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The Social Network


Okay, here’s the sequence of events.

Friday. Mrs. Derb’s birthday. For her, an ethnic Chinese, this was a special birthday. Those acquainted with the lunar calendar and Chinese folk customs will understand. Alas, for accidental reasons we could not celebrate properly that day, so …

Saturday. … I took her to the movies Saturday night. (Yes, I’m cheap. What’s it to ya?) The movie was The Social Network, which had been recommended to us by several friends.

We both liked the movie a lot, though Mrs. D. had trouble with some of the cultural references — the implicit class structure of the Harvard clubs, the Silicon Valley lifestyle (sex, drugs, and 20-hour coding binges), the venture-capital ethos, the never-ending Jews-vs.-WASPs grudge match. (Though the movie skipped very lightly over the fact that Zuckerberg’s Brazilian collaborator is also Jewish.) I had to do a lot of explanatory whispering, but from long experience managed to do so without making a scene with the people sitting in front of us.

I’ll second those recommendations we got, and add a strong recommendation of my own. The Larry Summers scene alone is worth the price of admission. (Summers is played by Douglas Urbanski, who doesn’t even have a picture on IMDb. I hereby nominate Urbanski for an Oscar in the Best Larry Summers Impersonation category.) I’ll post two qualifications, though.

One: Though very good if taken simply as a movie, I think The Social Network is a bit of an insult to Mark Zuckerberg, who in interviews — there are plenty on YouTube — comes over as much nicer than his permanently-scowling film character. Mark seems to have taken the insult good-naturedly; but that just fortifies the case that he is misrepresented in the film.

Two: Perhaps this is asking the impossible, but they made the creation of Facebook — the actual gritty comp-sci details, I mean — look easier than it surely was. I learned my own coding skills on old stand-alone Big Iron mainframe computers, and was up in the aery, mostly code-free heights of project management when distributed computing and sophisticated database architectures took over in commercial IT. I only had to learn some essential pieces of it — you can’t manage a project if you don’t know anything about what your developers are doing — but the little I learned was enough to show me how ferociously difficult it is at the Facebook level. The only people much good at this have IQs off the scale.

(In Poul Anderson’s sci-fi classic Brain Wave, the Earth passes out of a region of space that has somehow been damping down neuronal activity for millions of years. Suddenly all animals with nervous systems, including of course Homo sap., are five times smarter than before. Language changes accordingly, the super-smart people speaking to each other in a sort of stripped-down English, with all the less critical parts of speech left out and the listener/reader left to fill in leaps of logic. The Zuckerberg of the movie talks something like that, especially in the very funny opening scene.)

Sunday. I had an e-conversation about the movie with a friend. She sent me Joe Nocera’s review of the movie from the October 15 New York Times, which I otherwise would not have seen, being Times-ophobic.

It is a really good review, though as a 25-year veteran of book reviewing, I fell off my chair laughing at Nocera’s smooth little parenthesis: “Mr. Sorkin [who wrote the screenplay] and I were unable to connect before my deadline.” Translation from Reviewerese into English: “The s.o.b. didn’t return a single one of my 38 phone calls + emails + text messages & when in desperation I tried to gatecrash his office the security people threw me out.”

Nocera got me thinking about the handful of Zuckerberg-level software geniuses/entrepreneurs/gazillionaires I have met. I am thinking of one in particular — no names, no pack drill, though he has a walk-on part in the movie — at whose dinner table I’ve sat, with other guests, a couple of times. I found the guy personally pleasant and of course out-of-the-park intelligent, with a power of dead-still intense brief concentration on points that caught his interest. At occasional odd moments, though, I caught a split-second glimpse of cold steel beneath the surface amiability and dazzling smarts.

I wouldn’t want to live with a person like that. Work for one? Hmm. (No offense there, Boss.) If I were running a country, though, I’d start up a Manhattan Project to get cloning them.

[Though I’d add the following as a footnote to that. The Zuckerbergs will only produce anything in a society that gives them room to play. On a statistical basis there must be Zuckerbergs in those countries where dull uncreative stasis prevails, but they are not, as a geneticist would say, being expressed.]

[One further footnote. Watching the Zuckerberg character in the movie and recalling those very occasional interactions I’ve had with stratospheric-IQ, monomaniacally-driven types, made me think how insanely unreal is the “educational romanticism” found elsewhere in the pages of the Times, and throughout our society. Does any ordinary person really believe that he, or she, or I, or you, or Alvin Greene, might, with appropriate educational intervention, have been Mark Zuckerberg? I mean, DOES ANYONE REALLY BELIEVE IT, FOR CRYING OUT LOUD? Yet educationists all pretend to believe it. Malcolm Gladwell, Richard Nisbett, and the late Stephen Jay Gould have all labored mightily to get us believing it. Yet the merest acquaintance with actual human beings refutes it. How do fantasies like this get a foothold in rational societies?]


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