to conquer solitude

Around the turn of the twentieth century, innumerable eggheaded wags took up and carried forth the wingèd words attributed to President Arthur Twining Hadley of Yale University: “You can always tell a Harvard man, but you cannot tell him much.” A little later, unsolicited avowal bolstered the certainty of recognition by invidious townies: “How do you know that someone you just met went to Harvard? — He’ll tell you in the first five minutes.” And thus, nel mezzo del cammin di sua vita, Zadie Smith felt compelled to tell everybody in the first paragraph of her essay-length review:

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.

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

A web search readily confirms that Zadie “was there”, as a 2002–2003 Radcliffe Institute Fellow. Only a churl would question her entitlement to peerdom with famous Harvard alumni of that vintage, ranging from Natalie Portman to Mark Zuckerberg, by way of Ryan Fitzpatrick, Noah Welch, and Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, media stars and athletes, whose XXIst Century Ivy League undergraduate experiences may have marked them no less memorably than Zadie’s XXth Century Cambridge Third in her Part Ones. Unlike most of her underprivileged readers, Zadie was at Harvard. Consequently, she understands the innermost motives of its overachieving élite:

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.

Ibid.

Or not. Harvard takes care to inform its undergraduates that in the field of psychology, evidence consists of empirical research results rather than quotations and opinions of scholars. In the matter at hand, empirical data implies the unlikelihood of profound aversion to not being liked forming the characters overwhelmingly motivated by the expectations of “a generous starting salary at a prestigious, brand-name organization together with the promise of future wealth”. Likewise, the favorite industry of Harvard grads, the one that rewards its most accomplished members with the title of a Big Swinging Dick, can scarcely provide a worthy workspace for Harvard alumni obsessed with ingratiating everyone standing in the way of their advancement. More specifically, Zuckerberg’s career track employed a broad selection of peers, partners, and associates as stepping stones, earning his rightful place in Dickipedia. As a geeky digital performance artist, Zuckerberg resonates with the louche motives averred by Charles Baudelaire in then flourishing and now obsolescent paper media: « Quand j’aurai inspiré le dégoût et l’horreur universels, j’aurai conquis la solitude. » Once he has inspired universal disgust and horror, he will have conquered solitude. The same solitude postulated in The Social Network as the defining trait of Mark Zuckerberg, downgraded from one friend to zero in the course of its narrative.

It is all too easy to underestimate the potential of Facebook to inspire universal disgust and horror. Imagine that your government offered you the opportunity to consign all your communications with your friends and associates to its care. It would manage their posting, editing, and retraction, and control their transmission and availability to the intended audience. In return, you would grant its executive branch the right to bombard you with political and commercial solicitations. Each time you had to convey, receive, modify, or withdraw your message, you would expose yourself to a barrage of administratively approved pitches. You would have no privacy, but what degree thereof you had chosen to retain by opting out of the state’s oligopoly. That is our current predicament with Facebook, except in so far as all control therein vests into a preternaturally fortunate Harvard College dropout presumptively beholden to the economic interests of his shareholders, rather than our democratically elected head of state fully answerable to his electorate via its legislative and judicial branches. That private CEO is fully warranted to set aside all concerns of faith and fidelity not arising from considerations of profit and loss. His term is unlimited by expiration or revocation. The only means of divesting him depend upon manipulation of the marketplace.

As rumors circulate of Google offering its staff engineer $3.5 million to turn down Facebook offer, it makes sense to contrast their modes of operation. Google is a monstrous outgrowth of a traditional software company, purportedly run by engineers encouraged to give free rein to their technical fancies. Facebook is nothing of the sort. Its technical ambitions are limited to the traditional IT agenda of gathering, managing, and transmitting information. And yet both companies derive their revenue primarily from selling advertising whose value derives from targeting enabled by personal data they collect from their users. The difference is that Facebook’s users contribute most of their personal data deliberately, whereas Google mostly infers it from the usage patterns of its services. Correlatively, Google derives a competitive advantage from the speed of its services, whereas Facebook distinguishes itself by stickiness. It might seem that betting your net worth on stickiness of personal contribution is a safer long term bet than staking it on the fleeting contingencies of speed. After all, a speedier newcomer would have a harder time poaching a customer base vested into deeply rooted stores of prized records. And yet, as Zadie Smith implies, the life cycle of this very platform argues to the contrary:

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.

Ibid.

On 14 December 1904, U.S. Civil War veteran Charles F. Porter of Denver, Colorado presented himself at the office of President Hadley of Yale, to ask for funds with which to get to Syracuse. Porter said that his father was an old Yale man and that he was absolutely without money. Upon digesting Porter’s plea, President Hadley telephoned local police headquarters for a detective, and got instructed to detain the beggar. After a rough-and-tumble fight, the President got the better of the importunate intruder and delivered him to police custody.

Over a century later, the Ivy League is proving itself much more hospitable to cadgers of free rides. Facebook got its start herding today’s lily-livered academics onto its free communications platform, to suffer commercial solicitations from far less deserving parties hell-bent on getting to college towns everywhere. This sufferance is the true cost of social networking access for 500 million of its users. Can you tell much to XXIst century Harvard men? Mark Zuckerberg told them to entrust their privacy to gatekeepers for a myriad advertisers. And Harvard men rose to the occasion.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *