Tuesday, March 29, 2011

A Call to Action

Science fiction writer, journalist, futurist, visionary, Bruce Sterling, calls on 'Millennials' to unite, go out there and make the world the better place they know it can be:

Part 2 and Part 3 are both available on YouTube.

I think he means us, you know.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Social Network

I just bought this on BluRay and, having rewatched both The Social Network and Inception, I now feel that I am in a position to say, by a hair's breadth, The Social Network was my favourite film of 2010.

In another close run thing, The Social Network score just tips Hans Zimmer's (also excellent) Inception score to the post as my favourite movie soundtrack of 2010. I am listening to Trent Reznor and Atticus Rose's beautiful, hauting (now Oscar winning - unbelievable, Oscar got something right!) score, as I write this:


Taking it back to the start

When I first heard about the idea for this movie I thought, that is it, they've given up, Hollywood has completely run out of ideas, what a nice little 20th century endeavour cinema was, it was fun while it lasted. Then I started to read about who was involved in what was disparagingly dubbed 'The Facebook Movie' - David Fincher of Seven and Fight Club (dark, introspective movies with something to say about modern America) and Aaron Sorkin, the man who created and wrote much of The West Wing (one of the best loved modern American TV series in recent memory). This piqued by interest but did not assuage my concerns.

As time went by, my opinion softened and I started to think that maybe we would get a Wall Street for the modern age, a cheesy, zeitgeisty snapshot that would age badly, but which might encapsulate some of our early 21st century concerns. Then, when I saw the first full length theatrical trailer (which unexpectedly premiered in front of Inception, opposed to online (ironic, huh?)), my expectations skyrocketed - and the film delivered.

The combination of Fincher's cold, existential outlook and Sorkin's warm humanism is superb. The characters are all posessed of the kind of sassy intellect Sorkin has always used to portray the relentless over achievers he likes to write about, but each character is made to seem naturalistic in the setting Fincher creates. His directoral style is less showy than it has been in some of his previous films, but no less bravura, with rapid editing and subtle special effects work which focus our attention on story and characters.

Excepting the vast quantities of money involved and the fact that facebook.com is now one of the world's true phenomena, the story itself might seem a little slight. But, the performances, once again, draw you in. I recognise versions of all of the people portrayed from my own time at university. Quite a different experience to the one that Mark Zuckerberg enjoyed at Harvard, but also not different in important ways which Fincher captures perfectly. The way the film plays out, one almost gets the sense that it could have been me (you) and my mates (your mates) who invented the world's most popular website (in 2010, Facebook overtook Google as the most visited site on the net) and ended up suing each other for hundreds of millions of dollars after the big boys - high priced lawyers, silver-tongued entreprenuers and venture capital firms - got involved.

Crucially, all of the actors are the right ages and the film's casting is spot on. Jesse Eisenberg plays Mark Zuckerberg as brilliant, arrogant and aloof. British Actor and soon to be Spider-Man, Andrew Garfield, plays Eduardo Saverin (Mark's former business partner and, according to the film at least, his 'only friend') as a deer in the headlights who maybe should have known better. While Armie Hammer brings nuance to the twin roles (pun intended) of Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, the genetic clones who claim that Mark stole their idea. The most surprising turn, however, is that of Justin Timberlake (yes, that one!), who is smarmily brilliant as geek idol Sean Parker, the man who helped to create Napster at the tender age of 19, and who now owns a seven percent stake in Facebook.

The one reservation I have is that the film is so beguiling, so fantastically executed as a piece of laser-targetted drama, some people are going to mistake this fiction for fact. Moreover, some of the changes the filmmakers make to the real life story are worse than irksome. The misoginist views shared on Mark's blog, near the start of the film, are not his own, and the decision to ommit the fact that the real facemash.com was a site that rated both women AND men according to their hotness, has more than a whiff of character assassination about it. The portions of Mark Zuckerberg's livejournal blog (still available online) about coding, on the other hand, are preserved word for word and are truly fascinating. The fact is, there was no need to invent in order to make the story more interesting. Indeed, there are far more serious charges regarding the errosion of personal privacy which the filmmakers might have layed at Mark's door (words for another time), but instead, they choose to pursue the faux Hollywood idea that he created the site to impress/spite his ex-girlfriend.

Putting those reservations to one side, however, The Social Network truly feels like a story for our time. And when I say our time, I mean our time, us, the people who are Mark's age. We are starting to move out into the real world and becoming political actors in it. Big, bold, scary (in an an oh-my-god-the-money-and-the-global-implications sort of way), for better or worse, this is the world we are living in right now.

Sunday, March 06, 2011


To those of you trying to better understand the recent global financial crisis (GFC), I highly recommend you read this book:

And watch this film:

Whoops: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and Why Nobody Can Pay
is a non-fiction book written by a British novelist about the events leading up to the global financial crisis in 2008. It provides an excellent introduction to obstruse banking terms, such as collaterised debt obligations (CDOs) and credit default swaps (CDSs), and, just in case you are particularly financially ignorant (as I am), a beginner's guide to balance sheets, equity, leverage and securitisation as well. Written by a novelist, as opposed to an economist, the book is firmly rooted in a recognisable human reality, where intellectual arrogance, free market economics and lots, and lots of money, combined to create a heady mix that led some people to conlcude what we were witnessing was 'the end of boom and bust'.

However, where Whoops! emphasises the Pythonesque absurdity of it all, the principal register of Inside Job is one of bitterness and betrayal. Perhaps it is significant that Whoops! was written by a British novelist, whereas Inside Job was made by a group of American filmmakers.

The main purpose of the film seems to be to expose some of the lies (or, pieces of recieved wisdom) that have grown up around the global financial crisis. And, to my mind, it has three big whoopers in its sights.

The first: no one saw the crash coming and the ensuing crisis was unforeseeable.

The film tells us that the FBI were briefing about systemic fraud and improper accounting in the financial services industry as early as 2004; and, in 2005, (then) Chief Economist at the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Raghuram Rajan, published a paper - 'Has Financial Development Made the World Riskier' - in which he surmised that financial deregulation and incentive structures (read: bonuses) had substantially increased the likelyhood of a "full-blown financial crisis" or a "catastrophic meltdown." Still, nothing was done.

The second:

The people responsible for the crash - senior banking executives, government regulators, credit ratings agencies and economic researchers - were not aware of the risks or the broader implications that their actions would have.

According to the film, these people were not only aware of the risks but complicit in esculating said risks because it was in their own self interest. Basically, bankers and traders were allowed to play fast and loose with other people's money and excessive risk taking was rewarded.

And the third:

It was a systemic failure, part of the culture and so we do not know exactly who was respondible.

Inside Job points the finger directly at several individuals, many of whom now occupy senior positions within the Obama White House, implicating them because public policy is not something that happens by accident.

All interesting stuff and well worth checking out for yourself.

Now, what are we going to do to try and avoid the same thing happening again?