“a no-holds-barred musical extravaganza in which any notion of good taste is abandoned at the door.”
Link: runawayRead More
The Night of the Hunter: Holy TerrorRead More
By Terrence Rafferty
The Night of the Hunter (1955)—the first film directed by Charles Laughton and also, sadly, the last—is among the greatest horror movies ever made, and perhaps, of that select company, the most irreducibly American in spirit. It’s about those venerable American subjects fear, sex, money, and religion, and for the beleaguered children who are its heroes, salvation comes at the end of a long, drifting journey down a river: our old native idea of finding the way to someplace better.
These Depression-era West Virginia kids, John Harper (Billy Chapin) and his little sister, Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce), orphaned by the recent death of both their parents, light out on the river in a tiny boat to escape the grasping hands of their stepfather, one Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum). In flight, John and Pearl just go where the gentle current takes them, sleeping when they can and meandering past other small creatures, who seem to be watching over them anxiously from the riverbank: owls, rabbits, frogs, even spiders. Toward the end of the film, the children’s savior, an old woman (Lillian Gish) who gathers in the many orphans the river washes up, looks into the camera and says, “It’s a hard world for little things.” In The Night of the Hunter, all the little things, human and otherwise, know too well and too soon how hard the world is. When John and Pearl are sleeping, in their fragile craft on the river and with the night animals keeping vigil, you feel as if you were inside their heads, dreaming a child’s dreams, part blind terror and part sweet hope.
The river sequence is the centerpiece of The Night of the Hunter, and the clearest indication of Laughton’s extraordinary visual gifts, but the film is stuffed with beauties: a superb ghostly image of the children’s murdered mother (Shelley Winters), her body lifeless under the water of that same indifferent river and her blonde hair trailing upward toward the light; an extreme long shot of the preacher on horseback, silhouetted against the first faint light of dawn as John watches from a hayloft and whispers to himself, “Don’t he never sleep?”; a wonderful scary-comic scene, expressionistically lit, of Powell scrambling up cellar stairs in pursuit of the escaping children.
Laughton, in his midfifties at the time of filming, had been a very famous actor on the stage and screen in his native England for nearly three decades, and a prominent (usually flamboyant) character actor in Hollywood since the thirties. His best-known starring roles were in Alexander Korda’s The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), Leo McCarey’s Ruggles of Red Gap (1935), Frank Lloyd’s Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), and William Dieterle’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939); he had also acted in films directed by Jean Renoir (This Land Is Mine, 1943), Alfred Hitchcock (The Paradine Case, 1947), and David Lean (Hobson’s Choice, 1954), and in the theater had worked with Bertolt Brecht (on a 1947 Los Angeles production of Galileo, for which he was also credited as codirector).
Even for someone as experienced in the theatrical arts as Laughton, though, The Night of the Hunter presented some pretty formidable challenges. The 1953 novel, written by the West Virginian Davis Grubb, tells a strong, uncomplicated story, but in an idiom with which readers and filmgoers were still not entirely familiar: what we now call southern gothic. William Faulkner had been introducing elements of the grotesque into his fiction for a while (see especially the ingenious use of a corncob in his self-described 1931 “potboiler” Sanctuary), and powerful whiffs of the outré had recently been wafting from the humid dramas of Tennessee Williams and the melancholy stories of Carson McCullers. But in 1955, the southern style, redolent of strange sex, bad booze, old-time religion, and the collective regional memory of defeat, was for the general public fairly exotic stuff. (Flannery O’Connor, who was second only to Faulkner in her understanding of the South’s tortured consciousness, brought out her first collection of stories that year.) It’s a style that, at its best, makes horrors lyrical, that gives the darker, damper aspects of the human condition a weird kind of shine.
Grubb’s novel, which is no longer in print, is a good middle-range exemplar of the style, written in the rolling, replete, mock-biblical prose typical of southern gothic, and plotted with a keen sense of the sensational. The story revolves around the preacher’s attempts to get his hands—LOVE tattooed on one, HATE on the other—on a stash of money stolen by the Harper children’s father, who was Powell’s cell mate in the penitentiary. After Harper’s execution, Powell, oozing piety, marries the widow and begins sniffing around for what he considers his just, providential reward; he’s convinced (rightly) that the kids know where the loot is hidden. And after the new Mrs. Powell comes to her untimely and unnatural end, and the children flee, the story becomes a simple chase, the black-clad demon harrowing the innocents, pursuing them with all his unholy ardor.
