Seeds of technology

Image of Peter Aspden

There are irritatingly few works of art that deal in a satisfying way with the world of business. The recent release of the sequel to Oliver Stone’s Wall Street reminded me of the limitations of the 1987 original. Yes, it brilliantly captured the moment. But it was a pantomime: red braces, greed-is-good, a leggy blonde, a reptilian surname. The death throes of the lunch break. A very bad man against a very good man, and a callow boy caught in the middle. Did anyone genuinely wonder which way he would go? Or what the gradations might be between right and wrong?

The legacy of the film is that a large part of the population began to identify finance and banking with wrongdoing, which was not great news for western polities. When sharp practice turned to calamity in the autumn of 2008, that view became yet more firmly embedded. Stone’s unsubtle melodrama took on a near-Biblical sagacity, in retrospect. The lust for money had brought us to our knees, and he warned us it would happen more than 20 years ago. That didn’t make Wall Street a better film; just a punchier one. Perhaps the affairs of high finance were simply too impenetrable, or indeed unpalatable, for great art?

Don’t you believe it.

David Fincher’s The Social Network, freshly released in cinemas, tells the story of Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, and his travails in the courts against the antagonists who claimed they were cheated by him. Unlike Wall Street, which foundered on the crudeness of its Mephistophelean premise, The Social Network is based on a much more subtle paradox. Zuckerberg’s social ineptitude – a mixture of intensity, shyness and arrogance born from genius – drives him to create the ultimate networking site. Along the way he becomes a billionaire. But will he ever find it any easier to make friends? Will he ever be cool?

There are so many things to love about this film. The first is that it feels like it belongs to the 21st century. If you are over the age of 30, there are passages of rapid-fire exposition that will lose you. That is intentional. We are always a couple – make that a few dozen – steps behind Zuckerberg. That is why he is a billionaire. I can’t imagine why anyone would want to share intimate personal details with the whole world via a computer screen but he did, six years ago, at the age of 19. That radical vision imbues the movie with artistry: Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko was a sleaze-bag, Zuckerberg is a social prophet.

The screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, rid of the pious sentimentality that blighted his TV series The West Wing, doesn’t put a foot wrong here. His writing is pacy, condensed, and laugh-out-loud funny. He sees Zuckerberg as 95 per cent anti-hero and 5 per cent tragic hero. That dilution masterfully brings the film to its morally complex conclusion. As the credits roll, you are left wondering what to think. That, for a big-budget Hollywood film, is miraculous in itself.

I thought of The Social Network at the unveiling this week of the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s new Turbine Hall installation at Tate Modern, a vast carpet of more than 100m sunflower seeds made of tiny, hand-painted morsels of porcelain. The work is both intimate and epic. The miniaturist craftsmanship that has gone into its creation speaks of tradition and individual attention; the effect of bringing the “seeds” together into a massive space reminds us of the power of togetherness.

The artist, who treads a fine line between reaching accommodation with and demanding reform from the Chinese authorities, is using Twitter to encourage mass participation in the project. “Sunflower Seeds” is, on the face of it, far from a political work. Yet it encourages expression, and active engagement on a scale that would have been inconceivable just a decade ago. This, too, feels like a work from the 21st century. It is multi-layered, revelling in its confluence of material and conceptual significance, and it feels like it can make things happen.

Zuckerberg makes things happen, too, with astonishing velocity and mind-bending ambition. Facebook is said to be worth $25bn and reaches some 600m people online. It is one of the most remarkable cultural phenomena of our time. Yet culture has taken indecently long to address it. It has taken us the best part of a decade to enter the new millennium. We have been churning out the same pop music, the same romantic comedies, the same costume dramas that we grew up with in the past century. But they are inferior because they fail to speak of their time.

The Social Network and “Sunflower Seeds” both celebrate the most significant development of the moment: the speed and reach of new technologies. And it is these, not another Henry Ford or a new Bob Dylan, that will change the world. They will spawn new visionaries, create new billionaires, and force intransigent regimes to listen to their people. We are at the very beginning of this movement, and its importance is barely registering on the cultural radar. But hitch up your red braces, it’s going to get bumpy.

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