Monday, October 4, 2010

The Social Network and the Escape From Solidarity

Despair is at the center of The Social Network; despair about the inability to connect, about the feeling that you don't matter, about being so inarticulate that you can't seem to get your message across, or that the message you think you are sending is not consistent with the message that people receive. All this is cast against the popular operating assumption that Facebook, the communications platform that Mark Zukerberg created, allows us to "connect" with millions of people we don't even know.

A media conceit about Zukerberg is that he epitomizes the social stance of the rebel - a visionary out to destroy paradigms, a rule breaker of the historically necessary sort. According to Ben Mezrich, the author of the book from which the film draws its somewhat fictionalized account, Zukerberg is the "ultimate rebel revolutionary just fighting the good fight." David Denby, the New Yorker magazine film reviewer describes the film's director David Fincher as someone who has always been "obsessed with outsiders and rebels."

Although I have not read Mezrich's book The Accidental Billionaires, after watching the film it was not clear to me what exactly Zukerberg was rebelling against. There was certainly a Harvard power structure (At the time of Zukerberg's attendance the President of Harvard was Lawrence Summers) that attempted to keep the students from doing stupid things to themselves or others, but the film doesn't portray it as any more "oppressive" than any well-heeled parent would want. And while Zukerberg obsesses about getting into one of the exclusive Harvard social clubs, the stakes don't seem particularly high.

I was left with the sense that those who describe Zukerberg as a rebel use the term in a rather limited way, as someone who has a stubborn and rebellious entrepreneurial drive and a contentious personal style. If the film can be believed, he once attended a business meeting in his pajamas. But if you are worth hundreds of millions of dollars, it's not a particularly brave stunt. It usually takes more than adolescent acting out to make the ruling class nervous.

There are other writers of course, who have offered a more profound definition of the rebel spirit. One of the most ambitious attempts was made by Albert Camus. His book, The Rebel, was published in 1951. For Camus, rebellion was a way of constituting your being - I rebel therefore I am. He distinguished between negative rebellions that derive from resentment (He draws extensively from German philosopher Max Scheler's book Resentment) and a positive rebellion that "breaks the seal" of prolonged impotence and "allows the whole being to come into play." Camus was making a case for exploited workers and those who lived under various forms of slavery and social oppression. For Camus, the true rebel refuses to be humiliated while avoiding the conclusion that others should be.

Camus' rebels don't revolt by themselves. A key component of positive rebellion is solidarity, which justifies the faith and passion of revolt. The pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty describes solidarity as a capability for "imaginative identification" with the details of other people's lives, and suggests that we work to expand the range of "us" by keeping a lookout for the marginalized, those who are too often imagined as "they."

It is not easy to do this as we are often more comfortable in our "little platoons," like the clubs that Zukerburg was bitter about not being invited into, or with anemic abstractions like "humanity."

Unlike Zukerberg, Camus was a sensualist, an intellectual who felt more comfortable on a soccer field than with what he called the "professional humanists" who sat in Paris cafes. He knew the joy of "living among bodies and through one's body..." on the beaches of Algiers and in the combat of athletics. When he was young he was a goal keeper on his local soccer team, a place where he said he learned everything he needed to know about loyalty and fraternity. Camus lived with a constant feeling of exile and displacement, and it is here and only here where there could be a connection with Zukerberg.

Zukerberg is not a "geek" as so many have described him, but someone who lacks character and feeling and what Camus called "a strange kind of love," that connects you to those who live in a state of social humiliation. Facebook is a mirror not a window into the lives of others. Despite the hundreds or even thousands of "Friends," the image we see when we look at it is mostly the purged mini-narratives of ourselves.

When I was re-reading The Rebel for this review, an image kept coming to my mind. I tried to imagine Camus sitting in front of a computer waiting for a response from Sartre to his Friend request. Every time I thought of the image I laughed.

For all the billions that Zukerberg has made, I just can't take him or his invention seriously.

Further reading:

Albert Camus - The Rebel
Tony Judt - The Burden of Responsibility, Blum, Camus, Aron and the French 20th Century
Richard Rorty - Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity


  1. But do you take the movie seriously? I haven't seen it yet but am impressed by the reviewers' enthusiasm...

  2. Mark Zukerberg created, allows us to "connect" with millions of people we don't even know. Joseph Hayon