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The autistic network: Web2.0 makes you dumb

'One nation under a format', New York Review of Books pronounces

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If The Social Network dug the grave for Web 2.0, then here comes writer Zadie Smith to pile a lorryload of dirt on top.

The movie is excellent, and it’s finally got the review it deserves. Writing in the New York Review of Books, Smith has a big helping hand from Jaron Lanier, who provides her with just the right illumination.

In the movie, Zuckerberg is either a sociopath, or a tragic figure – take your pick. The movie’s scriptwriter Aaron Sorkin calls him a “tragic hero”. For Lanier, whose You Are Not A Gadget is the first and best book on the Web 2.0 culture, and the bland conformity that it requires from us, the answer is simpler.

Web 2.0

Lanier notices that to make “connections” or “share”, as Facebook and other Web 2.0 norms demand, you have to be a dumber, simpler version of yourself. Lanier is not surprised by this. Web 2.0, like most of our software, was created by autistic people. Zuckerberg is autistic, and can’t see individuality, let alone understand it. So he can only understand what humans want through the hive mind. And by creating Facebook, he created a massive machine to help him figure it out.

“He wants to be liked… For our self-conscious generation,” writes Smith, “not being liked is as bad as it gets. Intolerable to be thought of badly for a minute, even for a moment.”

She notes Zuckerberg’s behaviour as the the movie drew near: on the day the movie opened, he donated $100m to his home town’s school system. "He didn’t need to just get out ‘in front’ of the story. He had to get right on top of it and try to stop it breathing. [Then] two weeks later, he went to a screening. Why? Because everybody liked the movie."

That’s not having your own mind. But then that’s not the point. Facebook forces people into a straitjacket of conformity: “One nation under a format”, she calls it.

“The last defense of every Facebook addict is: but it helps me keep in contact with people who are far away! Well, e-mail and Skype do that, too, and they have the added advantage of not forcing you to interface with the mind of Mark Zuckerberg."

The review has spoilers, so if you haven’t seen it or plan to soon – don’t click the next link. If you have, it’s got some quite canny observations. Over here. ®

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