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Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Social Network, Or How to Make the Most of Your College Experience

I believe it was Allan Bloom, in an essay on Plato’s Republic, who observed that one of the reasons why Plato has his Socrates construct an ideal “city in speech” along with his young interlocutors in the Republic, Glaucon and Adeimantus, is to give these two young men something worthy at which to aim their desires for glory. For without a truly just and noble ideal to summon their ambitions for greatness, Glaucon and Adeimantus would be prone to seek glory in the more conventional ways of young Athenian men from good families—through prowess on the battlefield and success in politics, venues where justice and nobility were often compromised.

Bloom’s observation came to mind when I finally got the chance to see the remarkable film, The Social Network (directed by David Fincher, screenplay by Aaron Sorkin). Consider the very first scene in the film, an argument between Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook (played by Jesse Eisenberg), and his girlfriend Erica (played by Rooney Mara). It’s a compelling opening scene, written by Sorkin in the staccato rhythms familiar from his work on The West Wing. Sorkin shows Zuckerberg’s kinetic mind bouncing between several topics, like a chess grand master playing three matches at once. The first line of the film, spoken by Zuckerberg during the fade in, begins to reveal the central theme of the story:

Do you know there are more people with genius IQ’s living in China than there are people of any kind living in the United States?

What’s on Zuckerberg’s mind? Glory. Being a genius. His obsession is made explicit when he articulates to Erica his life’s dilemma:

How do you distinguish yourself in a population of people who all got 1600 on their SAT’s?

The population Zuckerberg refers to is, of course, the institution at which he is an undergraduate: Harvard. Zuckerberg himself got a 1600 on the SAT, but at Harvard this is no more distinctive than a genius IQ in China. What to do? At first, Zuckerberg attempts to resolve his dilemma by getting into one of Harvard’s exclusive Final Clubs. But when that path to glory shows itself to be unavailable to him, he turns his rather ruthless energies to the creation of Facebook.

At one level, in The Social Network Fincher and Sorkin offer a fairly straightforward morality tale of megalomaniacal ambition leading to betrayal and isolation. As the logline on the poster has it, “You Don’t Get To 500 Million Friends Without Making A Few Enemies.” The film closes with a look at Zuckerberg sitting alone at a table in the law office where he is being deposed for one of the two lawsuits being brought against him by former friends. But Zuckerberg shows little concern for his legal troubles. He’s preoccupied with “friending” Erica, whose attention and approval he still desperately wants. As the film fades out, we see him staring blankly at his laptop screen and every few seconds refreshing her Facebook page as he awaits the reply to his request—a picture of isolation and self-absorption.

But what makes the movie feel so fresh is the way it so vividly situates the conventions of this kind of story within the lives of young people in our culture, especially the lives of undergraduate men (I take Zuckerberg and the other characters in the film as characters, leaving aside the question of the relationship between them and their real counterparts. For one take on that question, see this.). I find part of myself admiring the drive, the creativity, the entrepreneurial gusto of Zuckerberg and his friends. But it’s no mark against the true entrepreneurial spirit to notice that the ambitions of these young men are, simply speaking, deranged. They want glory, they want money, they want sex, and they are willing to place their prodigious gifts at the service of these idols with nary a thought about their value or the consequences. The real villain of the piece, however, is not Zuckerberg. The real villain is the absentee landlord of his formation at this point in his life: Harvard. The film depicts Zuckerberg in a collegiate environment that not only puts few strictures on his destructive ambition, but in significant ways encourages it. I cannot speak to the accuracy of the portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg in this film, but I can speak to the accuracy of its portrayal of the large-scale, contemporary university, an institution that too often exhibits deranged ambitions of its own. In the pursuit of these, the contemporary university habitually fails to shape the legitimate desires for greatness of our young people by offering them an enduring ideal of how one ought to live as a human being.  

In his book, An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture, the philosopher Roger Scruton identifies one of the chief duties of traditional cultures that of helping young people navigate the often treacherous road from adolescence to adulthood. By religious practices and courtship practices, for example, the young in traditional societies were guided in the formation of their desires, so that they avoided self-destructive behaviors and entered the adult community prepared to make a truly great contribution to it. Our culture in so many ways abdicates this responsibility to the young. And the contemporary university, the place where so many of the young people in our culture are housed while they attempt to make this difficult passage to adulthood, must accept a good part of the blame for contributing to a massive cultural dysfunction. Like so many undergraduates, Zuckerberg romps through Harvard like Pinocchio in Pleasureland, leveraging its reputation and resources in order to build an even better Pleasureland of his own. It’s a project that apparently requires much less than four years. A recent magazine feature on Evan Williams, the cofounder of Twitter, begins: “If Evan Williams, who is credited with inventing blogging, and who cofounded Twitter, were to tweet about what he thought of college, he’d write something like this: “@ev Left college after 18 mos. Didn’t really see the point.”

Socrates wanted to draw Glaucon and Adeimantus away from the idols of wealth, power, and a cheap glory. He did so by trying to show these bright young men the point that Evan Williams’ education failed to show him. He tried to offer them a prize very different than the one their culture offered them—the prize of truth. The motto of Harvard is Veritas. The stated aspiration of so many of our institutions of higher learning is knowledge. We are in debt to The Social Network for showing us that these stated goals are to a disturbing extent only a virtual reality.

P.S. Another key theme in The Social Network is the nature of the social networking phenomenon itself. Due in part to the film, at the end of last year and now at the very beginning of this one there has been much public reflection upon the value of this phenomenon. Here are some thoughtful examples:

Zadie Smith, “Generation Why,” The New York Review of Books, November 25, 2010

Karina Longworth, “The Social Network, Or Why I Quit Facebook,” LA Weekly, December 23, 2010

And two very recent blog posts, one by Matthew Warner at the National Catholic Register, and the other by Marilyn Wilkinson at Catholic Exchange.

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