Friday, December 23, 2011

An Historical Perspective

Niall Ferguson is a Harvard-based historian who has written multiple books and presented accompanying TV shows, which each seem to have caught precipitous waves of popular sentiment upon publication and broadcast – most notably, Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World (2003), a book about the British Empire viewed as a balance sheet (negatives and positives); The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World (2008), a book about global financial history, published at the height of the banking crisis; and, most recently, Civilisation: The West and the Rest (2010), a book the West's rise to a position of global dominance and the possibility that it might decline and fall in the wake of emerging powers such as China and India.

Ferguson's contention is that for the past 500 years the most important story in global history has been the dominance of the West (Western Europe and latterly the United States and Australia) over the Rest. Adopting modern Web 2.0 business speak, he outlines the Six Killer Applications or Killer Apps that he believes have assured Western dominance, which the rest of the world has now 'downloaded' ensuring a precipitous increase in wealth and living standards. The Apps or - to adopt the parlance of academia - 'Ideas Embodied by Institutions', seem almost hand-picked to annoy the kinds of right-on Leftists who like to assert that white European (but especially British) and American Protestant Christians are among the most malign creatures to have ever walked the Earth.

The ideas or institutions he chooses are: Competition, Science, Private Property, Medicine, Consumption and the Work Ethic. Some of these were present in other societies at different times, but only in the West could one find all six. 

Competition, he says, is what led the comparatively small, poor, warring states of Western Europe to expand eastward to India and westward to the Americas - Britain, Spain, France, Portugal and Holland all had empires - while monocultural China, which was a far more advanced society than any of its 15th Century equivalents, inexplicably retreated, becoming insular.

The Scientific Revolution of the 17th Century owed a great debt to the work of scholars and innovators in the Middle East, which preserved and built upon the knowledge of the Roman Empire, forgotten to the European Dark Ages. But the works of Leibniz, Newton and Spinoza were a distinctly European affair because the Christian church was more open to compromise than its Islamic equivalent. This meant that the printing press, possibly the most important information technology of all time, spread throughout the West in the 16th Century. Ferguson parallels the rise of Prussia, which was at the forefront of modern military innovation, with that of the Ottoman Empire, which rejected the scientific advances and suffered a centuries-long decline.

The chapter in which Ferguson tells us that Private Property Rights were the most important tenant for the founding of the modern democratic state raises a lot of questions. Primarily, why did I not pay more attention during my Enlightenment course? In order to explain the impact that different models of ownership can have upon political outcome he compares and contrasts what happened in Latin America, which was collonised by the Spanish and the Portuguese, with what happened in North American, which was collonised by the British. In doing so he references works by Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire, along with numerous documents associated with the French and American Revolutions - all of which were on my university reading list. Now I feel like I need to go back and read them all again (along with Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith) just so I can be on the same page as my more studious peers. Listen to your teacher, kids!

Modern medicine is one of the most important and often neglected benefits of imperial rule, Ferguson tells us. Wherever Europeans went they took their medicines, and life expectancy around the world in the late 19th century doubled as a result. This is a point that can be better understood in the broad swath of history Ferguson addresses, as opposed to in the particular, wherein European regimes did horrible things to native peoples, in Africa, in particular.

Consumption, which Ferguson allies to the Industrial Revolution, was the reason why Britain became by far the most wealthy country in the world in the 19th century he asserts. Expressing his disdain for Marx, he explains that it was consumer demand (as opposed to the subjugation of workers by a malign economic machine) which led to rapidly increasing living standards, prosperity and wealth. He does endorse the excesses of Capitalism or the sometimes overbearing marketing that has come to define it in the West, but posits that it was Capitalism and Consumerism, not state Communism, that gave people financial independence and, therefore, creative freedom and political expression.

This is also intimately linked to the last of the West's Six Killer Apps, something that Ferguson says is now diminishing in the West: the Work Ethic. Provocatively, he links the work ethic to Christian and, more especially, Protestant ideals. 

In his final analysis, Ferguson turns his attention to China, now predicted to become the world's largest economy by 2030, and its seemingly symbiotic relationship with the United States. Ferguson's message is clear - the Rest have caught up by recognising the best in the West and we would be well advised not to loose faith in the institutions that have done so much good for the world.

