The Social Network & the Bacchae

In The Social Network, David Fincher offers an origin myth on perhaps the most important cyber development of the 2000s–Facebook.

The story is presented as a who-dun-it, flashing from legal proceedings to Rashomon-like accounts of events. It also explores questions raised by Nietzsche, and before that Euripides, on the role of the ecstatic in our lives.

Today the ecstatic is primarily expressed via the technological sublime. Traditionally the sublime has been about our sense of awe and transcendence before the works of nature — thunderclouds, or the Grand Canyon. Now, the works of man can also be quite grand, especially when they require sustained labor: Hoover Dam, for instance, or the New York City skyline. But today technology stimulates on the cheap. Marvels are put in the hands of children, requiring no labor to master. Cellphones titillate, videos stun our senses. Guitar Hero and Wii endlessly amuse. Driven by the profit motive, technology has turned us into a nation of children.

As depicted by Fincher — and in what is evidently the correct account — Facebook was created out of a moment of sexual frustration. Zuckerberg is rejected by a paramour; drunk and vengeful, he blogs about her looks and personality. And he creates a website which allows anyone to rate people as hot/not hot. It proves irresistible to Harvard students.

The website quickly evolves into Facebook. The movie shows that eroticism of one sort or another was the driver of the entire enterprise. Site development is done in periods of Bacchnalian frenzy; Zuckerberg selects new employees through manic, competitive, code-writing drinking contests. And the entire enterprise is fueled by liberal amounts of drugs and drink.

The irony, of course, is that for all its excitement, technological ecstasy remains remote, virtual, isolating, and onanistic. With every contact virtual and remote rather than carnal, it’s the very lack of satisfaction that drives the process forward. Technology becomes a contemporary example of Hegel’s bad infinity: as the saying goes in Hinduism, you can never get enough of what you don’t really want.

Euripides was no foe of the erotic. Something of a hacker himself, he saw the virtues of destruction. But for Euripides and the Greeks, the destructive power of the erotic was balanced by Apollonian reflectiveness and, yes, control. For Zuckerberg, the governor on the engine has been taken off. Faster and faster and ever more frenzied, Zuckerberg is left alone, constantly refreshing his browser, waiting to see if he’s been ‘friended’ by another virtual playmate.

In the end, the ‘Social Network’ is anything but.

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