In approaching this unusual material, Laughton made several remarkably canny decisions right at the start, beginning with his choice of screenwriter: James Agee, the Tennessee-bred journalist, fiction writer, and film critic who had a few years before supplied John Huston with the elegant script for The African Queen (1951). Agee was steeped not only in the right kind of southern sensibility but also in the work of the silent-film pioneer D. W. Griffith, which Laughton, with near miraculous intuition, believed should be the touchstone for the telling of the story; Griffith was the master of heightened, poetic melodrama, and that’s what Laughton wanted for The Night of the Hunter. He screened as many of Griffith’s movies as he could dig up at the Museum of Modern Art, and hired the terrific cinematographer Stanley Cortez, who had done brilliantly imaginative work in black and white on Orson Welles’s second film, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). The black-and-white imagery of The Night of the Hunter is in a different, more deliberately archaic style from that of the Welles film, keyed to the basic emotions of love and fear, just as the great silent movies were.
It’s as if Laughton had resolved to recover something the movies had lost, some secret, long-forgotten cache of letters from ancestors—the scripture of the art’s early magic. Perhaps as an aid to invoking the mighty spirits of the elders of cinema, he cast the sixty-one-year-old Gish, the most piercing of Griffith’s actors, in the role of the Harper children’s ultimate protector, Miz Rachel Cooper. The sequences she appears in, near the end of the picture, have a tone that borders on reverence. Laughton frames her with the unfussy eloquence Griffith favored, often shooting her still-lovely face straight on as she tells the children stories or addresses the audience directly; when she speaks, he confers on her the air of authority Griffith gave her in the old days, in movies like Broken Blossoms (1919) and Way Down East (1920), in that time when movies didn’t need to speak at all.
The other female star of The Night of the Hunter, Shelley Winters, is cast ideally to type, as a gullible sexual optimist doomed to perish early; she’d already played a variation on that theme in George Stevens’s A Place in the Sun (1951), and would do so again in Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita in 1962. (There’s something about her—an unseemly eagerness—that appears to bring out the worst in men.) But Mitchum as the alarming preacher is a really daring bit of counterintuitive casting. For the previous ten years or so, he had been perhaps the coolest and toughest of film noir heroes. With his loose, lazy walk, his somnolent eyes, and his deep, buttery drawl, he always gave the impression of a man who could not be fazed, even in the direst circumstances. Harry Powell is not that sort of character. It isn’t just that Mitchum is playing a villain, or even that he’s using his indolent manner to convey a profoundly sinister kind of unctuousness. What’s truly startling about his performance is how buffoonish he allows himself to be, in between bouts of menace. His Harry Powell is a man whose composure masks the most unruly impulses—imperfectly capped wells of lust and greed and violence that tend to leak in moments of crisis, and not in attractive ways. When Miz Cooper threatens him with a shotgun, he hops away, whooping like a big skittish animal. Small things have to run; the larger beasts are expected to stand their ground. Maybe the most radical aspect of The Night of the Hunter, and its least appreciated virtue, is its sense of humor. More conventional horror movies overdo the solemnity of evil. The monster in The Night of the Hunter is so bad he’s funny. Laughton and Mitchum treat evil with the indignity it deserves.
And that, perhaps, is the reason this one-of-a-kind movie didn’t catch on with audiences on its initial release. It was an abject flop at the box office, and Laughton never directed another film. He died seven years later. The failure of The Night of the Hunter was not, forty-five years ago, much remarked upon: it was a modestly budgeted picture, a little thing in Hollywood terms. But it has drifted slowly, steadily down the river of the years between then and now, and the long flow of time has brought it to a better place, where critics and filmmakers and moviegoers honor it and even feel protective toward it. The world seems harder than ever, and we all feel, individually, smaller and more vulnerable. Laughing at evil may be an idea whose time has come.
Terrence Rafferty is the author of The Thing Happens: Ten Years of Writing About the Movies and a frequent contributor to the New York Times. He teaches a course called The Fear of God: American Horror from Jonathan Edwards to “Cloverfield” at Princeton University.
The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, written by Scottish anthropologist Sir James George Frazer, was first published in two volumes in 1890; the third edition, published 1906–15, comprised twelve volumes.
Frazer’s book attempts to define the shared elements of religious belief. Its thesis is that old religions were fertility cults that revolved around the worship of, and periodic sacrifice of, a sacred king.
This king was the incarnation of a dying and reviving god, a solar deity who underwent a mystic marriage to a goddess of the Earth, who died at the harvest, and was reincarnated in the spring. Frazer claims that this legend is central to almost all of the world’s mythologies.Read More
Absolutely fascinating conversation between Tom McCarthy and Michael Silverblatt from the October 21st episode of KCRW’s Bookworm, on topics ranging from transmissions, authenticity, reenactments of idealized memories, inherited literary tradition vs. plagiarism, vessels, early 20th century modernism’s strange attraction to fascism, the slothropian nature of Tin Tin, and elitism in culture.
