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Laurie Penny on The Social Network: Facebook, capitalism and geek entitlement

The Social Network is an elegant psychodrama of contemporary economics.

The Machiavellian machinations of modern capitalism become a lot clearer when one realises that much of it is built, owned and run by people who couldn't get a girlfriend in college. The Social Network, David Fincher's new film about the founding of Facebook, is an elegant psychodrama of contemporary economics: flash, fast-moving and entirely founded on the principle of treating other human beings as hostile objects.

The film's basic formula is the familiar blogs-to-bling-and-bitches redemptive parable of male geek culture, with the added bonus that it happens to be based on real events. The protagonist, Facebook's co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, is a brilliant 19-year-old coder. His painful social ineptitude, as told here, gets him savagely dumped by his girlfriend, after which, drunk and misunderstood, he sets up a website to rate the physical attractiveness of the women undergraduates of Harvard, thus exacting his revenge upon the female sex that has so cruelly spurned his obvious genius.

We know by now, however, that unappreciated nerds eventually grow up to inherit or at least aggressively reappropriate the earth, and so it is for Zuckerberg: his website becomes the prototype for Facebook, a venture that will eventually make him a billionaire, mobbed by beautiful groupies and hounded by lawsuits from former friends and business associates desperate for a share of his fame and fortune. It's a fairytale happy ending, as imagined by Ayn Rand.

Objectification industry

The Social Network is an expertly crafted and exhaustively modern film, and one of its more pertinent flashpoints is the reminder that a resource that redefined the human interactions of 500 million people across the globe was germinated in an act of vengeful misogyny. Woman-hating is the background noise of this story. Aaron Sorkin's dazzlingly scripted showdown between awkward, ambitious young men desperate for wealth and respect phrases women and girls as glorified sexual extras, lovely assistants in the grand trick whose reveal is the future of human business and communication.

The only roles for women in this drama are dancing naked on tables at exclusive fraternity clubs, inspiring men to genius by spurning their carnal advances and giving appreciative blowjobs in bathroom stalls. This is no reflection on the personal moral compass of Sorkin, who is no misogynist, but who understands that in rarefied American circles of power and privilege, women are still stage-hands, and objectification is hard currency.

The territory of this modern parable is precisely objectification: not just of women, but of all consumers. In what the film's promoters describe as a "definitively American " story of entrepreneurship, Zuckerberg becomes rich because, as a social outsider, he can see the value in reappropriating the social as something that can be monetised. This is what Facebook is about, and ultimately what capitalist realism is about: life as reducible to one giant hot-or-not contest, with adverts.

And the geek shall inherit the earth

There is a certain type of nerd entitlement that is all too easily co-opted into a modern mythology of ruthless capitalist exploitation, in which the acquisition of wealth and status at all costs is phrased as a cheeky way of getting one's own back on those kids who were mean to you at school. As somebody whose only schoolfriends were my Dungeons & Dragons team, I understand all too well how every socialist and egalitarian principle can pale into insignificance compared to the overwhelming urge to show that unattainable girl or boy who spurned your dorky sixth-form advances just what they were missing.

The narrative whereby the nerdy loner makes a sack of cash and gets all the hot pussy he can handle is becoming a fundamental part of free-market folklore. It crops up in films from Transformers to Scott Pilgrim; it's the story of Bill Gates, of Steve Jobs, and now of Mark Zuckerberg. It's a story about power and about how alienation and obsessive persistence are rewarded with social, sexual and financial power.

The protagonist is invariably white and rich and always male -- Hollywood cannot countenance female nerds, other than as minor characters who transform into pliant sexbots as soon as they remove their glasses -- but these privileges are as naught compared to the injustice life has served him by making him shy, spotty and interested in Star Trek. He has been wronged, and he has every right to use his l33t skills to bend the engine of humanity to his purpose.

This logic is painful to me, as an out-and-proud nerd. For a person with a comics collection, an in-depth knowledge of the niceties of online fan fiction and a tendency to social awkwardness, it is distressing to see geekdom being annexed by the mythology of neoliberal self-actualisation.

There's far more to being a geek than maladaptive strategies that objectify other human beings as hostile obstacles who deserve to be used to serve the purpose of one's own ambition, but watching The Social Network, you wouldn't know it. For me, being a geek is about community, energy and celebration of difference -- but in the sterile fairytale of contemporary capitalism, successful geekery is about the rewards of power and the usefulness of commodifying other humans as a sum of likes, interests and saleable personal data.

The tragedy of The Social Network is also the intimate tragedy of an age whose self-alienation has nothing to do with social networking. The paranoid atomisation of modern social relations has, in fact, very little to do with the internet at all. It has everything to do with a global economic machine that trains human beings to understand one another as manipulable objects or faceless consumers. That, unfortunately, is a trend that did not start on Facebook.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 04 October 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Licence to cut

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.