Of course, I am in no position to confirm nor disconfirm any of Ferguson's conclusions. But I find much of his central argument convincing, and want to read more. "A great civilisation is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself within," runs the famous quote. I think that we in the West, and, in Britain, in particular, would be well advised should stop beating up on ourselves quite so much. Recognise the problems and try to address them, of course, but stop with the self-flagellation. That is my very simple prescription. If you want a historical perspective, I recommend you read Ferguson's - An Historical Perspective - Keyword description

It Must Be Christmas

The big Hollywood studios are really spoiling us with trailers for their 2012 releases coming thick and fast over the last few days. Anyone would think it was Christmas...

Men in Black 3

First up is possibly the least anticipated sequel of 2012 - Men in Black 3. The trailer outlines the basic plot. Tommy Lee Jones' Agent K has vanished from the present day so Will Smith's Agent J must travel back to 1969 to right what once when wrong, enlisting the help of a young Agent K, played by Tommy Lee Jones' No Country For Old Man co-star and Goonies alumni Josh Brolin.

  • Will Smith back doing comedy.
  • Time travel, aliens, secret organisations - a science fiction universe in which almost anything can happen.
  •  Josh Brolin doing his best deadpan Tommy Lee Jones impression.
  • 10 years after the last sequel and 15 years (15 years!) since the original MiB, does anyone actually care about this franchise anymore?
  •  Will Smith playing it very safe. An actor in his position surely has the power to take a few more chances. He was reportedly offered the lead role in Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained and the Wachowskis' Hood, a science fiction fable updating ye olde English myth. He said no to those but yes to Men in Black 3.
  • Not enough of Tommy Lee Jones at his deadpan best.
The Hobbit

After some messing about with Guillermo del Toro in the directors chair, Peter Jackson finally stepped up to helm the inevitable (given the financial success of The Lord of the Rings) The Hobbit movie. Martin Freeman is in my view perfectly cast as reluctant but plucky hero Bilbo Baggins, invited to be part of a rollicking adventure by an old wizard and a troupe of dwarves.

  • Ian McKellen as Gandalf the Grey, looking and sounding like it is 2001 all over again.
  • Peter Jackson's fluid camera, Andrew Lesley's beautiful colour co-ordinated photography and Weta Digital's near perfect integration of models and CGI effects.
  • Riddles in the Dark!
  • Can they really re-create the magic that made the Lord of the Rings work so well?
  • Just how much of the story are they going to change in order to ensure 'old favourites' - Frodo, Elrond, Galadriel and Legolas (none of which feature in the original Tolkien novel) - can make crowd-pleasing appearances?
  • Will Peter Jackson have the guts to fulfil on the promise of a Hobbit movie, which is a quite different beast to The Lord of the Rings, or will this be another LOTR sequel in all but name?
The Dark Knight Rises

Christopher Nolan's follow up to the billion-dollar Dark Knight (2008) and his first film since Inception promises to be another big budget Blockbuster with brains. While The Dark Knight was a metaphor the War on Terror - Batman as George W. Bush, Harvey Dent as Barack Obama and the Joker as a terrorist - Nolan's zeitgeist-aping extravaganza seems to want to take billionaire Bruce Wayne down a step or two by confronting him with a violent representative of the 99 percent - Tom Hardy's Bane.

  • The conclusion of Nolan's Dark Knight saga promises to be bigger than ever.
  • Tom Hardy playing a villain.
  • The story is still shrouded in mystery but as this is definitely the last part in the series, expect high stakes and twists and turns aplenty.
  • Another sequel?
  • Bane, Catwoman and (possibly) *someone else* as well - will the film suffer from the perennial comic book problem of Too Many Villains Spoil the Broth?
  • Too sombre for a Blockbuster? - It Must Be Christmas - Keyword description

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Fun For All the Family

Like so many of the best Hollywood movies, Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1987) is a movie about movies or, to put it another way, the art of artifice; Hollywood types, in common with so many others, it seems, like nothing more than talking about themselves.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a joyous celebration of the art of the fantastic. Set in an alternative LA reminiscent of The Big Sleep and Chinatown in particular, Bob Hoskins plays a private dick with a drinking problem and an accent somewhere in the mid-Atlantic. A mysterious conglomerate called Cloverleaf Industries is buying up real estate all over town and, oh yeah, cartoons are real. Toon Town is surely one of cinema's most brilliant metaphors for the town that is known to many as the Dream Factory - Hollywood.