Generation Why?Read More
by Zadie Smith
[from the NYRB - NOVEMBER 25, 2010]
The Social Network
a film directed by David Fincher, with a screenplay by Aaron Sorkin
You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto
by Jaron Lanier
Knopf, 209 pp., $24.95
How long is a generation these days? I must be in Mark Zuckerberg’s generation—there are only nine years between us—but somehow it doesn’t feel that way. This despite the fact that I can say (like everyone else on Harvard’s campus in the fall of 2003) that “I was there” at Facebook’s inception, and remember Facemash and the fuss it caused; also that tiny, exquisite movie star trailed by fan-boys through the snow wherever she went, and the awful snow itself, turning your toes gray, destroying your spirit, bringing a bloodless end to a squirrel on my block: frozen, inanimate, perfect—like the Blaschka glass flowers. Doubtless years from now I will misremember my closeness to Zuckerberg, in the same spirit that everyone in ’60s Liverpool met John Lennon.
At the time, though, I felt distant from Zuckerberg and all the kids at Harvard. I still feel distant from them now, ever more so, as I increasingly opt out (by choice, by default) of the things they have embraced. We have different ideas about things. Specifically we have different ideas about what a person is, or should be. I often worry that my idea of personhood is nostalgic, irrational, inaccurate. Perhaps Generation Facebook have built their virtual mansions in good faith, in order to house the People 2.0 they genuinely are, and if I feel uncomfortable within them it is because I am stuck at Person 1.0. Then again, the more time I spend with the tail end of Generation Facebook (in the shape of my students) the more convinced I become that some of the software currently shaping their generation is unworthy of them. They are more interesting than it is. They deserve better.
In The Social Network Generation Facebook gets a movie almost worthy of them, and this fact, being so unexpected, makes the film feel more delightful than it probably, objectively, is. From the opening scene it’s clear that this is a movie about 2.0 people made by 1.0 people (Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher, forty-nine and forty-eight respectively). It’s a talkie, for goodness’ sake, with as many words per minute as His Girl Friday. A boy, Mark, and his girl, Erica, sit at a little table in a Harvard bar, zinging each other, in that relentless Sorkin style made famous by The West Wing (though at no point does either party say “Walk with me”—for this we should be grateful).
But something is not right with this young man: his eye contact is patchy; he doesn’t seem to understand common turns of phrase or ambiguities of language; he is literal to the point of offense, pedantic to the point of aggression. (“Final clubs,” says Mark, correcting Erica, as they discuss those exclusive Harvard entities, “Not Finals clubs.”) He doesn’t understand what’s happening as she tries to break up with him. (“Wait, wait, this is real?”) Nor does he understand why. He doesn’t get that what he may consider a statement of fact might yet have, for this other person, some personal, painful import:
ERICA: I have to go study.
MARK: You don’t have to study.
ERICA: How do you know I don’t have to study?!
MARK: Because you go to B.U.!
Simply put, he is a computer nerd, a social “autistic”: a type as recognizable to Fincher’s audience as the cynical newshound was to Howard Hawks’s. To create this Zuckerberg, Sorkin barely need brush his pen against the page. We came to the cinema expecting to meet this guy and it’s a pleasure to watch Sorkin color in what we had already confidently sketched in our minds. For sometimes the culture surmises an individual personality, collectively. Or thinks it does. Don’t we all know why nerds do what they do? To get money, which leads to popularity, which leads to girls. Sorkin, confident of his foundation myth, spins an exhilarating tale of double rejection—spurned by Erica and the Porcellian, the Finaliest of the Final Clubs, Zuckerberg begins his spite-fueled rise to the top. Cue a lot of betrayal. A lot of scenes of lawyers’ offices and miserable, character-damning depositions. (“Your best friend is suing you!”) Sorkin has swapped the military types of A Few Good Men for a different kind of all-male community in a different uniform: GAP hoodies, North Face sweats.
At my screening, blocks from NYU, the audience thrilled with intimate identification. But if the hipsters and nerds are hoping for Fincher’s usual pyrotechnics they will be disappointed: in a lawyer’s office there’s not a lot for Fincher to do. He has to content himself with excellent and rapid cutting between Harvard and the later court cases, and after that, the discreet pleasures of another, less-remarked-upon Fincher skill: great casting. It’ll be a long time before a cinema geek comes along to push Jesse Eisenberg, the actor who plays Zuckerberg, off the top of our nerd typologies. The passive-aggressive, flat-line voice. The shifty boredom when anyone, other than himself, is speaking. The barely suppressed smirk. Eisenberg even chooses the correct nerd walk: not the sideways corridor shuffle (the Don’t Hit Me!), but the puffed chest vertical march (the I’m not 5’8”, I’m 5’9”!).
