Saturday, October 2, 2010

The Social Network: Lawrence Lessig vs. Itzik Basman


2. Me:

Dear Mr. Lessig:

Thank you for your interesting set of thoughts, (albeit, as mentioned, with a few too many parentheses).

I made the mistake of reading your essay—it’s not really, and is more than, a review—before seeing the movie. No doubt, I just finished watching it with some of your thoughts in mind. I have to admit when I read your essay I was not clear on what exactly the great secret was that everyone except you missed as “the real secret sauce in the story he is trying to tell.” I understand that now to be, having seen the movie and just reread your essay, the significance of the “neutral network” as manifest, for one example, in Zuckerberg without permissions and with ridiculously low capitalization—less than $1,000.00—getting “his idea onto the Internet”, all with that neutrality and openness now being bargained away only to be made subject to old world permissions.

So maybe it’s because you’re not a film reviewer and are in your essay mixing together dis-harmoniously some reviewing and some social policy, that I think while your social policy may be well taken, your criticism of the film for what it missed—“the secret sauce”—is not.

What you cite as the film’s deep flaw—its missing fundamental ingredient—is a criticism external to the intent of the movie. That intent, I say, is to tell the story it tells and in doing so to portray the folks involved, particularly Zuckerberg. Neither the film’s intent nor its burden required it to belabor profound insights into the revolutionary nature of Zuckerberg’s achievement.

And, contrary to what you say, why wasn’t there, smack dab in the film's story, plain for all to see, the very things you say were missing: no permissions needed; what could be done with such ludicrously little funding; the amazing, breeding-rabbit- like contagion of the site. And, then, the movie, telling its story, makes a big thing of what you blithely almost write off and dismiss: “And though there are crucial partners who are essential to bring the product to market, the cost of proving viability on this platform has dropped dramatically.” So in fact, I argue, there is no missing secret sauce. You simply want a different sauce to dip your film chicken into, or want a different film chicken, or, perhaps, rather, a film Cornish Hen.

A few other points. Firstly, I agree with this: “With that script, and with a massive hand from the film’s director, David Fincher, he helped steer an intelligent, beautiful, and compelling film through to completion. You will see this movie, and you should. As a film, visually and rhythmically, and as a story, dramatically, the work earns its place in the history of the field.”

That said, I missed the “self congratulatory contempt in the motives behind how this story was told.” In fact, I’m not sure I understand what you’re saying. How are we to understand the motives, let alone know whose motives you mean? Sorkin’s? Fincher’s? I suggest we can’t know their motives—save to make an entertaining, commercially successful movie telling a great story about a compelling subject involving primarily a fascinating, idiosyncratic genius—Zuckerberg. I don’t see the movie being tendentious about the story it tells. And Facebook is what Facebook is, ranging from the sheerly amazing to the sheerly mind numbing:

…HAdd fUN At tHE GAME WitH tHE SiS tAyy BAE,MAyA M0RRiS,MyESHiA&&M0RE..iWANt t0 SEE if tHE BAE W0N HiS GAME..iAM MAdd CUz iDiDNt GEt t0 StAyy..bUt iLy HiM Still N0 MAttA WHAt!.C00KiE&&KEViN ♥!...

What Facebook is, in the spectrum of its sheernesses as a social network, apart from the achievement its creation represents, is a point apart from this movie. The achievement and human drama of its creation is its point. I see no condescension in Sorkin's and Fincher’s treatment of the "new world", even if they are no Tocquevilles.

I also don’t think the law suits set “…the standards of right, throughout the film.” And that they don’t goes to how off the idea is of “self-congratulatory contempt”. For all his personal fallibility, quirky rudeness and sarcasm, a big point made during the depositions is that Zuckerberg is the smartest person in the room. The meritlessness of the twins’ case is made pretty apparent. So their lawyer is just another hired gun, doing his clients’ bidding, not particularly honorable or dishonorable. And he invited Zuckerberg’s cut him-to-the-quick insult when he repeatedly asked him whether he was worthy of Zuckerberg’s attention.

I don’t do jury trials and juries are not the primary fact finders in Canadian civil litigation, as they are in the U.S. So it’s hard to imagine a Canadian lawyer during an examination, either for discovery or in trial, asking such a question. My interpretation of the lawyer asking it repeatedly of Zuckerberg was that it was just as much for some personal affirmation from this dismissive, scornful boy wonder as it was to get some fodder for the eventual jury, if the case didn’t settle. And boy did Zuckerberg shmeiss him! That moment, with the lawyer impotently winking at his clients, the twins, trying to shrug off the lacerating he has just taken from Zuckerberg was briefly apposite—in this movie’s terms—to what Omar did to the lawyer in The Wire.

That Eduardo Saverin’s case is more compelling than the twins’ highlights what a light thing the latter was. The settlements reached are consistent with that. For a guy riding on a company worth billions of dollars, himself a billionaire a few times over, $65,000,000.00 was virtual nuisance value money. The movie’s Zuckerberg understood that in principle the twins case had no principled legal point, but he wisely listened to the young associate’s advice. Clearly too, the undisclosed but assuredly significant settlement with Eduardo, whose name found its way back onto Facebook’s masthead, accorded with the greater justice of his cause of action. As such the different cases and their separate resolutions lend more rationality and less arbitrariness to the legal system, framing the movie, than you ascribe to it.

I’ll also just briefly say that I didn’t find Sean Parker the movie’s villain, or the “evil one” as such, or unmitigatedly so. He was more complex than that. Indubitably flawed, and a relative fuck up, done in by his own hedonism, he successfully brings Zuckerman and Facebook along through, in your words, bringing “the product to market” and seems genuinely to like Zuckerman and have his best interests at heart. In the first scene when they meet, Parker tells Zuckerman he didn’t sell something for big bucks—I forget now what—because he just didn’t care. Money, the movie suggests, is not primarily what drove either of them. We are left, I believe, to assume that both Zuckerman and Parker had a hand in the screwing Eduardo got, and that that was done out of variety of unlovely motives. Such is the morally complicated passing human parade as this movie has it, and not moral portraits in black and white.

I’ll finish off where I started, Mr. Lessig. You end your essay as you began it, mixing together unadroitly social policy and film criticism. Your near to final complaint is that Sorkin dashed your hopes, as a “'West Wing’ fan-boy” (itself enough to make me wonder about you), that he would “get it” only to find him not having gotten it. So your social policy becomes a prescriptive criterion for aesthetic judgment. As the old aesthete said, “We must grant the artist his subject, his idea, his donnĂ©: our criticism is applied only to what he makes of it.”

Sincerely and respectfully,

Itzik Basman

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