The sets, the costumes and the Alan Silvestri score are period perfect. But what impresses most is the speculative logic of the scenario that means, in accordance with their 'nature', toons act in unpredictable and amusing ways. Despite being a wacky knock-about comedy starring pantomiming actors, it is the essential believability of the story, the characters and the scenario that make Who Framed Roger Rabbit stand out from the crowd. From frame one, the film works tirelessly to earn our trust and not once does it lose it.

"My whole purpose in life is to make people laugh", says Roger. "One of these days you're gonna die laughing", says the head of the weasels. One of a million examples of exemplary scenes, shots and standout lines is when Hoskins is cutting through the handcuffs that binds him to Roger, so Roger takes his hand out of the cuffs. "Are you telling me you could have taken your hand out of that cuff at any time", says Hoskins. "No, not at any time", says Roger, "only when it was funny".

A landmark in visual effects upon initial release - audiences were stunned by the verisimilitude of Bob Hoskins and Christopher Lloyd's apparent physical interaction with their virtual co-stars, each individual frame having been painstakingly painted in analogue exactitude - nearly 25 years later, it is the simple storytelling and narrative elegance that mark it out as a landmark in mainstream movie-making. Hoskins performance as the cop who lost his sense of humour when a toon dropped a piano on his brother's head has an unexpected pathose when he is ultimately redeemed by laughter. A laugh can be a very powerful thing", says Roger. Painted in the broadest of brushstrokes but is no less powerful for it, Who Framed Roger Rabbit is Hollywood cinema as it should - Fun For All the Family - Keyword description

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Television Review - Black Mirror Episode One: The National Anthem

The Emperor Has No Clothes

There it is. I said it. I feel better. I bet you do too.

I thought I was going to like Black Mirror, penned by Charlie Brooker for Channel Four. The advertising boiler plate told me it was a dark, contemporary, social satire about technology and ideas - all things I like.

Part one - The National Anthem - involves a fictionalised Kate Middleton figure being kidnapped and threatened with execution, lest a proto-Cameron Prime Minister has sex with a pig, live on television. A shocking set up. But there is a twist. Of course there is a twist - Brooker's stated intention is to make something akin to Tales of the Unexpected or The Twilight Zone (twisted stories that invariably end badly). Cameron (I mean, Prime Minister... Michael Callow), cedes to the kidnapper's demands, to the constenation of his wife and the pity of the nation. Meanwhile, Kate (I mean, Princess... Susannah), it is revealed later, is released into a deserted central London. As it turns out, she was not being held by a sadistic murderer but by a conceptual artist, making a point about society's addiction to sensation and screens.

Shocked? Appalled?

The show was sold as a 'techno-parable for the Twitter age' but apart from a few tasteless YouTube comments and a couple of throwaway lines of dialogue - 'it's trending on Twitter' - all of the focus is on civil servants in their parliamentary offices and journalists in their newsrooms. I assume we are supposed to see these old media types as 'cast adrift', unable to direct public attention or debate. Except, everybody outside of the corridors or power is depicted as an old-media gawper. In an age of media fragmentation, The National Anthem is oddly quaint in its depiction of an event that unites a nation around the television.

To hint at the new media response and then ignore it is an odd choice. More so because, when the twist comes, the programme insinuates that the bovine hoards whom we have seen impassively and dutifully watching their screens are somehow guilty or responsible. Their desire to watch makes them complicit in the heinous act. Those who were in their homes watching the Prime Minister when the Princess was released could have prevented the incident had they had the foresight to go for a walk instead. But, as depicted, none of the the goggle-eyed Idiot Box obsessives has a mind of their own with which to reason. This left me with precious little to which I could relate.

Also, the answer to the central question the film raises - 'Would you watch?' - is a resounding, 'No'. No, I would not watch. Simple as that. So, when it comes to the depiction of the act itself (mercifully off screen) and the dawning horror of the public, I did not feel like the film had earned the right to the burden of guilt it seemed to want to impose on me, the viewer.

Some might argue that the entire point of the show is to make the viewer feel uncomfortable, to make them question their assumptions about 24-hour news media and modern communications technology. Except, it didn't do that either. I have plenty of anxiety about networked culture. But far less anxiety about the ritual humiliation of the British Prime Minister on national television... (There's a joke in there somewhere). What am I missing?