With rucksack, naturally. An extended four-minute shot has him doing exactly this all the way through the Harvard campus, before he lands finally where he belongs, the only place he’s truly comfortable, in front of his laptop, with his blog:
Erica Albright’s a bitch. You think that’s because her family changed their name from Albrecht or do you think it’s because all B.U. girls are bitches?
Oh, yeah. We know this guy. Overprogrammed, furious, lonely. Around him Fincher arranges a convincing bunch of 1.0 humans, by turns betrayed and humiliated by him, and as the movie progresses they line up to sue him. If it’s a three-act movie it’s because Zuckerberg screws over more people than a two-act movie can comfortably hold: the Winklevoss twins and Divya Navendra (from whom Zuckerberg allegedly stole the Facebook concept), and then his best friend, Eduardo Saverin (the CFO he edged out of the company), and finally Sean Parker, the boy king of Napster, the music-sharing program, although he, to be fair, pretty much screws himself. It’s in Eduardo—in the actor Andrew Garfield’s animate, beautiful face—that all these betrayals seem to converge, and become personal, painful. The arbitration scenes—that should be dull, being so terribly static—get their power from the eerie opposition between Eisenberg’s unmoving countenance (his eyebrows hardly ever move; the real Zuckerberg’s eyebrows never move) and Garfield’s imploring disbelief, almost the way Spencer Tracy got all worked up opposite Frederic March’s rigidity in another courtroom epic, Inherit the Wind.
Still, Fincher allows himself one sequence of (literal) showboating. Halfway through the film, he inserts a ravishing but quite unnecessary scene of the pretty Winklevoss twins (for a story of nerds, all the men are surprisingly comely) at the Henley Regatta. These two blond titans row like champs. (One actor, Armie Hammer, has been digitally doubled. I’m so utterly 1.0 that I spent an hour of the movie trying to detect any difference between the twins.) Their arms move suspiciously fast, faster than real human arms, their muscles seem outlined by a fine pen, the water splashes up in individual droplets as if painted by Caravaggio, and the music! Trent Reznor, of Nine Inch Nails, commits exquisite brutality upon Edward Grieg’s already pretty brutal “In the Hall of the Mountain King.” All synths and white noise. It’s music video stuff—the art form in which my not-quite generation truly excels—and it demonstrates the knack for hyperreality that made Fincher’s Fight Club so compelling while rendering the real world, for so many of his fans, always something of a disappointment. Anyway, the twins lose the regatta, too, by a nose, which allows Fincher to justify the scene by thematic reiteration: sometimes very close is simply not close enough. Or as Mark pleasantly puts it across a conference table: “If you guys were the inventors of Facebook you’d have invented Facebook.”
All that’s left for Zuckerberg is to meet the devil at the crossroads: naturally he’s an Internet music entrepreneur. It’s a Generation Facebook instinct to expect (hope?) that a pop star will fall on his face in the cinema, but Justin Timberlake, as Sean Parker, neatly steps over that expectation: whether or not you think he’s a shmuck, he sure plays a great shmuck. Manicured eyebrows, sweaty forehead, and that coked-up, wafer-thin self- confidence, always threatening to collapse into paranoia. Timberlake shimmies into view in the third act to offer the audience, and Zuckerberg, the very same thing, essentially, that he’s been offering us for the past decade in his videos: a vision of the good life.
This vision is also wafer-thin, and Fincher satirizes it mercilessly. Again, we know its basic outline: a velvet rope, a cocktail waitress who treats you like a king, the best of everything on tap, a special booth of your own, fussy tiny expensive food (“Could you bring out some things? The lacquered pork with that ginger confit? I don’t know, tuna tartar, some lobster claws, the foie gras and the shrimp dumplings, that’ll get us started”), appletinis, a Victoria’s Secret model date, wild house parties, fancy cars, slick suits, cocaine, and a “sky’s the limit” objective: “A million dollars isn’t cool. You know what’s cool?… A billion dollars.” Over cocktails in a glamorous nightclub, Parker dazzles Zuckerberg with tales of the life that awaits him on the other side of a billion. Fincher keeps the thumping Euro house music turned up to exactly the level it would be in real life: the actors have to practically scream to be heard above it. Like many a nerd before him, Zuckerberg is too hyped on the idea that he’s in heaven to notice he’s in hell.
