and emotional level that intellectual arguments don’t. I think especially with climate change, it’s challenging to make a piece that can speak to broad audiences because there are so many different perspectives on an issue. You’re trying to put something out and you don’t know where your viewer is and what their thought process is. 

YV: In your documentaries, what inspired your shift in focus from climate change to the impact of technology? 

JO: I’ve always been interested in and concerned about big systemic issues, and climate change is one of the foundational existential threats that we face. I have friends from college who are working in tech and saying, “Wait a second, technology is an existential threat. The way we’re designing it, what it’s doing to us, how it’s shaping our thoughts and understanding of the world, it is on par with climate change.” At the start of the project, I had the rose-colored glasses about how amazing, positive, and altruistic all that technology was. I went from very optimistic to very pessimistic pretty quickly as I started to learn about what exactly is going on, how this technology operates, who the technology is designed for, why it’s designed the way it is, and how it’s invisibly puppeteering us in ways we don’t even know. 

YV: What steps do you think we could take right now to change the way technology is affecting us? 

JO: I’m excited about the legislation on the table right now to ban surveillance advertising. Our government is talking about banning the fundamental business model that makes Facebook, Google, and Twitter as rich as they are. It would permanently and drastically change those companies. Just having that conversation in Washington is saying that there’s a big problem with this design and that it’s unethical. It’s a completely unethical frame for us to be operating off of. It’s a step in the right direction. 

Tech companies can lead this change. They can redesign and aim for their products to serve the public good. Right now, it’s about what the technology is being designed to do, who is paying for it, and who is benefiting from it the most. That’s a question we have in the film, “If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.” You paid for the computer to provide these services, you paid for the phone, and there are a lot of things that come with it. We don’t pay for Google, Facebook, or Twitter. Their extraction model is serving a different person, a different client. What it’s really doing is completely invisible to us—it’s happening behind closed doors. We think we’re choosing when we go to those platforms, we think we’re in control, but there is so much happening behind the scenes that we have no idea about. 

YV: If that fundamental model being used were to be banned, do you have a sense of what would rise in its place? 

JO: There are countless options that could be used. The problem is that those companies would not make as much money as they are used to making in the advertising model. That’s why they haven’t switched over. They could use a standard subscription model, like the one we see with iCloud. There are different models that exist. They could easily use a model where we, as paying customers, are getting services we’re looking to get. It changes the relationship and the power dynamic, and that’s fundamental. 

I try not to use any technology that is free at this point. In a weird way, it’s like I know if it’s some free app, it’s doing something to make money. It’s not really free. What’s the hidden cost of free, right? That’s my own personal rubric. I love finding an app that provides value and it’s like, “Yeah, I want to give you three bucks. Yeah, I’ll give you a coffee in exchange for this amazing service that you’re providing me. And I don’t want to see the ads, and I don’t want you to track my data, and I don’t want you to sell my information to somebody else, I don’t want you to manipulate what I’m doing just for your profits.” That feels like a much better exchange in value. 

YV: Do you think legislation on a federal level is necessary? Could the government stepping in be a conflict of interest in terms of how much power is being given to the federal government? 

JO: I think the government needs to step in. I think that’s one of the only options and pathways we have right now. I have no real optimism for them changing from the inside. It’s been very slow and too little, too late on that front. 

This is a global issue that we created here on American soil that is being used to dismantle our American democracy. A weapon that we designed and built is being used against us on our own territory. It doesn’t make sense to me that we would allow it to continue in this fashion. But it is happening all around the planet and it’s being used as a weapon in countless different places, and so there are other governments that are trying to step up as well. There are also other governments that are trying to use technology for good within their own countries. Taiwan, for example, used new technology platforms to try to build consensus around political legislation. It’s the exact opposite of how our social media technology is sort of ripping apart the fabric of democracy. 

We’re continuing to work on stories around climate and around tech, and we’re continuing to expand beyond that. For me, I keep thinking about what stories we need. What are these stories that are really going to shift the way we as a society see ourselves, understand ourselves, understand our role in the world, and our connection to the natural world? My hope is to continue to use film as a medium to pose these big questions. 

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.