The Social Good

Aaron Sorkin‘s screenplay for The Social Network is, for my money, the very best of recent years.  Nothing better has been written (or at least circulated in movie form) since its release in 2010, and, prior to that, it’s the best since 2004’s Sideways.  Moreover, Sideways was able to operate freely within the unrestricted field of fiction, building upon more overt, invented characters.  The Social Network takes real people and history as its starting points, and turns a story without much visual dynamism, or exciting events for that matter, into a tale with great resonance for our age.

images-7It begins with a scene between Mark Zuckerberg and his girlfriend from his Harvard College days, setting up what I think is the central question of the entire movie: ‘Is Mark Zuckerberg an asshole?’  I don’t mean to be flip or personally demeaning with this articulation, since I think the question encompasses far broader implied questions, all the way out to, ‘Is Facebook an evil force?’, or even, ‘Is the internet of overall benefit to humankind?’

Some have suggested that Zuckerberg so ardently pursued development of ‘The Facebook,” as it was then called, in a piteous attempt to overcome his nerdish status with his college coeds.  I don’t see this; Zuckerberg may not have been the Brad Pitt of the 2003 Harvard campus, but the screenplay is after a more nuanced, moral examination of his motivations and character.  As it adroitly points out in its final evocation of the Beatles tune, “Baby, You’re a Rich Man,” Zuckerberg saw the commercial and power payoffs possible in the expansion of Facebook from the get-go, and he so vigorously pursued expansion above-all—forgoing numerous opportunities for any early cash-in—because of that.

He and his Facebook honchos would disagree of course.  They had more altruistic goals in mind all along, they would claim, although no one should object to a hardworking entrepreneur seeing eventual financial gain from his efforts.  No, Facebook set out to positively change the world, to make our society more transparent and open, more supportive of the individual citizen.  The cause continues even today, with various Facebook campaigns purporting to ‘end loneliness,’ an admirable aim indeed.  As Charlie Chaplin once wrote, loneliness is “the theme of everyone.”

And in many ways Facebook has succeeded in changing the world.  For all intents and purposes, it’s a new medium now, serving almost one sixth of the world’s population, becoming the equivalent of what the telephone was to my generation.  My parents were never so generous, but I remember well the clichéd image from the 60s of the teenage daughter who had to have her own telephone line, such were the extended hours she spent in phone conversation with her friends each evening.

Zuckerberg has said that, “You only have one identity,’ and that may be true now, but it wasn’t always so.  In the past, it was far easier to reinvent oneself, if one needed to, by simply leaving town.  As others have pointed out, unlike the teenage girl’s phone conversation, your Facebook profile is neither passing nor private; there’s no more leaving the past behind if you’ve been a regular updater over the years.

But the change has not of course been evenly or fairly applied.  Just as with the industrial revolution, the accumulation of capital in the hands of the leading entrepreneurs of the day has occurred concurrent with many people losing their jobs just as many others land new ones.  One telling example pointed out by Jarod Lanier is Google Translate which has steadily poached from the work of air-breathing translators, progressively improving itself on the backs of these labourers, to the point where many of them are now obsolete.  And we may be sure no royalties were paid for the millions of translation samples pilfered silently, anonymously.

One of the more interesting moral questions posed in The Social Network script is whether or not Zuckerberg was guilty of stealing the idea for Facebook from that inherent in a software scheme brought to him by the Winklevoss twins, a couple of his Harvard cohorts.  The courts eventually said he was, and those cohorts too were then set for life, but Zuckerberg’s stated defense against the charge is particularly revealing: “I didn’t use any of their code!”  If only the moral question involved can be that narrowly defined.

The digital revolution has brought many benefits to many people, but again, just like the industrial revolution, there are painful adjustments involved, and those capitalists at the top of the new economic order will not be easily swayed to ensuring that they always do the greater good.  They will need to be restrained at times, on issues of privacy for instance, and no matter how fervent Mark Zuckerberg is in his belief that he is changing the world for the better, the change is neither guaranteed nor uniform.






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