By Peter Block
In 1938 the world was in a depression, war was breaking out in Europe and Al Capone, the gangster, ruled at home. Tough times. In the same year there emerged two comic book superheroes, Superman and Batman. They were instantly popular, and one way to understand that is to view them as a response to the powerlessness most people were feeling. These heroes were invincible and could exert their will over all obstacles. They triumphed where we failed. Superman dealt with Lex Luthor, Batman took on the Joker. They were icons of hope in answer to our helplessness.
Fast forward to the movie "The Social Network" and its instant popularity. I think that its real appeal is that it gives us a modern version of those earlier heroes: Enter Mark Zuckerberg, inventor of Facebook, Master of Technology, "Digitalman!"
We never needed Digitalman more than now. We are all now enmeshed in the digital technology that drives our Internet and media world, and we common mortals stand helpless in face of its demands and complexity. We now not only still have war, recession and crime, but we are drowning in technology.
For every new solution and miracle we purchase -- the iPad, iPod, Blu-ray, Android phones, iPhones, Norton AntiVirus, Roxio, Dropbox, Realplayer, Chrome, plus all things Bluetooth-enabled, to name a few of my obsessions in the last few months -- there are hours upon hours consumed talking to chat lines, help lines, support desks, half the time waiting while they are busy helping other customers. The other half of the time we find that what we have is too old, too slow or too small, and it will cost another $50 to get the help we need. The cable company sends me to the hardware provider, who sends me to the moon.
Then along comes Zuckerberg. Digitalman. Portrayed by actor Jesse Eisenberg, he opens the film by hacking into every system on the Harvard campus to produce a girl vs. girl ranking process to sooth his wounded feeling of rejection. In one night he writes a Web application that creates such volume that all of Harvard's computer servers shut down. Man over institution.
No technical obstacle stands in Zuckerberg's way. He never needs a help line, never is referred to a system administrator, never is asked for an "SSID" or a password that he has not memorized. Everything he touches turns to pure information... gold. He is the digital alchemist who has mastery and confidence over all technology. He is the warrior archetype that holds out the possibility that we control the technology; it does not control us. This longing is what the film speaks to and why it is worth seeing.
Like Batman and Superman, Digitalman has his obstacles. He encounters the handsome, six-foot-four Winklevoss twins who ooze elite, East-Coast establishment. They're the people we love to hate: Harvard men to the core, born to be insiders. Backed by their rich and powerful father, they make hollow claims against Zuckerberg, and amidst racing regattas and arrogant grins, they try to take him down.
There is the innocent Eduardo Saverin, who financed our hero in the early stages but eventually is no match for the real villain in the drama, Sean Parker. Parker is one of the founders of the infamous Napster, the free music service that was shuttered in 2001 for violating copyright laws. Parker is a seductive, confident, hard-partying, hustling Mephistopheles... the Devil. He introduces Digitalman to the VC (Venture Capitalist) world, where Digitalman is dazzled like Ulysses' men under Circe's spell. The Devil ultimately takes Facebook to scale.
For me, however, all of this drama is mere backdrop to the real heroics, which is the will to power in all things digital. It brings me great solace to know there is one person in the world with the power to live in comfort and command of all Internet contingencies; who can outsmart all software mysteries; who has the power to invent a new way for the world to communicate with one another; who could, conceivably, tell a helpline support person that their protocol does not conform to the standards set by the 2010 International Convention on MP3 interstitial conversions.
Digitalman, we need you and salute you. I sleep better knowing that there is one like you, conversant and in command of cyberspace. Superman committed suicide, Batman retired. You are their successor: Hero of the Digital Era. Master of the Information Age.
Of course, Digitalman also has a human persona, a.k.a. Mark Zuckerberg, who shows us some awkward moments -- well, nobody's perfect. Superman had Clark Kent, Batman had Bruce Wayne and Spider-Man had Peter Parker, who also suffered from some mild interpersonal uneasiness. Digitalman's humanity makes him all the more heroic.
Oops, have to go now -- "Steve" from Bangalore has just returned to the support line to help figure out how to connect my wireless LAN adapter.
John McKnight is emeritus professor of education and social policy and co-director of the Asset-Based Community Development Institute at Northwestern University. He is the co-author of "Building Communities from the Inside Out" and the author of "The Careless Society." He has been a community organizer and serves on the boards of several national organizations that support neighborhood development. Peter Block is founder of Designed Learning. They are co-authors of "The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods" (Berrett-Koehler).
For more commentary from McKnight and Block, visit their website, www.AbundantCommunity.com.
Photo credit: Flickr: Greenog