Monday, November 15, 2010

Hacking the Winklevoss Algorithm

The other night I screened David Fincher's The Social Network at my local theater, the first time I have bought a movie ticket based on hearing the soundtrack on the radio. (Yes, I drive around in my truck listening to a satellite radio station that plays nothing but soundtrack music from movies I have never seen.)

The soundtrack is dark ambient electronica by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross: soundtrack for a postmodern deposition. As penetrating emotional study, the movie does not quite achieve the potential of the soundtrack, but it has a pretty solid bead on the state of our alienation in the age of Web. 2.0+. Subtextually, a psycho-space odyssey of the birth of the Shopping Mall Singularity; on the surface, a pretty accurate portrayal of the culture of the venture-backed technology business. Cram-down!

I hadn't previously known that Zuckerberg had attended the same high school as me (revealed in the movie only by a T-shirt he wears), a New England prep school that, contrary to popular perception, has a lot more Zuckerbergs than Winklevosses. When I was a student there more than a few years before Zuckerberg (pre-Web), one of the favorite pasttimes was to take the student photo directory issued to each student at the beginning of each year — "the Facebook" — a customize it with a pen-and-ink overlay of annotations, cosmetic enhancements, and rankings, which would then be shared among friends as a source of entertainment. So watching the Facebook moment of conception, as Harvard sophomore Zuckerberg uses a chess algorithm to perform computer comparisons of the women of Harvard's dormitories, makes perfect sense when you have witnessed small packs of 15-year-old Zuckerbergs sitting in their dorm ranking each girl in the Facebook on a scale of 1 to 10 and otherwise annotating the images of their schoolmates in a way only high schoolers can manage. The genesis of Facebook lies in the adolescent objectification and classification of the members of one's peer group: alienation as adult identity formation.

When I got home after the movie, I found the new issue of The New York Review of Books in my mailbox, the featured cover story a review of the movie by Zadie Smith. Smith uses the movie, and her own recollections of similar late adolescent identity formation, to launch an insightful consideration of the evolution of the self in the age of the social web:

When a human being becomes a set of data on a website like Facebook, he or she is reduced. Everything shrinks. Individual character. Friendships. Language. Sensibility. In a way it’s a transcendent experience: we lose our bodies, our messy feelings, our desires, our fears. It reminds me that those of us who turn in disgust from what we consider an overinflated liberal-bourgeois sense of self should be careful what we wish for: our denuded networked selves don’t look more free, they just look more owned.

Smith is onto a powerful truth here: that cyber-emancipation and the ascendance of technological meritocracy achieve liberation from the confining primate identity tags of class and geography by replacing them with systems of symbolic language that accelerate the reduction of life into its purest transactional essence.

Code mediates social interaction in a revolutionary way we don't yet really appreciate. Code tolerates long-winded spans of natural language, like this blog post, but what it really wants are numbers and more efficient encryptions of human feeling in to text (LOL)—to facilitate our enslavement to Moore's Law.

Consider how the choice of application interface confines self-expression and promotes sameness—how everyone's iPhoto album or Flickr page looks basically the same. The Singularity-in-progress looks about as diverse as a suburban neighborhood, lot after lot packed with homes from the same builder, varying only surface details in the basic design—look at those window treatments!—to create the illusion of self-expression. No wonder that web pioneers like the Boing Boing crew lead the DIY Maker path, sensing the need to balance it out with equal devotion to hand made things.

Code's leveling effects also help to obliterate class, by transforming each brain plugged into the network into an input that is instantly proletarianized and pressed to operate at the speed of the photons that carry the information. A new meritocracy in which we are judged by the processing power of our wetware, the standouts the ones who can make the most inventive and insightful new connections between disparate chunks of information in the network, and the ones who can do it while retaining a sense of signature style when the bits are recomposed into human-readable form. The new Winkelvoss übermenschen are the most adept inhabitants of the Matrix—the ones who are so at home there, that the machine master lets them run off leash.