Parables typically revolve around very simple stories. That is what gives them much of their power. This one is confused and, possibly, trying a bit too hard to shock. Still, makes you think, doesn't it? - Television Review Black Mirror Episode One - Keyword description

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Narrative Art

The Story of Film
by Mark Cousins

The Pervert's Guide to Cinema
by Slavoj Zizek

"At the end of the 18th century, a new art form flickered into life. It looked like our dreams. Movies are a multimillion dollar global entertainment industry now, but what drives them is not box office or showbiz; it is passion, innovation. So let's travel the world to find this innovation for ourselves..."

Those are the words that, for the past 15 weeks, have begun Mark Cousins' unprecedented Story of Film, charting cinema's development, right up to the modern day.

Cousins is a terrific film historian - his voice guides the viewer through 110 years of change with gentle assuredness - and his knowledge of international is cinema is clearly second to none (or very few). It is enormously refreshing to watch a film history with a global perspective, one that does not simply re-hash the Hollywood-centred history - Griffith, Chaplin, Film Noir, Musicals, Westerns, John Ford, Easy Rider, Raging Bull, Jaws, Star Wars, High-Concept 80s, Sundance 90s and the Digital Era that followed - with which so many of us are already familiar. Most, if not all, of those elements are featured in the Story of Film, but it is not the dominant narrative. Cousins gives just as much time to films from France, Germany, the UK, Egypt, Iran, China, Japan, Korea, Australia, sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America - and even I, a film obsessive, was introduced to much that was new. There are no cultural or geographical prejudices, everything is respectfully described by Cousin's warm and generous voiceover, for which I am grateful.

Cousins is particularly good at expressing his enthusiasm visual ingenuity and ideas conveyed via the medium of the moving image - regardless of whether it is an MGM musical made by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, a Samurai movie directed by Akira Kurosawa or a dream sequence imagined by Frederico Fellini.

The documentary does lose some of its momentum as it moves into the modern day. Cousins' ideological preferences will not be to everyone's tastes - The Cremaster Cycle by Matthew Barney (a series of avant garde post-modernist art pieces without narrative or dialogue) are described in detail, whereas The Matrix, The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter are dismissed in a sentence. Of course, this kind of selection is inevitable - even in 15 hours it is impossible to include everything that is worthy of comment - but, in the last few parts of the series, as Cousins stretches to find films that fit his 'transgressive' ideal, some of the selections seem less ingenious, more political - Breaking the Waves, Requiem for a Dream and The Rules of Attraction are brutalist dramas that address violent and unpleasant subject matter. But I do not think that necessarily makes them any more authentic than the best of Hollywood fantasy cinema. Our dreams are equally as potent a playground, as Cousins recognises in his championing of the films of David Lynch (Blue Velvet and Mullholand Drive amongst them). In an oddly industrial way, the best of Hollywood's modern digital Blockbusters are as surreal as anything created by Bunuel or Dali.

This contrasts with The Pervert's Guide to Cinema, which is a three part documentary film series presented by Slovenia philosopher and psychoanalyst Slavoj Zizek.

Zizeck draws no distinctions between American and foreign, mainstream and alternative - all forms are equally open to analysis; the dominant ideological position is not what the films themselves projects outwards, but what Zizek reads into them.

Unlike Cousins, with his apparent preference for the authenticity of realism over the abstracted truth of fantasy - the segment on the 1990s is praised as the last gasp of realism, before the digital era arrived to distort our imaginations and by so doing obscure the real world - Zizek posits that no such distinction can or should be made. The real cannot exist without the imagined or the fantasy realm; the two are in constant dialectic with one another, each just as vital, just as important when it comes to elucidating a greater understanding of our culture.

Hitchcock, Tarkovsky, Kieslowski, Lynch and Chaplin, among others are put under the spotlight of Zizek's keenly analytical gaze. Hitchcock and Lynch in particular seem rife for psychoanalytic deconstruction and, oddly, Maybe as a result of Zizek's deadpan, Eastern European delivery, it never sounds like psychobabble. Anyone who fails to appreciate the creepy, pychosexual depths of Hitchcock's Vertigo would be well served by watching Zizek describe the disturbing process of mortification to which Scotty subjects Madeline/Judy - he has to transform her into a dead woman before he can desire her fully - then come back and tell me Hitchcock was a director of mere 'entertainments'.

