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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

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Trade unions must change or face permanent decline

Union membership will fall below one in five employees by 2030 unless current trends are reversed. 

The future should be full of potential for trade unions. Four in five people in Great Britain think that trade unions are “essential” to protect workers’ interests. Public concerns about low pay have soared to record levels over recent years. And, after almost disappearing from view, there is now a resurgent debate about the quality and dignity of work in today’s Britain.

Yet, as things stand, none of these currents are likely to reverse long-term decline. Membership has fallen by almost half since the late 1970s and at the same time the number of people in work has risen by a quarter. Unions are heavily skewed towards the public sector, older workers and middle-to-high earners. Overall, membership is now just under 25 per cent of all employees, however in the private sector it falls to 14 per cent nationally and 10 per cent in London. Less than 1 in 10 of the lowest paid are members. Across large swathes of our economy unions are near invisible.

The reasons are complex and deep-rooted — sweeping industrial change, anti-union legislation, shifts in social attitudes and the rise of precarious work to name a few — but the upshot is plain to see. Looking at the past 15 years, membership has fallen from 30 per cent in 2000 to 25 per cent in 2015. As the TUC have said, we are now into a 2nd generation of “never members”, millions of young people are entering the jobs market without even a passing thought about joining a union. Above all, demographics are taking their toll: baby boomers are retiring; millennials aren’t signing up.

This is a structural problem for the union movement because if fewer young workers join then it’s a rock-solid bet that fewer of their peers will sign-up in later life — setting in train a further wave of decline in membership figures in the decades ahead. As older workers, who came of age in the 1970s when trade unions were at their most dominant, retire and are replaced with fewer newcomers, union membership will fall. The question is: by how much?

The chart below sets out our analysis of trends in membership over the 20 years for which detailed membership data is available (the thick lines) and a fifteen year projection period (the dotted lines). The filled-in dots show where membership is today and the white-filled dots show our projection for 2030. Those born in the 1950s were the last cohort to see similar membership rates to their predecessors.

 

Our projections (the white-filled dots) are based on the assumption that changes in membership in the coming years simply track the path that previous cohorts took at the same age. For example, the cohort born in the late 1980s saw a 50 per cent increase in union membership as they moved from their early to late twenties. We have assumed that the same percentage increase in membership will occur over the coming decade among those born in the late 1990s.

This may turn out to be a highly optimistic assumption. Further fragmentation in the nature of work or prolonged austerity, for example, could curtail the familiar big rise in membership rates as people pass through their twenties. Against this, it could be argued that a greater proportion of young people spending longer in education might simply be delaying the age at which union membership rises, resulting in sharper growth among those in their late twenties in the future. However, to date this simply hasn’t happened. Membership rates for those in their late twenties have fallen steadily: they stand at 19 per cent among today’s 26–30 year olds compared to 23 per cent a decade ago, and 29 per cent two decades ago.

All told our overall projection is that just under 20 per cent of employees will be in a union by 2030. Think of this as a rough indication of where the union movement will be in 15 years’ time if history repeats itself. To be clear, this doesn’t signify union membership suddenly going over a cliff; it just points to steady, continual decline. If accurate, it would mean that by 2030 the share of trade unionists would have fallen by a third since the turn of the century.

Let’s hope that this outlook brings home the urgency of acting to address this generational challenge. It should spark far-reaching debate about what the next chapter of pro-worker organisation should look like. Some of this thinking is starting to happen inside our own union movement. But it needs to come from outside of the union world too: there is likely to be a need for a more diverse set of institutions experimenting with new ways of supporting those in exposed parts of the workforce. There’s no shortage of examples from the US — a country whose union movement faces an even more acute challenge than ours — of how to innovate on behalf of workers.

It’s not written in the stars that these gloomy projections will come to pass. They are there to be acted on. But if the voices of union conservatism prevail — and the offer to millennials is more of the same — no-one should be at all surprised about where this ends up.

This post originally appeared on Gavin Kelly's blog