May 19, 2020  (Web Review)

System Error

(2019) 96 min., in English, German and Portuguese w/English subtitles. DVD: $29.99 ($398 w/PPR from icarusfilms.com). Icarus Films.

Reviewer rating: 3.0/4

Is the real measure of an economy’s health unwavering growth? Is the Gross Domestic Product a truly meaningful number, including as it does anything with market value—such as prostitution, sales of illegal drugs, and environmental destruction? These are among the big questions raised in the documentary System Error, a thoughtful critique of what the film calls a prevalent and mystifying myth that constant growth means more people must be happy and doing well. Interviewing experts on all sides of the film’s raised issues, including economists, industrialists, hedge fund managers, agribusiness farmers, engineers, and more, System Error examines the ups and downs of policies pursuing perpetual growth at the cost of depleting Earth’s finite resources, while also undercutting growth by eliminating good jobs now assumed by machines. The film’s chapters explore such topics as the go-go 1980s, when deregulation in markets and financial institutions made a lot of people rich but also started problematic trends in gambling with people’s savings, assets, pensions, etc. There is also eye-popping footage of state-of-the-art robotics at an auto plant and mind-blowing, cross-industry examples of self-teaching artificial intelligence. Both phenomena are startlingly justified by self-styled futurists in labor-intensive corporations, executives on camera who proclaim humans increasingly freed by robots of performing “dirty” manual work. (That must be good news for the millions who will not see any jobs, whether dirty or elevated, in those factories again.) Donald Trump shows up bragging in a couple of snippets of archival footage (one about his development companies transforming Manhattan into an exclusive haven for the wealthy), as well as Trump’s now-nemesis, hedge fund guy Anthony Scaramucci, who unwittingly provides a benediction for System Error by making clear anything can be thrown under a bus to create the “right conditions” for a holy grail of 3%-4% annual growth. The film is a good primer for anyone who wants to see some of these issues assimilated into a larger context for better understanding. Strongly recommended. Aud: C, P. (T. Keogh)