Zizek says that we should take fantasy seriously because it is just as real as reality, and that film is vitally important because it is the best tool humanity has yet created to plumb the depths of our subconscious and analyse our dreams. I think Cousins would probably agree and, unsurprisingly, I do too.

Of course, it is impossible to compare the two films directly. Zizek picks specific films, which enable him to elaborate on his Freudian psychoanalytic theories, while Cousins attempts to encompass the entire history of world cinema in just 15 hours. What I liked most about both, however, was their sense of subjectivity. I certainly did not agree with every point that they made, but the sight of an active imagination, thinking deeply about cinema and looking beyond the glossy surface we all see, was manor from heaven for a film bore like me. Anyone who feels like they missed out on, or looks back with fondness on, their film degree should check out - Narrative Art - Keyword description

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Enhanced Network Effects

Mark Zuckerberg is one of the foremost business men of our age. Don't be put off by fact that he is 'only' 27 - Steve Jobs was 21 when he (and Steve Wozniak) started Apple and Bill Gates was only 20 when he co-founded Microsoft. He has created a product that is used by millions of people around the world every day (over 800 million active users, at last count) and is the subject of almost endless commentary and speculation. Cutting through the chaff can seem like a daunting task. But do not worry, help is at hand. David Kirkpatrick's 2010 book (already wildly out of date – ha!) The Facebook Effect: The Real Inside Story of Mark Zuckerberg and the World's Fastest Growing Company is a non-partial and well-balanced account of Zuckerberg and Facebook's meteoric rise over the past seven years – from Harvard dorm room to global dominance.

Growing up

The world's first 'social network' was probably the Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link or WELL, an early electronic bulletin board system or BBS, established by Stewart Brand and Larry Brilliant in San Francisco in 1985, mainly frequented by Grateful Dead fans and a few digitally-progressive celebrities, journalists, and artists like Brian Eno and Peter Gabriel. With the birth of the World Wide Web in 1991, the WELL, which operated a present day Forum sites, was supplanted by a bunch of websites that enabled users to create their own 'profile pages' online and interact in that way - Six Degrees of Separation (which still owns the general 'social network' patent that describes Facebook and all other, similar websites), Friendster and MySpace. Furthermore, prior to the creation of Thefacebook in 2004, universities such as Stanford, Yale and Colombia were already beginning to put their facebooks online (note for non-Americans: prior to Facebook becoming the name of one of the most popular websites in the world, 'the facebook' was the name of a book issued by American universities and colleges every year with the names and pictures of every student). In that sense, what Mark Zuckerberg created was not 'new'. The idea was already 'in the air'.

Others claim that the idea was not his at all. Twin rowing champions Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (popularly known as the Winkelvii, if Kirkpatrick's book is to be believed), along with their friend and business partner Divya Narendra, famously sued Zuckerberg claiming damages for intellectual property theft. Prior to the creation of Thefacebook on February 4th 2004, the trio approached Zuckerberg to help them to develop a dating website called Harvard Connection (later ConnectU). The book does not go into detail about the case - I was interested to find out that the 52 email and text correspondences referred to in The Social Network film were real - but pretty much sides with Zuckerberg. As history shows, there is nothing unique about the idea of an online social network.

Even Thefacebook was not the sure thing it looks like in hindsight. In the very early days, Kirkpatrick tells us, Thefacebook one just one of a number of projects being developed by just another enterprising student. For a long time, Mark was seemingly even more interested in developing a project called Wirehog – his idea for a P2P platform that would integrate with Thefacebook in order to allow people to share documents, music, movies and whatever else they wanted. Sean Parker, who became part of the company when Mark moved to Palo Alto (Silicon Valley) in the summer of 2004, discouraged further development of Wirehog, knowing that big media companies, with a lot of money invested in intellectual copywrite in the form of films, music and games would use it as an excuse to shut down Thefacebook, which Parker recognised as being vastly more important.

