Early on in the new hit film The Social Network, computer whiz kid Mark Zuckerberg (played by Jesse Eisenberg) gets an idea for his new website and rushes from a building on campus at Harvard University to his dorm at Harvard University. It is night and there is snow on the ground. Even at the late hour the paths are clogged with people; Mark has to weave his way through crowds. Antique street lamps pump out hot electricity. Lights in the buildings are ablaze everywhere. It's a frenzy, a beehive, a center of human intellectual fervidity.
The impression you are supposed to be left with: smart people never sleep.
They apparently never shut up, either, which, if true, makes me happy that I didn't go to Harvard or any place like it. The Social Network is full of smart people who are so hyped up on their own overactive brain synapsicity they can't stop making rapid-fire pronouncements on everything from Lewis Carroll allusions to the founder of Victoria's Secret.
It's entertaining for sure. Reviews have emphasized how the film is so talky and yet it pulls you along with its pacing, as if it is an action film rather than a prolonged flashback from a court deposition. That must be due largely to the writer Aaron Sorkin, who made the television show The West Wing a wonderful thing to watch, even though it was mostly people talking.
And there is something unsettling there, too. The American ethos doesn't put that much stock into intellectuals, and this movie exploits that. One of my favorite stories of all time involves Governor of Illinois Adlai Stevenson, candidate for president against Dwight Eisenhower in 1952. At one point in the campaign, Stevenson is shaking hands and a woman cries out, "Mr. Stevenson, all thinking people in the United States are for you." And Stevenson called back, "I'm afraid, madam, that won't be enough."
One of the subcurrents of the fiscal crisis of 2008, according to writer Calvin Trillin, was that very smart young people had gotten bored with then normal jobs available to them and had come to the world of finance. Some of those smart kids invented new, risky, hard-to-understand ways to gamble money on the financial markets, and this risky, entrepreneurial nothing-to-lose-ism was what brought us down.
Even though Facebook, the subject of The Social Network, hasn't done any tangible damage to our national household, I left the movie feeling that it had.
For sure, I think the movie wanted everyone to feel that Sean Parker, the creator of the Napster file-sharing system and the man responsible for the destruction of the traditional music industry, was the real villain of the movie.
As an intellectual myself, I resist the mythological notion that we do need to rein in those wunderkinds who are changing the landscape of our great nation. At the same time, I very much sympathize with this bit of dialogue from Trillin's article about smart kids and the financial meltdown:
"So having smart guys there almost caused Wall Street to collapse.”
“You got it,” he said. “It took you awhile, but you got it.”
The theory sounded too simple to be true, but right offhand I couldn’t find any flaws in it. I found myself contemplating the sort of havoc a horde of smart guys could wreak in other industries. I saw those industries falling one by one, done in by superior intelligence. “I think I need a drink,” I said.
But that's only the surface level of what made The Social Network so jangly for me. There was also a decided lack of grace, lack of love, lack of charity among all those smart folk. I don't mean charity in terms of giving hundreds of millions of dollars away, as Mark Zuckerberg has just done. I mean charity in terms of letting go of one's desire to achieve and win, and doing right by someone else, even if it means losing some money. But that would not have made a good movie, and I wonder if anyone knows whether it makes good business sense.