Saturday, 2 October 2010

the social dilemma

I was going to do a review-style blog on The Social Network, but then I read Joe Morgenstern's fantastic Wall Street Journal review, and decided there was no need.  As a movie, this is the ugly underside of Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World and the true inheritor of the original Wall Street's mantle as definitive of a generation's relationship to power, money and avarice.

Eisenberg's Zuckerberg and Timberlake's Parker get the bad mojo rolling

What is gnawing at me about the movie, though -- one of the best and tensest dramas I've ever seen -- is the implications of the truths it lays bare.

1:  Was the largest social construct ever created outside of civilization itself engineered by a sociopath?

2:  If there was no Facebook would Tyler Clementi  have killed himself last week?

These beg a lot of questions.  Most importantly:  is Zuckerberg a sociopath?

Just for fun - here's the Oxford American definition:

sociopath |ˈsōsēōˌpaθ|nouna person with a personality disorder manifesting itself in extreme antisocial attitudes and behavior and a lack of conscience.

After sitting with the movie for a bit and mulling over Zuckerberg's behaviour, the answer is, well, not exactly - not yet or rather, not in the time frame of the movie.  He certainly has tendencies.  The urges behind those tendencies get channeled into programming and then you get Facebook, and we all know where we are with that.

There are a lot of chicken-egg scenarios here, and the potential for circling logic.  If he wasn't such a great programmer would he have become American Psycho instead?  Or, if he wasn't such a great programmer would he also not have the same sociopathic tendencies.  He didn't exactly commit crimes, he committed indiscretions.  Those may have come from his being emotionally immature which may have been the result of his age, or those may have come from his upbringing, which we don't see in the movie, or they may just be part of his character.  The question is whether the same Mark Zuckerberg, with tiny changes in situation, could have evolved into someone very different.  Say a Unabomber type.

Again, a lot of assumptions, but here's what I'm really interested in.  What happens when a person who has a whole lot of trouble with humanity in general and individuals specifically is the architect of the web that now binds us beyond time and geography.

Well, the answer is we don't know.  In the words of the movie, "we don't know what it is yet."

But what do we know?

That a very promising young musician committed suicide last week because his privacy was violated in the most intimate of ways.

For the recap - his roommate and a friend had a webcam going in the room while Tyler Clementi had a date with a man.  They not only watched this from the room next door - they streamed it.  This not only exposed someone's most intimate moments, it also outed him as a homosexual.

What does Mark Zuckerberg have to do with this?   Nothing.  And everything.

We exist differently since Facebook.  Myspace did not change our behaviour in the ways that Facebook has.  We exist collectively, we will be assimilated, all the while flailing our arms exclaiming our individuality.  We will lives our lives in public, then post links to the erosions of our privacy.

We were never very good with boundaries as a species.  We overdid it in Victoriana and the 50's, then we got wildly free in the 60's and 70's until STD's and HIV put a stop to that party.  We have spent the Oprah decades oversharing which might have been okay if not for Facebook, and Twitter, where we can completely disconnect our impulse controls, circumvent out own judgement and tie our brains into the collective grid.  William Gibson called this "jacking in" and it seemed like a far-off concept in Neuromancer.  It doesn't anymore.

When Tyler's roommate and his friend were streaming live video, they were committing an extreme case of oversharing.   They were sharing somebody else's private moments.  Before you argue, think about times you might have posted things on behalf of other people without their permission or prior knowledge,  say "Alfie and I just had an awesome brunch at The Griddle" or "my prayers go out to so and so and their family on their loss," (I imagine there are a lot of those out there now about Tyler) perhaps even linking them to your post, so others have theability to examine their lives .

Tyler's roommate and his friend were doing it as a lark -- in another pop culture moment, they were punking him.

Mostly, and this is sad, I suspect they were doing it because they could.  And because it was cool.  And both of these things are concepts Sorkin's screenplay and Fincher's movie tackle.

Mallory climbed Everest famously, "because it's there."  Hackers and coders have long had that same sense of adventure, though they do it from home.

Zuckerberg built Facebook because he could see it and because it opened a window on the coolness he coveted  that might possibly lead to a door.  He and Saverin argue repeatedly over the economics of cool and Saverin always loses.

Tyler Clementi's is not the only casualty of this type of human digitization.  There are plenty of cases of kids being cyber-bullied and trying to hurt themselves as a result.  There are plenty of cases of feuding exes and de-friendings.  Like the real world, the virtual one has its ugly side.

But Tyler's story is just particularly awful.  It's awful because there is some implication that the two people who did it had absolutely no sense of the humanity of the subjects of their prank.  As they imagined and enabled the 2-D version of reality, they lost all sense of the 3-D world.  Tyler and his date were no longer people to them - they were images.  They were a good story or a good joke and the uploading and streaming of the moment would make

No matter how you look at it, the story is heartbreaking.  No matter whose role you take in the events -- Tyler's, his date's, his parents, family, roommate, classmates, orchestra-mates -- you are left fractured.  This didn't have to happen at all - in fact - shouldn't have happened.  No matter how robust our technology and our ability to pump it up gets, we still need to remember how fragile a psyche is.

Zuckerberg's main character flaw is a fairly universal one.  He feels that no one's suffering is as poignant or deep as his own.  He sees the world as a bunch of haves, and himself as an unfairly deprived have not.  His actions stem from wanting to correct that balance - a sure product of our survival instincts, but one that allows him to steal, lie, cheat and be conveniently "wired in" whenever the emotional shit hits the fan.

No, you don't get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies.

So now what?

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