It was at this time that Mark started to fall out with Eduardo Saverin, with whom he co-founded the company, along with dorm room friends Dustin Moskovitz and Chris Hughes (who, as a matter of interest, went on to co-ordinate Barack Obama's highly successful online campaign in 2008) . The crunch time came when Saverin, for whatever reason, suspended credit being drawn from the company's bank accounts. Once again, the book does not go in detail – apparently, Mark still refuses to talk about what happened between the two – but, over that summer Mark invested roughly US$85,000 of his and his parent's money in order to stop the servers from falling over, as site traffic continued to grow at a staggering pace.

This is the short version of the story told in The Social Network, from Mark Zuckerberg's point of view. One of the things that the film was most wrong about was Mark's desire for Thefacebook (as it was then) to be 'cool'. His vision was far greater than that, even early on. Being cool was what gave Thefacebook its start, attracting vast numbers of the children of America's social and economic elite at Harvard, before going on to do the same at schools and colleges nationwide. The Winkelvoss twins were right in at least one respect – the domain name gave the site both a cool factor and a credibility factor, which was enormously valuable when it came to attracting a wider audience. But, in Mark's, and later Sean Parker's view, Facebook would know it has succeeded when it stopped being 'cool' and instead made itself 'useful' – then everybody would want to be a member. The people at the company foresee Facebook eventually becoming part of the infrastructure of the internet – less of a brand and more like something people just take for granted.

Not Selling Out

Sean Parker, whose experience working with web start-up companies during the dot-com bubble was clearly invaluable to Mark early on, became one of his closest confidants and a trusted advisor. According to Kirkpatrick, Parker was probably the man most responsible for enshrining Mark Zuckerberg at the centre of Facebook's corporate structure, a far cry from the snake oil salesman played by Justin Timberlake in David Fincher's very entertaining but inaccurate movie. Indeed, it was Parker who arranged for Peter Thiel, who had co-founded PayPal and later sold the company to eBay for US$1.5 billion, to become Thefacebook's first 'angel investor'. Thiel put in US$500,000 of his own money to pay for development costs and new server racks in return for an ownership share and a seat on the company's board – a position that Thiel retains to this day.

Facebook's growth attracted interest from all over Silicon Valley and both Zuckerberg and Parker knew, the only way to pay to keep the site running was an investment round of some kind. Typically, that would have meant selling a substantial portion of the company to a Venture Capital firm, which would have supported site the with investment, but which would have probably demanded a rapid move towards monetisation, adult supervision in the form of professional management and an IPO sooner rather than later. Zuckerberg favoured doing a deal with The Washington Post, the CEO of which, Don Graham, believed in the project to the extent that he was willing to invest without making any demands on the future direction of the company – he wanted Zuckerberg to develop the business at his own pace, in the best way that he saw fit.

In the end, Facebook did a deal with one of the biggest Venture Capital firms in the Valley, Accel Partners, but not before Sean Parker had crowned Zuckerberg 'King of Facebook' – he negotiated a deal that gave board seats to Mark, Peter Thiel, Accel Partners and himself, with another seat to be assigned at Mark's discretion – when Parker left the company in 2005, his board seat also reverted to Mark. I feel slightly more comfortable about Facebook knowing that, for the time being at least, Mark Zuckerberg has a whip hand in guiding the company's future direction. As described in the book, he has shown appropriate humility and restraint whenever he has gotten something wrong, and listened to user criticism when it has been appropriate for him to do so.

It is interesting to read about the relatively calm head he kept during his baptism of fire as CEO of a major technology company, listening to and, ultimately, rejecting increasingly extravagant bids to buy the company from Viacom, AOL, Yahoo, and even, later, Microsoft, fighting his corner and winning most of the boardroom battles. The anecdote about the time when he spent four hours at some high-powered event talking to Rupert Murdoch, while the CEO of MySpace (which News Corporation acquired in 2005) looked on, forlorn, gives a little glimpse into the even more elite world (he went to Harvard for goodness sake!) into which Zuckerberg was being inducted.


Zuckerberg says that the 'mission' of the company is to make the world more 'open and connected' because he believes that doing so will make the world a better place. Maybe I am naive, but I think he is being genuine. Despite the fact that I am not a billionaire business man living in Silicon Valley, I feel like I have a pretty decent understanding of where Mark Zuckerberg is coming from. We are around the same age and both share similar interests. However, personally, I worry that his heartfelt idealism may be a very convenient way for powerful interests to push an agenda that benefits a few big businesses, over the interests of the millions of people who use Facebook to communicate with loved ones.