Generation Facebook’s obsession with this type of “celebrity lifestyle” is more than familiar. It’s pitiful, it pains us, and we recognize it. But would Zuckerberg recognize it, the real Zuckerberg? Are these really his motivations, his obsessions? No—and the movie knows it. Several times the script tries to square the real Zuckerberg’s apparent indifference to money with the plot arc of The Social Network—and never quite succeeds. In a scene in which Mark argues with a lawyer, Sorkin attempts a sleight of hand, swapping an interest in money for an interest in power:
Ma’am, I know you’ve done your homework and so you know that money isn’t a big part of my life, but at the moment I could buy Harvard University, take the Phoenix Club and turn it into my ping pong room.
But that doesn’t explain why the teenage Zuckerberg gave away his free app for an MP3 player (similar to the very popular Pandora, as it recognized your taste in music), rather than selling it to Microsoft. What power was he hoping to accrue to himself in high school, at seventeen? Girls, was it? Except the girl motivation is patently phony—with a brief interruption Zuckerberg has been dating the same Chinese-American, now a medical student, since 2003, a fact the movie omits entirely. At the end of the film, when all the suing has come to an end (“Pay them. In the scheme of things it’s a parking ticket”), we’re offered a Zuckerberg slumped before his laptop, still obsessed with the long-lost Erica, sending a “Friend request” to her on Facebook, and then refreshing the page, over and over, in expectation of her reply…. Fincher’s contemporary window-dressing is so convincing that it wasn’t until this very last scene that I realized the obvious progenitor of this wildly enjoyable, wildly inaccurate biopic. Hollywood still believes that behind every mogul there’s an idée fixe: Rosebud—meet Erica.
If it’s not for money and it’s not for girls—what is it for? With Zuckerberg we have a real American mystery. Maybe it’s not mysterious and he’s just playing the long game, holding out: not a billion dollars but a hundred billion dollars. Or is it possible he just loves programming? No doubt the filmmakers considered this option, but you can see their dilemma: how to convey the pleasure of programming—if such a pleasure exists—in a way that is both cinematic and comprehensible? Movies are notoriously bad at showing the pleasures and rigors of art-making, even when the medium is familiar.
Programming is a whole new kind of problem. Fincher makes a brave stab at showing the intensity of programming in action (“He’s wired in,” people say to other people to stop them disturbing a third person who sits before a laptop wearing noise-reducing earphones) and there’s a “vodka-shots-and-programming” party in Zuckerberg’s dorm room that gives us some clue of the pleasures. But even if we spent half the film looking at those busy screens (and we do get glimpses), most of us would be none the wiser. Watching this movie, even though you know Sorkin wants your disapproval, you can’t help feel a little swell of pride in this 2.0 generation. They’ve spent a decade being berated for not making the right sorts of paintings or novels or music or politics. Turns out the brightest 2.0 kids have been doing something else extraordinary. They’ve been making a world.
World makers, social network makers, ask one question first: How can I do it? Zuckerberg solved that one in about three weeks. The other question, the ethical question, he came to later: Why? Why Facebook? Why this format? Why do it like that? Why not do it another way? The striking thing about the real Zuckerberg, in video and in print, is the relative banality of his ideas concerning the “Why” of Facebook. He uses the word “connect” as believers use the word “Jesus,” as if it were sacred in and of itself: “So the idea is really that, um, the site helps everyone connect with people and share information with the people they want to stay connected with….” Connection is the goal. The quality of that connection, the quality of the information that passes through it, the quality of the relationship that connection permits—none of this is important. That a lot of social networking software explicitly encourages people to make weak, superficial connections with each other (as Malcolm Gladwell has recently argued), and that this might not be an entirely positive thing, seem to never have occurred to him.
He is, to say the least, dispassionate about the philosophical questions concerning privacy—and sociality itself—raised by his ingenious program. Watching him interviewed I found myself waiting for the verbal wit, the controlled and articulate sarcasm of that famous Zuckerberg kid—then remembered that was only Sorkin. The real Zuckerberg is much more like his website, on each page of which, once upon a time (2004), he emblazoned the legend: A Mark Zuckerberg Production. Controlled but dull, bright and clean but uniformly plain, nonideological, affectless.
In Zuckerberg’s New Yorker profile it is revealed that his own Facebook page lists, among his interests, Minimalism, revolutions, and “eliminating desire.” We also learn of his affection for the culture and writings of ancient Greece. Perhaps this is the disjunct between real Zuckerberg and fake Zuckerberg: the movie places him in the Roman world of betrayal and excess, but the real Zuckerberg may belong in the Greek, perhaps with the Stoics (“eliminating desire”?). There’s a clue in the two Zuckerbergs’ relative physiognomies: real Zuckerberg (especially in profile) is Greek sculpture, noble, featureless, a little like the Doryphorus (only facially, mind—his torso is definitely not seven times his head). Fake Mark looks Roman, with all the precise facial detail filled in. Zuckerberg, with his steady relationship and his rented house and his refusal to get angry on television even when people are being very rude to him (he sweats instead), has something of the teenage Stoic about him. And of course if you’ve eliminated desire you’ve got nothing to hide, right?
