Sunday, October 31, 2010

Socially Challenged

Maybe the stuff I’m reading isn’t representative, but it seems to me the prevailing economic conversation has shifted lately. For a while, I was seeing a lot of commentary on the inevitability of a recovery, even though the commentators couldn’t articulate exactly where that would come from (clean energy seemed to be the most common guess). Actually, this lack of visibility was part of the point – the more mysterious the next big thing might seem to us, the greater the guarantee of true bigness when it ultimately arrives. But I’m not reading much about that now. Instead, most of our collective hopes seem to lie with the housing market, or the exchange rate – in other words in reinvigorating what we already have.

The Technological Revolution

I guess we’ll need more historical distance before we can fully evaluate the gains and losses of the technological revolution. Not so long ago, the powers and capacities now at our fingertips would have seemed godlike; they’ve completely transformed our relationship to knowledge and culture and commerce. But we also know many of the assumptions underlying the last century – in particular perhaps about the availability and value of what used to be called blue collar work - are in peril, at least partly as a direct result. For now, we’re struggling even to define the new world, let alone understand it.

One of the most interesting things about David Fincher’s hot new movie The Social Network (although there’s almost nothing about the film that isn’t interesting) is that even though it’s just about as contemporary as a serious-minded picture could be, built around a real-life protagonist who even now is only 26 years old, it feels somehow elegiac, even nostalgic. The film gets under way at Harvard, where undergraduate Mark Zuckerberg carves out a campus reputation for technological wizardry. Preoccupied by gaining acceptance within the arcane social order, he agrees to help a pair of ultra-established twin brothers develop a Harvard-oriented social network site; instead he takes elements of the idea and develops it himself, as “The Facebook.” It grows beyond anyone’s imagining, and so of course, lawsuits eventually follow.

World Domination

One of these comes from the brothers, and the other from Eduardo Saverin, the company’s original “CFO” and Zuckerberg’s best (perhaps only) friend, who received a 30% stake in exchange for putting in the original $1,000 capitalization. He’s the film’s most poignant character I think, because his instincts are utterly conventional – grow carefully and methodically, “monetize” the site early on by taking on advertising. Zuckerberg senses they’ve created something that can blow through these traditional rules, an instinct reinforced when he meets Sean Parker, already famous for founding Napster but nevertheless barely with a dollar to his name. Energized by a new San Francisco location and lots of venture capital money, Facebook accelerates smoothly toward world domination, and Eduardo gets left out in the cold.

The film thrillingly captures the giddy myth of the new economy, where as someone says “inventing a job is better than finding a job,” and if you’re basically a geek, then it’s easier to make your first million than to get a date. I don’t know if any film has ever conjured up as much excitement from reams of incomprehensible programming talk. Zuckerberg is living proof that one can throw the rulebook out of the window and still have it all. Except that, actually, as presented in the film he doesn’t know the rulebook; his sense for social interactions and proprieties is utterly screwed up. It’s a supreme irony of sorts that someone so dysfunctional, so ill-attuned to the normal rhythms of interaction and seduction, should have made such a contribution to the social concept of friendship. Except that, of course, maybe his main legacy so far has been to disseminate his own restrictions, pushing more and more us into spending time alone in our rooms, endlessly updating and checking for updates, supremely informed and occupied and connected, but not necessarily, you know, with anyone.

Fincher gets this across very subtly, by making a film that’s surprisingly tonally narrow and claustrophobic. It mostly takes place inside, and presents the one major shift of location – to an English rowing meeting where the brothers realize Facebook has spread overseas, and finally resolve to sue –with deliberate artificiality, suggesting how the rituals of the past are becoming laughably incidental to the prevailing social forces. Harvard, by contrast, is shot respectfully, even lovingly; the film’s dominant colour palette is a late-summer golden-brown. But again, the film suggests the myth now counts for more than the substantive contribution: there’s little sense that any of the new enterprise and wealth generation owes much to whatever it is that actually happens in class. To Zuckerberg, Harvard is primarily a gorgeous pool of data, a perfect incubation site for online experimentation. It’s one of the film’s more predictable devices, I suppose, that the iconoclasm that powers him to a sort of greatness also prevents him from fully enjoying, or even understanding, the fruits of his success.

Fincher’s Progress

The film’s screenplay is by Aaron Sorkin, best known for The West Wing, and it has that same hyper-articulate, stylized dialogue and pacing; it’s his great gift to glamorize inherently dull events and environments with enough intelligence that you happily succumb to the artificiality. And director Fincher is completely in tune with the project. His first big hit Se7en had one of the best structural conceits of the last twenty years, but would just have been another gimmick without his feel for the characters’ bewilderment and fragility. For my taste, Fight Club was less successful in counterbalancing the gimmickry, and his recent The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button seemed to me largely hollow and lifeless. But Zodiac, although I liked it less than many did, was an interesting exercise in working against the conventional grain of a narrative. The Social Network, utterly devoid of killers or reality bending, might seem like an odd choice of material, but it’s a completely logical evolution, demanding as much clarity and nuance as any of his more baroque creations, but far more relevant to the world we live in (at least in the West), where the greatest potential upheaval to the established order flows from largely clueless kids sitting at a desk.

At the same time, Fincher has the good taste not to over-elaborate the material – no giddy montages of teenagers across the globe having their lives transformed – and one could take the film as something of a curio, only incidentally happening to be about a man who changed the world. That’s what’s so damn difficult about knowing where we go from here, when our future probably lies less in the hands of traditional power brokers than in the crazy imaginings of some guy tapping at his laptop in the coffee shop.

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