I would contend that Mark Zuckerberg has not necessarily thought through his ideas about 'openess and transparency' as well as he might. Just because he believes that a more open and transparent society will be better does not necessarily make it so, and just because more and more people are sharing more and more of their personally identifiable information on Facebook does not necessarily mean that they want the world to be more open and transparent, in the sense that Mark Zuckerberg does. That might sound like a contradiction. But it is not. Mark's seemingly ineluctable conclusion is that more and more people must want to share more and more details about their lives online because they are posting more on Facebook. This is incorrect. I think that the vast majority of people who post frequent Facebook updates do so in the mistaken belief that the information they post is not being posted 'online', as such, but is being distributed amongst a self-selected groupings of friends, family, colleagues and associates. People feel comfortable sharing their lives with people on Facebook because the site is a walled garden. My contention is that these people do not understand the relationship that they have with the company which mediates communication on the site, and would be quite creeped out by the kinds of profiles Facebook can create about them and their lives.

Marketers already deploy sophisticated techniques in their advertising 'messages' as a way of getting inside people's heads in order to make them want to buy things. If we gift them still more information about ourselves, as we do when we use Facebook, it will certainly be used to develop still more sophisticated tools for targeting advertising at individuals. I worry about where that ends and the seemingly subservient position in which it places lowly consumers. The biggest problem with the site is that, for all of its protestations about openess and transparency, Facebook's business activities are staggeringly opaque. The relationship between Facebook, the company, and its most active users is completely asynchronous; users share lots of intimate information about their daily lives – information intended for friends and family – and Facebook logs and stores it all, while we know nothing about the partners with which Facebook shares that information, in an aggregated form, or what those partners then use it for. If openess and transparency is the order of the day, users should request Facebook disclose all such agreements.

Moreover, I have a problem with Zuckerberg's assertion that 'you have one identity' and that having more than one identity is a sign that you lack 'integrity'. I wonder if he still stands by those comments. It was a couple of years ago. Digital commentator and inventor Jaron Lanier posits the question: how would Bob Dylan have gotten along as a quasi-mystical pop troubadour if he still had the nervous boy from Minnesota hung around his neck, like a mill stone dragging him back down to Earth? Seen in that context, I think you can begin to see that re-invention is important, maybe even necessary – especially for young people, who, consequently, also tend to be among the most avid Facebook users. A Facebook identity is a very limited representation of a person and I think that people are diminished when they start to think about themselves in terms of what will look good on their 'Wall'.

Planet Facebook

To its credit, the book does at least address most of the difficult issues. Both Mark Zuckerberg and Peter Thiel talk about Facebook's vision for the internet as a place with people at its centre, as opposed to Google's vision, which in their view, has computers and data at its centre. It is heartening to know that the people who control these very large companies are at least thinking about the implications of their actions. But they are hardly impassive observers.

If Facebook were a country, it would be the third most populous in the world behind only India and China; it already has more active users (note: active users. Not accounts. Not users who sign up and then forget they have done so. But active users) than live in Brazil, Russia and the United States combined. It is not hyperbole to think about the company in these terms because that is the kind of all-encompassing global vision with which the people at the centre of the organisation view the project upon which they have embarked. Google wants to 'organise all of the world's information', while Facebook seems to be aiming for nothing less than total global domination of the social aspect of the internet. Out of the nearly two billion people in the world who have access to the internet, more than 800 million already have a Facebook account – and Facebook is trying to help the remaining one billion or so get signed up as quickly as possible. In Africa, Facebook subsidises handset manufacturers and carriers to make Facebook free for end users – encouraging massive growth (why use email when you can use Facebook to perform all of the same functions for free?) – and in China, Facebook is negotiating with Baidu (the most popular search engine in that country) to develop a Communist Party-approved social network for use behind The Great Firewall.

At its current rate of growth, it only take a little bit of imagination to envisage a future scenario in which Facebook becomes the universal login for the World Wide Web. No more anonymous comments, no more flame wars (or far fewer), everybody would be immediately identifiable online (the same way you are when you walk down the street) and therefore have to account for their actions. That would be a profound change. But also one with enormous appeal to advertisers and media brands, with Facebook at the centre, managing, maintaining and storing all of the logs while 'pushing' updates in realtime to your friends and family – every purchase, every mouse click, every subtle indiscretion shared. Is that a more open and connected world or is it a vision of a nightmarish surveillance state with Facebook as Big Brother? Not that I am saying it will happen, or is even likely to happen, but it is one possible consequence of Zuckerberg's expansionist zeal. The seeds are already being sowed.