It’s that kind of kid we’re dealing with, the kind who would never screw a groupie in a bar toilet—as happens in the movie—or leave his doctor girlfriend for a Victoria’s Secret model. It’s this type of kid who would think that giving people less privacy was a good idea. What’s striking about Zuckerberg’s vision of an open Internet is the very blandness it requires to function, as Facebook members discovered when the site changed their privacy settings, allowing more things to become more public, with the (unintended?) consequence that your Aunt Dora could suddenly find out you joined the group Queer Nation last Tuesday. Gay kids became un-gay, partiers took down their party photos, political firebrands put out their fires. In real life we can be all these people on our own terms, in our own way, with whom we choose. For a revealing moment Facebook forgot that. Or else got bored of waiting for us to change in the ways it’s betting we will. On the question of privacy, Zuckerberg informed the world: “That social norm is just something that has evolved over time.” On this occasion, the world protested, loudly, and so Facebook has responded with “Groups,” a site revamp that will allow people to divide their friends into “cliques,” some who see more of our profile and some who see less.
How “Groups” will work alongside “Facebook Connect” remains to be seen. Facebook Connect is the “next iteration of Facebook Platform,” in which users are “allowed” to “‘connect’ their Facebook identity, friends and privacy to any site.” In this new, open Internet, we will take our real identities with us as we travel through the Internet. This concept seems to have some immediate Stoical advantages: no more faceless bile, no more inflammatory trolling: if your name and social network track you around the virtual world beyond Facebook, you’ll have to restrain yourself and so will everyone else. On the other hand, you’ll also take your likes and dislikes with you, your tastes, your preferences, all connected to your name, through which people will try to sell you things.
Maybe it will be like an intensified version of the Internet I already live in, where ads for dental services stalk me from pillar to post and I am continually urged to buy my own books. Or maybe the whole Internet will simply become like Facebook: falsely jolly, fake-friendly, self-promoting, slickly disingenuous. For all these reasons I quit Facebook about two months after I’d joined it. As with all seriously addictive things, giving up proved to be immeasurably harder than starting. I kept changing my mind: Facebook remains the greatest distraction from work I’ve ever had, and I loved it for that. I think a lot of people love it for that. Some work-avoidance techniques are onerous in themselves and don’t make time move especially quickly: smoking, eating, calling people up on the phone. With Facebook hours, afternoons, entire days went by without my noticing.
When I finally decided to put a stop to it, once and for all, I was left with the question bothering everybody: Are you ever truly removed, once and for all? In an interview on The Today Show, Matt Lauer asked Zuckerberg the same question, but because Matt Lauer doesn’t listen to people when they talk, he accepted the following answer and moved on to the next question: “Yeah, so what’ll happen is that none of that information will be shared with anyone going forward.”
You want to be optimistic about your own generation. You want to keep pace with them and not to fear what you don’t understand. To put it another way, if you feel discomfort at the world they’re making, you want to have a good reason for it. Master programmer and virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier (b. 1960) is not of my generation, but he knows and understands us well, and has written a short and frightening book, You Are Not a Gadget, which chimes with my own discomfort, while coming from a position of real knowledge and insight, both practical and philosophical. Lanier is interested in the ways in which people “reduce themselves” in order to make a computer’s description of them appear more accurate. “Information systems,” he writes, “need to have information in order to run, but information underrepresents reality” (my italics). In Lanier’s view, there is no perfect computer analogue for what we call a “person.” In life, we all profess to know this, but when we get online it becomes easy to forget. In Facebook, as it is with other online social networks, life is turned into a database, and this is a degradation, Lanier argues, which is
based on [a] philosophical mistake…the belief that computers can presently represent human thought or human relationships. These are things computers cannot currently do.
We know the consequences of this instinctively; we feel them. We know that having two thousand Facebook friends is not what it looks like. We know that we are using the software to behave in a certain, superficial way toward others. We know what we are doing “in” the software. But do we know, are we alert to, what the software is doing to us? Is it possible that what is communicated between people online “eventually becomes their truth”? What Lanier, a software expert, reveals to me, a software idiot, is what must be obvious (to software experts): software is not neutral. Different software embeds different philosophies, and these philosophies, as they become ubiquitous, become invisible.
