Sunday, October 31, 2010

Tone Deaf

When does a movie start? Does it happen during the opening credits, with a musical overture playing in the sound system and background scenes flashing by on the screen? Or does it only begin when the characters utter their first lines?

Friday night my son and I went to see The Social Network. My wife and a friend of hers had gone to the Jon Stewart thing. So I had to play the role of substitute activities director. And there was also the job of house manager, the scope of which is dictated primarily by the needs of our dog. Ginger demands a lot of attention. We don't have a doggie door. So she has to communicate that she wants to go outside. I was more sleep deprived than usual because she had been pacing around in the middle of the night and her paws clicking on the hardwood floor had woken me up. After letting her do her business outside, I couldn't get back to sleep. I was dragging the rest of the day.

My son drove to the theater. He still has a learner's permit and this was to help him get some of the evening hours he needs prior to taking his road test. We went by a circuitous route to give him a little more practice. I was on edge to begin with. Sometimes he doesn't control his speed the way I would. For me, caution is the rule, especially with him driving. Sometimes it's hard to tell whether his mind is on the driving or elsewhere. We leave early, just in case there is a long line, but there wasn't. And we decide to skip the popcorn. So we get into the theater with about 15 or 20 minutes left before showtime. They are showing what appears to be TV promos from TBS. Conan seems to be everywhere, though maybe that's because TBS had the American League Championship Series. (I wish they had the World Series too, not for the Conan ads, but because they had a good approach to the baseball broadcasts.) The theater eventually starts to fill up. I recognize a senior faculty member or two from the U of I, which surprises me a little but maybe not too much. I'm not the only one who is curious about this movie. Perhaps they too had seen this segment on Charlie Rose.

The lights dim and the audio gets noticeably louder as first we get the mandatory turn off your cellphone messages and then the previews begin. It's really amazing the junk they seem to be making nowadays. It's not obvious to me that escapism must push the quality of films downwards. But I suppose what's happening to the rest of the economy has impregnated the movie industry as well. The previews appear to be endless. There is nothing really to demarcate their conclusion other than the name of the studio appears on the screen and a pulse begins on the audio. It's a rapid beat the feels like a headache is coming on. I want it to stop. Combined with my own sleeplessness, it is very unpleasant. I know that movies nowadays want the audience to immerse into the total experience of the characters immediately. I'd prefer a gradual transition. This particular film has to confront an additional issue with the audience. All of us (or it at least the vast majority) use Facebook and are familiar with how it works. The film has to focus on things we don't know, to keep our interest. For me, that was the origins story and the personality of Mark Zuckerberg. That's the story the film has to be about.

Now I'll take a little aside to demonstrate some of my bias. I've got a friend whom I consider to be pretty savvy about IT who has described to me at one of our coffees that Facebook is trivial from a technology point of view, at least the functionality that is apparent to the end user. The cleverness that is Facebook is not the fancy programming itself, but rather the matching of the software to the user need and the understanding of how that matching feeds the network effects that fueled the phenomenal growth in usage. At two different periods, once in the 1990s, then again perhaps 7 or 8 years later, I was involved with software development projects where this matching of user wants to software functionality was overt. The 1990s experience was akin to Facebook in that there was essentially a single developer at the outset - the brains behind the software. And there was a tendency for the users to treat those developers as geniuses since software development seemed such an out of this world activity and since the functionality they came up with seemed fantastic, given the limited other possibilities at the time. (We had both CyberProf and Mallard on Campus so I witnessed this experience in parallel.) The later experience was when I sat on the WebCT Vista Advisory Board and periodically we interacted with their development team to express how we wanted to see the product grow. This was more sensible and business-like. Nobody involved was a genius. But there still was a narcotic effect in having a fairly tight group that could influence product development. In each case I was able to look backwards at the experience and view it as above all else circumstantial, nothing more.

Back to the movie beginning where the spoken words are coming very fast. Mostly this is Zuckerberg. Do very smart people speak very fast? Or is that only when smart people want to impress you that they are very smart? Somehow Zuckerberg, who likes the girl he's on a date with for reasons that are not explained in the movie, thinks that if the date is impressed she'll fall for him. But actually, he's making a botch of the situation. She's offended by his manipulation. So she dumps him.

I won't go through a blow by blow of the film, but instead want to capture a few key themes. There is the question of how somebody who is obviously so intelligent can yet be so dense about human interaction. Harvard, where Zuckerberg is a student, has some elite clubs. Members are insiders. They are that way by lineage. Zuckerberg is an outsider. All his "friends" are outsiders too, due to their ethnicity. A handful of outsiders can be knighted and thereby become insiders. This seems to be their main aspiration. Over achievers all, doing well in the classroom is not nearly enough. They need to go for the brass ring that is still out of grasp.