Thousands of partner websites use Facebook Connect, which enables users to avoid the tedium of thinking of and remembering yet another password, to login using their Facebook account. A useful service, but also one that gives Facebook still more information about what you do and where you go elsewhere on the web. The Facebook Like button, which is used by million of partner websites is similar. All of this information is not only shared with your friends and family (depending upon your privacy settings) but with Facebook as well (regardless of your privacy settings). The site has faced relatively frequent backlashes, revolts and mutinies whenever it has introduced a new feature which makes sharing either easier or more automatic. The biggest of these was the News Feed debacle in 2006 – News Feed places alerts about what your friends have been doing on the site (and now elsewhere) on your front page and is now, largely, taken for granted. But, every time, users have settled back into a groove and committed to sharing even more information with the site. So, perhaps Mark is right.

Open government?

If you are anything like me, the story of Facebook's rocket-propelled rise probably makes you feel a little bit woozy – seeing the ground beneath your feet disappearing at such a rate of knots is likely to engender a feeling or vertigo. But the signs seem to show that the company is only just getting started.

In terms of revenue, Facebook is still a comparatively small fish in a very large pond. The company's latest estimated valuation is in the region of US$70 to US$100 billion, based on estimated revenues (because Facebook is a private company it is still quite difficult to gather accurate financial data) of around US$3 billion. That certainly sounds like a lot of money, but compared to Google (market cap US$200 billion, yearly revenues US$35 billion), Microsoft (market cap US$212 billion, yearly revenues US$71 billion) and Apple (market cap US$362 billion, yearly revenues US$108 billion), Facebook has still got a pretty long way to go to match the big boys.

We have not really seen a convincing business model from Facebook yet and Mark continues to resist what you might call 'full-scale' commercialisation. But, with an IPO possible in 2012, the company might not have much choice but to put greater emphasis on the commercial side, in order to satisfy the demands of investors on Wall Street. The structures are already in place and, most people seem to agree, the possibilities for future revenue streams are almost limitless. With a slight tweak, Facebook could become the most valuable market research company in the world – forget ratings based on analysis and estimates, Facebook can give you the data; or one of the world's most valuable advertising companies – social signals and the desire to be part of a crowd (the right crowd) are among the most powerful tools any marketer can deploy for building their brand.

In the long-term, however, Zuckerberg is a big fan of taking the long-term view, Kirkpatrick foresees the possibility that Facebook may become something other than a publicly traded stock-holding company. One of the principle 'commodities' Facebook trades in is identity – on Facebook your online identity is verified by the connections between you and your friends, what Zuckerberg has taken to calling the 'Social Graph'. Indeed, Facebook's Social Graph API, which enables web developers to integrate social tools that connect with Facebook's databases, with other websites, is an indication that the company's ambition is to move beyond being just a website to become a 'platform' – part of the underlying infrastructure of the internet, or the Operating System for the Social Web, as some people are starting to say.

So, we are presented with the possibility that your Facebook identity could become your universal digital identity; Facebook has already introduced Facebook credits for buying small tokens on the site because it understands that people feel more comfortable giving their credit card information to Facebook than to another third-party; And Facebook's impact in the social and political sphere is reported almost daily. These are odd situations for a company to find itself in, seemingly more akin to the role of a government – issuing identity documents, guaranteeing currency and exchange, and providing forums for debate. Facebook, already has oblique ties to the highest echelons of the power elite – Chief Operating Officer, Sheryl Sandberg, who played an important role in developing Google's advertising model before joining Facebook in 2008, used to work for US Treasury Secretary, Larry Summers, under the Clinton administration, and is now one of the most important people at Facebook. Companies that have to think like countries – is that where we have arrived at?

As the internet continues to grow, it is only right for the people who make decisions that affect millions of people account for their decisions and are just as open and transparent with us as they want us to be with them. Anyone who has a Facebook account or who knows someone who has a Facebook account should read David Kirkpatrick's book, The Facebook Effect – an invaluable introduction to one of the world's most important companies, told with style and - Enhanced Network Effects - Keyword description