Lanier asks us to consider, for example, the humble file, or rather, to consider a world without “files.” (The first iteration of the Macintosh, which never shipped, didn’t have files.) I confess this thought experiment stumped me about as much as if I’d been asked to consider persisting in a world without “time.” And then consider further that these designs, so often taken up in a slap-dash, last-minute fashion, become “locked in,” and, because they are software, used by millions, too often become impossible to adapt, or change. MIDI, an inflexible, early-1980s digital music protocol for connecting different musical components, such as a keyboard and a computer, takes no account of, say, the fluid line of a soprano’s coloratura; it is still the basis of most of the tinny music we hear every day—in our phones, in the charts, in elevators—simply because it became, in software terms, too big to fail, too big to change.
Lanier wants us to be attentive to the software into which we are “locked in.” Is it really fulfilling our needs? Or are we reducing the needs we feel in order to convince ourselves that the software isn’t limited? As Lanier argues:
Different media designs stimulate different potentials in human nature. We shouldn’t seek to make the pack mentality as efficient as possible. We should instead seek to inspire the phenomenon of individual intelligence.
But the pack mentality is precisely what Open Graph, a Facebook innovation of 2008, is designed to encourage. Open Graph allows you to see everything your friends are reading, watching, eating, so that you might read and watch and eat as they do. In his New Yorker profile, Zuckerberg made his personal “philosophy” clear:
Most of the information that we care about is things that are in our heads, right? And that’s not out there to be indexed, right?… It’s like hardwired into us in a deeper way: you really want to know what’s going on with the people around you.
Is that really the best we can do online? In the film, Sean Parker, during one of his coke-fueled “Sean-athon monologues,” delivers what is intended as a generation-defining line: “We lived on farms, then we lived in cities and now we’re gonna live on the internet.” To this idea Lanier, one of the Internet’s original visionaries, can have no profound objection. But his skeptical interrogation of the “Nerd reductionism” of Web 2.0 prompts us to ask a question: What kind of life? Surely not this one, where 500 million connected people all decide to watch the reality-TV show Bride Wars because their friends are? “You have to be somebody,” Lanier writes, “before you can share yourself.” But to Zuckerberg sharing your choices with everybody (and doing what they do) is being somebody.
Personally I don’t think Final Clubs were ever the point; I don’t think exclusivity was ever the point; nor even money. E Pluribus Unum—that’s the point. Here’s my guess: he wants to be like everybody else. He wants to be liked. Those 1.0 people who couldn’t understand Zuckerberg’s apparently ham-fisted PR move of giving the school system of Newark $100 million on the very day the movie came out—they just don’t get it. For our self-conscious generation (and in this, I and Zuckerberg, and everyone raised on TV in the Eighties and Nineties, share a single soul), not being liked is as bad as it gets. Intolerable to be thought of badly for a minute, even for a moment. He didn’t need to just get out “in front” of the story. He had to get right on top of it and try to stop it breathing. Two weeks later, he went to a screening. Why? Because everybody liked the movie.
When a human being becomes a set of data on a website like Facebook, he or she is reduced. Everything shrinks. Individual character. Friendships. Language. Sensibility. In a way it’s a transcendent experience: we lose our bodies, our messy feelings, our desires, our fears. It reminds me that those of us who turn in disgust from what we consider an overinflated liberal-bourgeois sense of self should be careful what we wish for: our denuded networked selves don’t look more free, they just look more owned.
With Facebook, Zuckerberg seems to be trying to create something like a Noosphere, an Internet with one mind, a uniform environment in which it genuinely doesn’t matter who you are, as long as you make “choices” (which means, finally, purchases). If the aim is to be liked by more and more people, whatever is unusual about a person gets flattened out. One nation under a format. To ourselves, we are special people, documented in wonderful photos, and it also happens that we sometimes buy things. This latter fact is an incidental matter, to us. However, the advertising money that will rain down on Facebook—if and when Zuckerberg succeeds in encouraging 500 million people to take their Facebook identities onto the Internet at large—this money thinks of us the other way around. To the advertisers, we are our capacity to buy, attached to a few personal, irrelevant photos.
Is it possible that we have begun to think of ourselves that way? It seemed significant to me that on the way to the movie theater, while doing a small mental calculation (how old I was when at Harvard; how old I am now), I had a Person 1.0 panic attack. Soon I will be forty, then fifty, then soon after dead; I broke out in a Zuckerberg sweat, my heart went crazy, I had to stop and lean against a trashcan. Can you have that feeling, on Facebook? I’ve noticed—and been ashamed of noticing—that when a teenager is murdered, at least in Britain, her Facebook wall will often fill with messages that seem to not quite comprehend the gravity of what has occurred. You know the type of thing: Sorry babes! Missin’ you!!! Hopin’ u iz with the Angles. I remember the jokes we used to have LOL! PEACE XXXXX
When I read something like that, I have a little argument with myself: “It’s only poor education. They feel the same way as anyone would, they just don’t have the language to express it.” But another part of me has a darker, more frightening thought. Do they genuinely believe, because the girl’s wall is still up, that she is still, in some sense, alive? What’s the difference, after all, if all your contact was virtual?