There is a Duddy Kravitz aspect to Zuckerberg, though it's not just hustle and intensity with him. He's got talent and perception too. Until the very end of the film, he acts mostly like a righteous spoiled brat, by seemingly embracing meritocracy and the rightness of any given argument. He is judgmental, almost always, never taking anybody else's word for it. This is how he combats the insiders. It's also how he can screw people he previously showed some fondness for. When you're hot, you're hot. When you're not, you're out. The rest of us are trusting. We're not used to playing by these sort of rules. It's uncomfortable to watch somebody who does, even if we're not the ones he has screwed.

The pace of the movie what it is, it's hard to psychoanalyze the character then and there, but having watched that Charlie Rose bit, one wonders whether this is all an elaborate cover up of personal weakness. Zuckerberg can't expose that when he is on the date at the beginning of the movie. He ultimately does in the closing scenes. On the other hand, I've got to wonder whether the personality is developed by a particular culture, the world of the computer programmer - apparent objectivity, totally judgmental, very impatient, and always in your face. Do we lose ourselves entirely when immersed in the culture we live in? It's a frightening thought.

The other thing that's disturbing about the film is the role of the libido and the bacchanal partying that fueled the software development. Even the elite Harvard students live their lives in search of nookie and let alcohol serve to grease the skids. The software is conceived to facilitate these transactions. It is a hedonism enabler, and everyone wants to be on The Facebook. There is an indictment of all us in that.

* * * * *

Reading Maureen Dowd's latest, a piece that takes President Obama to task, I thought she was spot on in the analysis of the problem, but much of that we've heard before. She doesn't offer up anything to explain the President's intellectual insularity. Thus, while she makes the case that he must change in his behavior, she doesn't give us much of a sense of how this might happen.

I thought there might be value in comparing the President to Mark Zuckerberg. Both went to elite schools as intelligent outsiders. Both keep their own counsel. Both have shown lack of sensitivity to people they presumably care about.

Politics and software development are not the same thing. Zuckerberg had the Facebook going viral experience to fuel his own sense of worth (and make him a billionaire many times over). Obama didn't have quite that smooth sailing even as a Presidential candidate. Hilary Clinton was a tough adversary and there where clear lulls, e.g., Pennsylvania, where it appeared he might not get the nod. Since becoming President, particularly after Ted Kennedy died and Scott Brown filled his seat, Obama had the scapegoat of the Republican blockage in the Senate to mask the divisions within the Democrats themselves.

Nevertheless, there might be some benefit of seeing President Obama and Mark Zuckerberg as of the same kind - in the path to their great creations there is a lot of debris made as collateral damage and ultimately that might pull them down entirely. Further, there is a blockage of the human warmth side of the personality, because in that is weakness. Paradoxically, then, the path to becoming personally stronger is by becoming demonstrably weaker and opening up to ideas of others where it is the people who are voicing the ideas that matter, more so than the ideas themselves.

Dowd chides Obama for turning his back on the Democratic candidate in Rhode Island, out of respect for Lincoln Chafee. But that is only one state. Look at this comment about teacher unions, one of the bulwarks of the Democratic Party across the nation.

On unions:

Lauer mentioned that the upcoming film, "Waiting for 'Superman'", is tough on unions, but Obama sees a purpose for them. "Often times, teachers unions are designed to make sure that their membership are protected against arbitrary firings" and given fair pay. But he added, "What is also true is that sometimes that means they are resistant to change when things aren't working." But he said that some unions are working with states on issues such as charters, performance pay, and higher standards and accountability for teachers.

He said that the administration wants to work with unions but cautions them, "You can't defend a status quo where a third of kids are dropping out."

It may be that we have ourselves to blame for much of the fix we find ourselves in, but that almost surely means the solutions are in us as well. Yet this comment looks like it is coming from someone above the fray, which is not the way to enlist troops on the ground to enter into a new negotiation.

Dowd likens the Obama Presidency to episodes in The West Wing and indeed, there are some strong similarities between the real-life Barack Obama and the fictionalized Matt Santos in their approach to the issues. Ironically, Aaron Sorkin was the force behind The West Wing and the screenwriter on the Social Network as well. His worldview provides the connection between the two. Perhaps Dowd could do an interview with Sorkin, get him to expand on this connection, and then tie it to the Obama Presidency.

Zuckerberg learns his lesson not from his adversaries but from a lower level observer in the room who can see how it is all playing out. He can let down his guard with her. President Obama needs to let down his guard too. It's the only way he'll be able to listen. But how do we get this done?

1 comment:

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