The most revolutionary and insidious quality of Facebook, considered in this context, is how it transforms self-expression into the obliteration of self. The application interface is all about breaking down privacy to let us know what each other are thinking, what we are doing, what our backstories are (see, e.g., the proclivity of people to post faded childhood photos, everyone and ennui-drunk Deckard trolling their artificial sepia memories in some anonymous flat). The Zuckerberg project is the elimination of adolescent alienation —the solitary male introvert reengineering the world to enable him to connect with those around him through his preferred binary medium. The result, a realm which reveals, replicates, propagates, our basic sameness, drumming out unique traits of bona fide individuality with the persistent reduction of our qualities and preferences into overlapping sets. Yes, I Partied at the Deadwood in the 80s. Zadie Smith on the way Zuckerberg approached the ethical question once his social network exploded:

Why? Why Facebook? Why this format? Why do it like that? Why not do it another way? The striking thing about the real Zuckerberg, in video and in print, is the relative banality of his ideas concerning the “Why” of Facebook. He uses the word “connect” as believers use the word “Jesus,” as if it were sacred in and of itself: “So the idea is really that, um, the site helps everyone connect with people and share information with the people they want to stay connected with….” Connection is the goal. The quality of that connection, the quality of the information that passes through it, the quality of the relationship that connection permits—none of this is important. That a lot of social networking software explicitly encourages people to make weak, superficial connections with each other (as Malcolm Gladwell has recently argued), and that this might not be an entirely positive thing, seem to never have occurred to him.

He is, to say the least, dispassionate about the philosophical questions concerning privacy—and sociality itself—raised by his ingenious program. Watching him interviewed I found myself waiting for the verbal wit, the controlled and articulate sarcasm of that famous Zuckerberg kid—then remembered that was only Sorkin. The real Zuckerberg is much more like his website, on each page of which, once upon a time (2004), he emblazoned the legend: A Mark Zuckerberg Production. Controlled but dull, bright and clean but uniformly plain, nonideological, affectless.

In Zuckerberg’s New Yorker profile it is revealed that his own Facebook page lists, among his interests, Minimalism, revolutions, and “eliminating desire.” We also learn of his affection for the culture and writings of ancient Greece. Perhaps this is the disjunct between real Zuckerberg and fake Zuckerberg: the movie places him in the Roman world of betrayal and excess, but the real Zuckerberg may belong in the Greek, perhaps with the Stoics (“eliminating desire”?). There’s a clue in the two Zuckerbergs’ relative physiognomies: real Zuckerberg (especially in profile) is Greek sculpture, noble, featureless, a little like the Doryphorus (only facially, mind—his torso is definitely not seven times his head). Fake Mark looks Roman, with all the precise facial detail filled in. Zuckerberg, with his steady relationship and his rented house and his refusal to get angry on television even when people are being very rude to him (he sweats instead), has something of the teenage Stoic about him. And of course if you’ve eliminated desire you’ve got nothing to hide, right?

It’s that kind of kid we’re dealing with, the kind who would never screw a groupie in a bar toilet—as happens in the movie—or leave his doctor girlfriend for a Victoria’s Secret model. It’s this type of kid who would think that giving people less privacy was a good idea. What’s striking about Zuckerberg’s vision of an open Internet is the very blandness it requires to function, as Facebook members discovered when the site changed their privacy settings, allowing more things to become more public, with the (unintended?) consequence that your Aunt Dora could suddenly find out you joined the group Queer Nation last Tuesday. Gay kids became un-gay, partiers took down their party photos, political firebrands put out their fires. In real life we can be all these people on our own terms, in our own way, with whom we choose. For a revealing moment Facebook forgot that. Or else got bored of waiting for us to change in the ways it’s betting we will. On the question of privacy, Zuckerberg informed the world: “That social norm is just something that has evolved over time.”

The morning after watching The Social Network, I read that Google had just increased its investment in 23andMe, a personal genomics and bioinformatics company devoted to helping consumers understand their own genetic information. Turns out Sergey Brin is married to founder Anne Wojcicki. If Facebook is an exemplar of how networked computing drives the evolution of the self, what will happen when the information transcends my favorite bands and my hometown to reveal my deeper genetic encoding? What will that do to the idea of difference, and the idea of the language and aesthetics-expressed self? And if biological systems are just another form of network (see Nobel Laureate Paul Nurse's recent remarks about DNA-based wetware as logical computational machines), what happens when they really get integrated with silicon-based IT? It will be something more than the Google Books of the human genome: imagine all of biological nature reduced to its informatic bits, manipulable with human toolsets. And then wonder what Capital will do with *that*.

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