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CPH:DOX 2024

Review: Can’t Feel Nothing

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- David Borenstein’s documentary feels like a beginners’ course in the evils of social media, but despite telling us nothing new about the internet, it’s still an interesting watch

Review: Can’t Feel Nothing

When sending text messages became a huge thing in the early days of mobile phones, some people were worried that it would forever deform human thumbs. And as Can’t Feel Nothing, a F:ACT Competition entry at the ongoing CPH:DOX, opens with faces illuminated by a blue light, it’s hard not to wonder if smartphones can change one’s complexion and give social-media abusers a permanently pale, zombie-like appearance.

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The thought is not unrelated to what the new doc by David Borenstein, who introduces himself as a science journalist, covers – which is how and why people shut themselves off from real, emotional life. It starts off with a Danish therapist explaining that more and more of his clients are saying that they feel numb – hence the film’s title – and that the internet is to blame for this. From that point on, and in a fairly surprising manner, Borenstein investigates how companies and individuals manipulate people’s feelings and emotions online. He travels to the USA, China, North Macedonia and Russia, and in a few neatly organised chapters, he takes a closer look at how anger, love, shame, pride and other emotions and feelings are elicited.

Each of the storylines in Can’t Feel Nothing is composed like a VT insert for a news broadcast – it provides information, context and a human story, and involves reinforcement theory, as created by BF Skinner. And this is when the connection between online emotions and real-life numbness is explained. While investigating the sensation-mongers, including a trainer of Chinese webcam personalities, Borenstein asks them how they feel, harbouring the preconceived notion that they’re lonely and unhappy – and that manipulating others brings them nothing but money and attention, which is just a short-term high.

It’s disarming and endearing how, in all of this, Borenstein keeps his eye and his lens focused on the human perspective of the story, and it’s clear how much he wants to see hope and the possibility of a happy ending for the numb nation.

Even if Can’t Feel Nothing tells us nothing new about the internet and its high-flyers, it’s still an interesting watch. It also provides some decent educational material for schools – apart from maybe a highly entertaining yet definitely not kid-friendly chapter about the “tech dominatrix” Mistress Harley, whose day job is to shame and humiliate submissive men. But then again, the kids of today, with their thumb-warping, blue-tinted devices, probably know about this kind of stuff already.

Can’t Feel Nothing was produced by Danish outfit Snowglobe. DR handles its international sales.

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