My Own Private Guantanamo

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A Tale of Two Hackers

December 1, 2010

It was almost as if someone were reading my mind (or my email), when I stumbled on to this spoof of The Social Network trailer today.

The timing of this find was uncanny. For the last couple days, I have been fixated on two stories: the political and media shitstorm caused by Wikileaks’ heroic release of State Department cables, and Mark Zuckerberg’s bizarre (and seemingly last minute) meeting with Dubya “televised” live via Facebook.

Is Mark Zuckeberg the evil twin of Julian Assange? Both men are former hackers driven by a utopian vision to overturn the old media order, and usher in a new era of radical transparency. But while Assange uses his considerable talents to crush empires, Zuckerberg is steadily building one of his own.

The headlines should have read: “Leader of World’s Third Largest Country Fetes War Criminal.”

How else to explain the creepy spectacle of Zuckerberg in chummy conversation with our WORST PRESIDENT EVER, before an appreciative audience of zealous Facebook employees? For nearly an hour Zuckerberg and his unnamed moderator lobbed softballs at the former president, and gently ribbed each other, while the audience roared with approval. Bush was there to promote his dumb book, but what exactly is Mark Zuckerberg selling?

Last night, I finally saw The Social Network, the Hollywood version of Zuckerberg’s story, at a screening attended by its screenwriter Aaron Sorkin. The movie is glib, entertaining and offers a seductively pat explanation for the rise of Facebook. As The Social Network has it, Facebook was borne out of Zuckerberg’s rage at the exclusive culture of Harvard, combined with a fit of nerd misogyny directed at a girlfriend who called him an “asshole” upon breakup. (This is Zuckerberg’s “Rosebud.”)

If we’re to believe this origin story (and Sorkin claims it was vetted by hundreds of studio lawyers), Zuckerberg founded Facebook to topple the Ivy League elites, and to make girls like him. What follows this premise is a quasi-Rashomon treatment depicting the legal battles over its origins, while charting Facebook’s rise into global phenomenon. And finally (spoiler alert) after showing us nearly two hours of its antihero’s insufferable narcissism and affectless sociopathy, Sorkin cops out with a final line of dialogue, in which a woman (natch) informs Zuckerberg, “Youre not an asshole, Mark. You’re just trying so hard to be one.” However zingy it sounds, the line rings false, because the movie hasn’t shown us a single positive character trait (aside from Zuckerberg’s preternatural gift for coding). It also falls flat because it’s an unconvincing sentiment delivered against the inhumane backdrop of corporate skullduggery, legal backstabbing and douchey deals made over Appletinis.

Sorkin’s Zuckerberg is like an automaton with flashes of smug pride. He’s more HAL 9000 than Charles Foster Kane. We may be no nearer to a close study of real-life Zuckerberg than we find at his own Friendster or Facebook pages. It’s a fascinating performance, but no person is quite this robotic IRL, as they say.

The Social Network instead allows us to live vicariously through the stories of a handful of rich assholes. It glamorizes their lives of privilege, wealth and womanizing, even as it purports to criticize their milieu. (Zuck’s self-professed objectification of Asian women finds its match in director David Fincher’s porny mise en scene.)  Like all bio-pics, The Social Network takes larger than life figures, cuts them down to size, and then blows them up, even bigger than life, back onto the screen. In the end, Hollywood is better at celebrating assholes than at dissecting the system of assholery.

Ultimately I don’t care whether Zuckerberg is an asshole or not. Facebook is an asshole. And hosting a warm reception for George W. Bush, while he continues to brag about authorizing the torture of detainees and the murderous, illegal invasion of Iraq is an asshole move. WTF is George W. Bush doing up in your Facebook feed? Why is he rubbing elbows and trading jokes with the nerd king of Palo Alto? And why didn’t Facebook employees walk out in protest? This is a creepy state of affairs. We’re a long way from Zuckerberg’s dorm room power fantasies.

Meanwhile, far from Palo Alto, and tweeting from an undisclosed location, hacker hero Julian Assange subjects the American empire to an enhanced patdown, enraging Republicans and Democrats alike. If you’re getting your Wikileaks news from the US mainstream media, The Daily Show, or The New York Times (which vetted its coverage ahead of time with the White House) , you could be forgiven for concluding that the leaked cables are nothing more than bitchy gossip about world leaders. Perhaps fearful of attacking Hillary Clinton, some media outlets have buried the lede. The biggest story so far is Clinton’s order that diplomats use their positions to spy on leaders at the UN, collecting everything from email passwords and credit card numbers, to frequent flier numbers.

This is a huge scandal, and had the story emerged during the Bush Administration, every liberal you know would have called for Condi’s job (the policy started under Rice.) It’s only partisanship that prevents liberals now from demanding full accountability. For just one example, check out Jon Stewart’s cynical dismissal of the entire story on tonight’s Daily Show. Notice that he covers Clinton’s reaction WITHOUT discussing the seriousness of the UN spying scandal itself. And stick around for Aasif Mandvi’s straw man argument, dismissing comparisons between cablegate and the Pentagon Papers. (I guess Stewart and Mandvi couldn’t reach Daniel Ellsberg for comment.) This is how liberal consensus is shored up. Move along, nothing to see here.

I propose another idea. If both Fox News and Jon Stewart tell you not to pay attention to a news story, it is probably a news story worth reading.

While President Obama ponders prosecuting Assange under the Espionage Act, those on the other side of the aisle propose swifter (and even less democratic) remedies for stopping Assange’s crusade for radical transparency. And in the midst of it all, Interpol has put out an APB for this international “sex criminal.” Here’s a tip for Interpol: there’s a war criminal loose in the United States. Last spotted in Palo Alto, with a bunch of computer geeks.

I’ve often wondered what a Hollywood treatment of Assange’s story would be. Between his underground bunker, dapper European image and astonishing ability to avoid capture, Assange makes the ideal Bond supervillain. And if you think about it, he’s a real life Bond villain, since he’s the kind of guy you can imagine an agent of Her Majesty’s Secret Service being sent to kill. In fact, I would love to see a James Bond spoof trailer, casting Assange as the hero pitted against the nationalist thug 007. It would be an interesting formal exercise, to reveal Bond as a murderous tool of Western imperialism and his target as an agent of revolution.

I suppose if I sleep on it, the interwebs just might make my dream come true. The world Assange and Zuckerberg helped to create moves at an astonishing pace. Even a blog post becomes outdated by the time you reach the end.

  • http://mattcornell.org/blog/2010/12/from-clicktivism-to-infowar/ My Own Private Guantanamo

    [...] reference to his “asian teengirl stalkers,” an objectifying remark, that reminds me of evil twin Mark Zuckerberg’s similarly embarrassing Friendster profile (which I dredged up a few weeks [...]

  • http://mattcornell.org/blog/2011/01/revenge-of-the-nerds-rise-of-the-terrorists-my-year-in-movies/ My Own Private Guantanamo

    [...] year, the nerds got their revenge and took over the popular narrative, both in cinema and in the real world. If there’s one thread that loosely ties some popular films together this year, it’s [...]

  • http://mattcornell.org/blog/2011/04/facebook-worries-about-too-much-free-speech/ My Own Private Guantanamo

    [...] our friendships and selling our private data, he plays the part of a political power broker, feting war criminals in Palo Alto, and cozying up to dictators in China. Given his track record, I think it’s [...]

  • Daslenko

    BushZuck can get fucked. Assange the Avenger all the way!

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