Software may reduce humans, but there are degrees. Fiction reduces humans, too, but bad fiction does it more than good fiction, and we have the option to read good fiction. Jaron Lanier’s point is that Web 2.0 “lock-in” happens soon; is happening; has to some degree already happened. And what has been “locked in”? It feels important to remind ourselves, at this point, that Facebook, our new beloved interface with reality, was designed by a Harvard sophomore with a Harvard sophomore’s preoccupations. What is your relationship status? (Choose one. There can be only one answer. People need to know.) Do you have a “life”? (Prove it. Post pictures.) Do you like the right sort of things? (Make a list. Things to like will include: movies, music, books and television, but not architecture, ideas, or plants.)
But here I fear I am becoming nostalgic. I am dreaming of a Web that caters to a kind of person who no longer exists. A private person, a person who is a mystery, to the world and—which is more important—to herself. Person as mystery: this idea of personhood is certainly changing, perhaps has already changed. Because I find I agree with Zuckerberg: selves evolve.
Of course, Zuckerberg insists selves simply do this by themselves and the technology he and others have created has no influence upon the process. That is for techies and philosophers to debate (ideally techie-philosophers, like Jaron Lanier). Whichever direction the change is coming from, though, it’s absolutely clear to me that the students I teach now are not like the student I once was or even the students I taught seven short years ago at Harvard. Right now I am teaching my students a book called The Bathroom by the Belgian experimentalist Jean-Philippe Toussaint—at least I used to think he was an experimentalist. It’s a book about a man who decides to pass most of his time in his bathroom, yet to my students this novel feels perfectly realistic; an accurate portrait of their own denuded selfhood, or, to put it neutrally, a close analogue of the undeniable boredom of urban twenty-first-century existence.
In the most famous scene, the unnamed protagonist, in one of the few moments of “action,” throws a dart into his girlfriend’s forehead. Later, in the hospital they reunite with a kiss and no explanation. “It’s just between them,” said one student, and looked happy. To a reader of my generation, Toussaint’s characters seemed, at first glance, to have no interiority—in fact theirs is not an absence but a refusal, and an ethical one. What’s inside of me is none of your business. To my students, The Bathroom is a true romance.
Toussaint was writing in 1985, in France. In France philosophy seems to come before technology; here in the Anglo-American world we race ahead with technology and hope the ideas will look after themselves. Finally, it’s the idea of Facebook that disappoints. If it were a genuinely interesting interface, built for these genuinely different 2.0 kids to live in, well, that would be something. It’s not that. It’s the wild west of the Internet tamed to fit the suburban fantasies of a suburban soul. Lanier:
These designs came together very recently, and there’s a haphazard, accidental quality to them. Resist the easy grooves they guide you into. If you love a medium made of software, there’s a danger that you will become entrapped in someone else’s recent careless thoughts. Struggle against that!
Shouldn’t we struggle against Facebook? Everything in it is reduced to the size of its founder. Blue, because it turns out Zuckerberg is red-green color-blind. “Blue is the richest color for me—I can see all of blue.” Poking, because that’s what shy boys do to girls they are scared to talk to. Preoccupied with personal trivia, because Mark Zuckerberg thinks the exchange of personal trivia is what “friendship” is. A Mark Zuckerberg Production indeed! We were going to live online. It was going to be extraordinary. Yet what kind of living is this? Step back from your Facebook Wall for a moment: Doesn’t it, suddenly, look a little ridiculous? Your life in this format?
The last defense of every Facebook addict is: but it helps me keep in contact with people who are far away! Well, e-mail and Skype do that, too, and they have the added advantage of not forcing you to interface with the mind of Mark Zuckerberg—but, well, you know. We all know. If we really wanted to write to these faraway people, or see them, we would. What we actually want to do is the bare minimum, just like any nineteen-year-old college boy who’d rather be doing something else, or nothing.
At my screening, when a character in the film mentioned the early blog platform LiveJournal (still popular in Russia), the audience laughed. I can’t imagine life without files but I can just about imagine a time when Facebook will seem as comically obsolete as LiveJournal. In this sense, The Social Network is not a cruel portrait of any particular real-world person called “Mark Zuckerberg.” It’s a cruel portrait of us: 500 million sentient people entrapped in the recent careless thoughts of a Harvard sophomore.