It’s rare that a film outside of the science fiction genre draws reviews from the technology community. However David Fincher’s film The Social Network hits very close to home, and so we saw an outpouring of movie reviews on blogs normally dedicated to the politics and economics of technology. One common thread of these reviews is the opinion that film has failed to capture the reality of the real person, Mark Zuckerberg, his company, Facebook and the larger trend of social media. This from a group who have no trouble accepting that people can dodge laser beams, that explosions in space make loud noises and that space craft should naturally have an aerodynamic design.
It’s almost as though, in the instance of the film, The Social Network, this group of very intelligent people don’t understand what a movie is. The demand that it be a singular and accurate representation of the reality of Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook is an intriguing re-enactment. In the opening sequence of the film, the Zuckerberg character, played by Jesse Eisenberg, has a rapid-fire Aaron Sorkin style argument with his girlfriend Erica Albright, played by Rooney Mara. Zuckerberg has a singular interpretation of university life that admits no possibility of alternative views. This leads to the break up that sets the whole story in motion. In their reviews, the technology community takes the role of Zuckerberg, with the movie itself taking the role of Erica. The movie is lectured for not adhering to the facts, not conforming to reality, for focusing on the people rather than the technology.
In computer science, things work much better when a object or event has a singular meaning. Two things stand on either side of an equals sign and all is well the the world. This means that, and nothing more. When an excess of meaning spills out of that equation, it’s the cause of bugs, errors and crashes. In the film, the inventor of the platform for the social network, is unable to understand the overdetermined nature of social relations. He doesn’t participate in the network he’s enabled, just as he’s unable to participate in the life of Erica, the girl he’s attracted to.
Non-technologists saw different parallels in the Zuckerberg character. Alex Ross, the music critic for the New Yorker, saw Zuckerberg as Alberich in Richard Wagner’s Das Rheingold. Alberich forsakes love for a magic ring that gives him access to limitless power. David Brooks, the conservative columnist for the Op-Ed page of the New York Times saw Zuckerberg as the Ethan Edwards character in John Ford’s The Searchers. Ethan Edwards, played by John Wayne, is a rough man who, through violence, creates the possibility of community and family (social life) in the old west. But at the end of the film, Ethan is still filled with violence, and cannot join the community he made possible. He leaves the reunited family to gather round the hearth, as he strides out back into the wild desert.
In an interview about the film, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, talked about how the story is constructed to unfold through conflicting points of view. Other articles have been written about the idea that depending on what perspective you bring to the film, you’ll see the characters in an entirely different light. There’s a conflict of interpretations between the generations, the sexes and the divide between technologist and regular people. And depending on one’s point of view, a conflict of interpretation is a sign of a bug, error or crash— or it’s a well spring of hermeneutic interpretation. Zuckerberg connects to Alberich and to Ethan Edwards, and tells us something about power, community and life on the edges of a frontier. Unlike Ethan Edwards, Zuckerberg makes a gesture toward joining the community he made possible with his friend request to Erica at the end of the film.
It was Akira Kurosawa’s film Rashomon that introduced us to the complex idea that an event could exist in multiple states through the conflicting stories of the participants. Fincher and Sorkin’s The Social Network tries to reach that multi-valent, overdetermined state. Time will tell whether they’ve managed to make a lasting statement. But it’s perfectly clear that a singular, accurate retelling of the story of Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook would have been tossed out with yesterday’s newspapers.
The poverty of the technology community is revealed in its inability to understand that the power of movies is not in their technology, but rather in the power of their storytelling.