The idea that technology might be used to tyrannise people has long been a staple of film and literature.
George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four predicted mass surveillance decades before it was technologically possible, while as far back as 1927 Fritz Lang’s Metropolis imagined a world where a ruling elite use machines to control the working class.
More recently, films such as The Matrix (1999) and The Terminator (1984) opined that robots may one day outsmart and enslave us. The 1983 film WarGames was arguably the first to explore the threat from the burgeoning World Wide Web, where Matthew Broderick’s wisecracking hacker almost starts World War Three after he accesses the American government’s nuclear defence system and, thinking it’s a game like Minesweeper, nearly nukes Russia. Such is life. Of course, in 1983 the Internet was little more than a network of academic servers that took ages to load a single page, and most people didn’t even own a computer. People in those days could not have dreamed what the future held.
In the decades following WarGames there were several films made about the Internet, mostly schlocky thrillers involving murder and mayhem. Then, in 2010, The Social Network arrived. The story of the founding of Facebook sounded quite dull compared to a movie about nuclear annihilation, but proved to be oddly captivating, with Jesse Eisenberg channelling Macbeth in a hoodie as Mark Zuckerberg, the aloof Harvard dropout who creates a social media empire while stabbing everybody in the back in the process. Aaron Sorkin’s script is sculpted with surgical precision, while David Fincher brings the brooding tone of his masterpiece Fight Club to create a work that holds 96% on Rotten Tomatoes. The film helped to set up Zuckerberg as a counterculture hero, the ultimate entrepreneur who made billions while still being as rude as he wanted. The Internet was finally cool. Geeky computer programmers became the new rock stars. Shortly after the film came out, Zuckerberg topped a poll of people that millennials most wanted to be.
But the age of the Internet moves forward very quickly. In 2013, Edward Snowden revealed how the NSA and other security agencies had been spying on everybody, and that companies such as Facebook had been involved. Zuckerberg tried to do damage control, but his street cred was already dissolving. He was increasingly seeming less like an iconoclast leading a revolution and more like a tech tyrant, running his own empire with little consideration for the rights of his subjects. That same year, The Fifth Estate dramatized the WikiLeaks saga. Though the film was not met with the level of critical acclaim that The Social Network had been, it did restructure the narrative about the prominent figures of the Internet.
On the one hand you’ve got Julian Assange who risks his own freedom to expose government corruption and collusion, and on the other you’ve got Mark Zuckerberg getting rich off harvesting your personal data. Assange is definitely a polarizing figure, but he does at least seem to be motivated by something beyond personal gain.
In 2014, Citizenfour was released, a documentary about the Snowden leaks that demonstrated that no matter how paranoid you are, it’s worse than you thought. That same year brought us The Internet’s Own Boy, the story of Aaron Swartz, a child prodigy whose own battle for a free internet saw him bullied by the American government into committing suicide at the age of 26. The tide of public opinion was swiftly turning.
Now we have Oliver Stone’s telling of Edward Snowden’s story, which makes the efforts of the East German Stasi in The Lives of Others seem quaint by comparison. Whereas Citizenfour was primarily about the acts and extent of government spying that Snowden revealed, Stone aims to give an insight into the mind of the man himself. Snowden is the anti-Zuckerberg. Snowden places privacy as paramount, whereas Zuckerberg once declared privacy “is no longer a social norm”.
Regardless of your opinion of Snowden, it’s clear he opened a dialogue that we as a society needed. There is a dark irony in the coincidence that Snowden has been released just a few weeks after Theresa May pushed the Snooper’s Charter through parliament, which Snowden described as the most invasive surveillance system ever enacted in a democracy. Re-watching The Social Network is a slightly sobering experience now. The awe about the Internet and cool image of the tech start-ups has now been replaced by paranoia and distrust; 2010 is a lifetime ago in the Internet age.
Now, in 2016, knowing what we do, The Social Network has a different tone than it used to. The optimism is gone. Instead we see the beginning of the rise of the real Big Brother, or perhaps we should call it Big Friend.
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