Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Suffering Servant

The final scene of director David Fincher’s new film, The Social Network, at once captures and caricaturizes the prevailing paradox of web-based social interaction: the creator of Facebook sits alone at his computer, in an empty litigation chamber, while the hollow sounds of laptop keystrokes echo throughout the high, glass-walled enclosure. 

Subtle?  Not exactly.  It is fairly easy to see that Fincher intended to provoke some cultural speculation as to the validity of web-based socialization.  That discourse has been going on for years, and it is really a continuation of the same genre of speculation with regard to television.  There are multiple scenes in which creator Mark Zuckerberg, played by Jesse Eisenberg, is portrayed as “the outsider,” the nerd-genius loner last picked for inclusion in social activities.  But this film has been hailed as one that “brilliantly defines the decade” – where is the novelty in a film that merely seeks to reinforce long-standing alarmism about the de-socialization of individuals by social media?  Where is the brilliance in repetition?

Besides, discerning viewers have been conditioned extensively by patronizing advertisers to keep a cynical eye turned toward media productions, and they tend to scoff at the kind of out-of-touch wag of the fogeyish finger that such a condemnation would resemble.  

The film does not focus its neuronal wherewithal on the question of whether or not digital social networks provide legitimate outlets for socialization.  As the editor of The Wheatley Chronicle recently pointed out to me, “he may have been alone at the end of the movie, but I’ll bet all of his money that he’s not feeling very lonely right now.”  The film’s intelligence, like its novelty and charisma, lies in an analysis of how that socialization is achieved and what that process indicates about the complexion of modern consciousness and the general posture of society. 

There are a number of textual features in the film that can’t be overlooked when trying to make a holistic interpretation of its message.  One of these is the prevalence of alcohol and drug use.  Multiple scenes involve lush, alcoholic indulgence, and Justin Timberlake’s character, Sean Parker, really likes cocaine. 

There is no denying that many college students engage in the near pathological use of alcohol during college.  In an essay about Kafka, strangely enough, David Foster Wallace points to this phenomenon as evidence among young adults of an escapist attitude in response to the pressures and realities of modern, adult life.  It’s interesting that Fincher chose to parallel the montage of the first few hours of Facebook’s existence with a decadent Final Club party – the future leaders of tomorrow, drooling over naked chicks and puking on the lawn.  Maybe he was trying to make a psychological suggestion that social networks provide less of an inlet for inclusion than an outlet for escape. 

This differentiation would fall in line with another critics view that the retreat to an online social environment is motivated by a desire for privacy, and is a logical extension of the psychology behind the historical retreat of well-to-do homeowners to the suburbs.  If social interaction is purely voluntary, than it is fully controllable and, therefore, eminently private: when I logoff from Facebook and shut my computer, my interaction with the digital society ends.  Privacy also seems to be an ideal that is somehow intricately and importantly involved with exclusivity – an essential component of Harvard, of Facebook, and of this film. 

Of course, the problem with any one-man society is a lot like the problem with any one-man tennis match: someone needs to return the serve. There is a strange alchemy by which this isolationist escape requires interpersonal communication.  People post pictures online not so that they can view them in deteriorated quality, but so that other people can.  In a digital environment, “self-image” is synonymous with “life.”  And if the only way to create a self-image is in relation to the images of others, than individuals are forced into tenuous, social relationships with one another. 

This paradox is analogized in the film through a program created by Zuckerberg that became the catalyst for the creation of Facebook.  The program, Eisenberg explained, was like “Hot or Not,” only it allowed for the objective comparison of two people instead of the arbitrary, subjective number assignments utilized by H/N.  Zuckerberg installed a logarithm that would eventually crown a “hottest girl on campus” by establishing for every girl a dynamic score in relation to the score of each other girl to whom her picture was successively, and either favorably, or unfavorably, compared.  Any pair of girls is inextricably bound together by the external judgment being passed on them in relation to each other.  If you extrapolate this scenario and apply it widely, you create a highly competitive, dog-eat-dog societal structure that values popular image above all other virtues.  Contextually, the cutthroat, guerilla-business tactics employed by Zuckerberg seem perfectly well-mannered. 

Universalizing the maxim by which online social networks operate yields some frightening repercussions.  For one, popularity becomes the basis for judging intrinsic value.  Knowing this, individuals adapt their own image according to what is popular.  In fact, by merely subscribing to the now quintessentially popular Facebook, one has in a way consciously submitted one’s self for social review.  There is a certain swallowing of one’s pride that attends any registration for a Facebook account.  Users then actively construct their self-image, as evidenced the prolificacy of the “de-tag” button.  I have argued elsewhere that, since popularity defines the status quo, users’ gradual homogenizing of image necessarily marginalizes the minority.  Which leads, perhaps, to the most detrimental assumption of humanity and the real world that is made by the social network (the network, not the movie).  Those who are not popular, who are not the status quo, are not useful. 

While listening to WBUR the other day, I heard a fascinating conversation with French geo-physicist Xavier Le Pichon.  I immediately went home and read an essay he wrote entitled Ecce Homo.  Le Pichon was a founding pioneer in the field of plate tectonics.  He is also an ardent spiritualist, activist, and humanist.  His profound essay is very critical of the way modern society understands the utility of its members, especially with respect to the destitute, sick, and dying.  He applies his knowledge of geological systems to help conceptualize social systems.  He writes, “A system, which is too perfect is also too rigid because it does not need to evolve … A perfectly, smoothly running system, without any default is a closed system that can only evolve through a major commotion: the evolution occurs through revolutions.”  He points out that earthquakes only occur in the upper fifteen to twenty kilometers of the Earth’s crust, when elastic deformation reaches a breaking point and two sides of a fault abruptly snap back to equilibrium.  But below that depth, crystalline imperfections react with heat to relax the rigidity of the rock and allow for a smooth, continuous shift. 

According to Le Pichon, it is the seemingly imperfect members of society, the destitute, sick, and dying, which allow for a smooth running society.  He argues, with substantial evidence and persuasive logic, that it is the incorporation of invalids into the societal structure that has literally allowed Homo sapiens their humanity.  He passionately constructs a phenomenal apology of love that contrasts sharply with the high societal valuation of image and utility. 

Perhaps the most eye opening realization offered by Ecce Homo comes through Le Pichon’s interpretation of the Old Testament Songs of the Suffering Servant.  Typically, the Songs are understood as a promise from God to the suffering of the world that they will be redeemed in heaven for the pain they incurred on earth.  Le Pichon makes an interpretation that places an authentic, worldly usefulness on suffering people by suggesting that these individuals allow the rest of society an opportunity for love; an opportunity that teaches people about themselves by forcing them to confront the definitively un-popular realities of suffering and death with which we all must live. 

It is this opportunity for love, for the inclusion of one’s neighbors, for the specific rejection of popularity and the status quo, which is eliminated in digital social forums.  And it is the gradual escape to these increasingly isolated pods of existence that is effectively solidifying the material of society.  Eventually, an earthquake is bound to happen.  

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