The Social Network: A Defence of Programming

I recently saw The Social Network, a dramatisation of the creation of Facebook. It was a thoroughly enjoyable film with brilliant direction, casting (Eisenberg and Timberlake in particular) and writing. It also had an incredibly realistic hacking scene (using wget and perl scripts) and featured KDE on the desktop of most of the programmers in the film. I highly recommend seeing it, regardless of your thoughts on Facebook.

A friend sent me a link to an interesting review that I was writing a long response to but thought I’d turn it into a blog post instead. The review is fantastically written by Zadie Smith but there’s a few glaring holes in it that frustrated this post into existence.

Smith, like many mainstream journalists and writers, seems to fundamentally understand what makes people like us excited about programming. I’ll respond to some choice quotes from the review.

No doubt the filmmakers considered this option, but you can see their dilemma: how to convey the pleasure of programming — if such a pleasure exists — in a way that is both cinematic and comprehensible?

If such a pleasure exists? Really? She mentions in the review she talked to a “software expert” but she must have avoided this topic of discussion. The pleasure in coding combines creativity (like creating art, no-one will ever write a program the same way as you), building to try to simplify the lives of others and mathematical problem solving. I think the film communicates this fairly well but it’s one of these things that’s pretty much impossible to hide the elements of programming that immediately turn some people off it. Some people find the idea that I sit at my computer typing for most of the day fundamentally boring and there’s not much you can do to argue against this viewpoint other than display the great things that can result from it.

E Pluribus Unum — that’s the point. Here’s my guess: he wants to be like everybody else. He wants to be liked.

It’s a shame that for anyone who is or was ever considered “nerdy” that we fall victim to such poor pop psychology. Just because we weren’t all deemed “cool” in high school doesn’t mean our entire careers are driven by this reductionist need to over-compensate for what others thing we missed out on. Zuckerberg I’d imagine, like most software engineers wants to build something that everyone will think “how did I manage before this came along” and, even if they don’t know he made it, he’ll know that he’s simplified the lives of a lot of people. This is why we do it and this is why we love it.

The fact that Zuckerberg open-sourced his earlier applications (not just gave it away for not monetary value, her review misses this) shows this; he values the pleasure of people using his tool over the monetary return that he could have instead. This also points to why Facebook didn’t take the many chances to sell out to large companies earlier in its existence.

I am dreaming of a Web that caters to a kind of person who no longer exists. A private person, a person who is a mystery, to the world and — which is more important — to herself.

The type of web (and person) she mentions already existed and still exists: you can use private email, private Facebook messages, protected Twitter accounts and use other services that guarantee privacy, even relying on end-to-end encryption so only the sender and receiver can see any content. Arguably, this was the first web, the one many of us were using 10 or 15 years ago. The problem is that she fails to see the flip side of her argument: what about those of us who are very public people, how could we share things with the world without relying on a gatekeeper or third-party before the internet and, arguably, before Web 2.0’s concepts became mainstream?

This is why she’s writing her review in the New York Review and not by monetizing a personal blog. She seems to believe in the gatekeeper, the Web 1.0 (or Person 1.0 from her article) and the tight separation of career and personal life, of the private persona that lives their life and the public persona that does their work (or perhaps I’m the one who is spouting pop psychology now).

As said, this was a brilliantly written review even although I disagree with many of the arguments in it. The Social Network (and indeed Facebook itself) is a great advertisement for the beauty and power of software: that someone can produce something that will change the world from their university dorm room with scarce resources, no corporate sponsors, some programming experience and a lot of hard work. It’s the antithesis of programs like X Factor and other reality TV that spouts the lie to society that success comes from being lucky enough to be picked by a corporation and that fame itself is the thing worth striving for.

Start showing films like The Social Network in schools. Get high school kids writing software rather than the letters in Word. Teach them how to write Facebook and mobile applications, programs that they and their friends will use outside of school. Let us, as software engineers, rekindle the passion that got us into this field in the first place and let’s see a return to late-night coding binges and building useful stuff for fun. Let’s see the youth of tomorrow look at our field and think “wow, that’s cool, I want to do that too”.