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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
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Cambridge Analytica and the digital war in Africa

Across the continent, UK expertise is being deployed online to sway elections and target dissidents.

Cambridge Analytica, the British political consultancy caught up in a huge scandal over its use of Facebook data, has boasted that they ran the successful campaigns of President Uhuru Kenyatta in the 2013 and 2017 Kenyan elections. In a secretly filmed video, Mark Turnbull, a managing director for Cambridge Analytica and sister company SCL Elections, told a Channel 4 News’ undercover investigative reporting team that his firm secretly stage-managed Kenyatta’s hotly contested campaigns.

“We have rebranded the entire party twice, written the manifesto, done research, analysis, messaging. I think we wrote all the speeches and we staged the whole thing – so just about every element of this candidate,” Turnbull said of his firm’s work for Kenyatta’s party.

Cambridge Analytica boasts of manipulating voters’ deepest fears and worries. Last year’s Kenyan election was dogged by vicious online propaganda targeting opposition leader Raila Odinga, with images and films playing on people’s concerns about everything from terrorism to spiralling disease. No-one knows who produced the material. Cambridge Analytica denies involvement with these toxic videos – a claim that is hard to square with the company’s boast that they “staged the whole thing.” 

In any event, Kenyatta came to power in 2013 and won a second and final term last August, defeating Odinga by 1.4 million votes.

The work of this British company is only the tip of the iceberg. Another company, the public relations firm, Bell Pottinger, has apologised for stirring up racial hostility in South Africa on behalf of former President Jacob Zuma’s alleged financiers – the Gupta family. Bell Pottinger has since gone out of business.

Some electoral manipulation has been home grown. During the 2016 South African municipal elections the African National Congress established its own media manipulations operation.

Called the “war room” it was the ANC’s own “black ops” centre. The operation ranged from producing fake posters, apparently on behalf of opposition parties, to establishing 200 fake social media “influencers”. The team launched a news site, The New South African, which claimed to be a “platform for new voices offering a different perspective of South Africa”. The propaganda branded opposition parties as vehicles for the rich and not caring for the poor.

While the ANC denied any involvement, the matter became public when the public relations consultant hired by the party went to court for the non-payment of her bill. Among the court papers was an agreement between the claimant and the ANC general manager, Ignatius Jacobs. According to the email, the war room “will require input from the GM [ANC general manager Jacobs] and Cde Nkadimeng [an ANC linked businessman] on a daily basis. The ANC must appoint a political champion who has access to approval, as this is one of the key objectives of the war room.”

Such home-grown digital dirty wars appear to be the exception, rather than the rule, in the rest of Africa. Most activities are run by foreign firms.

Ethiopia, which is now in a political ferment, has turned to an Israeli software company to attack opponents of the government. A Canadian research group, Citizens Lab, reported that Ethiopian dissidents in the US, UK, and other countries were targeted with emails containing sophisticated commercial spyware posing as Adobe Flash updates and PDF plugins.

Citizens Lab says it identified the spyware as a product known as “PC Surveillance System (PSS)”. This is a described as a “commercial spyware product offered by Cyberbit —  an Israel-based cyber security company— and marketed to intelligence and law enforcement agencies.”

This is not the first time Ethiopia has been accused of turning to foreign companies for its cyber-operations. According to Human Rights Watch, this is at least the third spyware vendor that Ethiopia has used to target dissidents, journalists and activists since 2013.

Much of the early surveillance work was reportedly carried out by the Chinese telecom giant, ZTE. More recently it has turned for more advanced surveillance technology from British, German and Italian companies. “Ethiopia appears to have acquired and used United Kingdom and Germany-based Gamma International’s FinFisher and Italy-based Hacking Team’s Remote Control System,” wrote Human Rights Watch in 2014.

Britain’s international development ministry – DFID – boasts that it not only supports good governance but provides funding to back it up. In 2017 the good governance programme had £20 million at its disposal, with an aim is to “help countries as they carry out political and economic reforms.” Perhaps the government should direct some of this funding to investigate just what British companies are up to in Africa, and the wider developing world.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He is the author of Understanding Eritrea and, with Paul Holden, the author of Who Rules South Africa?