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From Facebook to WikiLeaks: The good, bad and ugly of technology

Science enables us to keep in contact with friends as well as release government secrets.

December 19, 2010|By Reed Johnson, Los Angeles Times

Years from now, when Hollywood makes a more-or-less factual feature film about WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, perhaps starring a puffier, silver-haired Jesse Eisenberg, will it be titled "The Anti-Social Network?" Or maybe "The Social Network That Big Brother Wanted 86'ed?"

Will Assange be portrayed as a Dadaist prankster? Or a tragic Promethean figure, a digital-age Daniel Ellsberg, persecuted for bestowing enlightenment on mankind at enormous personal cost?

Or, at the other extreme, as both left-leaning intellectuals like Todd Gitlin and rightist politicos such as Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee maintain, will he be viewed instead as a slash-and-burn "minister of chaos (Gitlin) and "an anti-American operative with blood on his hands" (Palin)?

In retrospect, the release this year of "The Social Network," David Fincher's brilliantly chiaroscuro portrait of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, looks like a warm-up, a sort of pop-culture prophesy, in advance of the polemics that have erupted around Assange. Compared to WikiLeaks' revelations about the Saudis' lobbying for the U.S. to take out Iran's nuclear capability, rating your ex-girlfriend's "hotness" on Facebook seems like, literally, child's play.

And if "The Social Network" suggested a modern-day spin on "Citizen Kane," as more than one film critic suggested, a future biopic based on Assange might play like an updated "Dr. Strangelove," mixing black comedy and absurdist farce with sobering meditations on the 21st century's answer to the Atom bomb: the global Internet, with its awesome capacity for creation and destruction. Assange could be seen as a kind of digital-age J. Robert Oppenheimer, hoping that by forging a powerful weapon he could help check governments' abuses of power. Like Oppenheimer before him, he's discovered it's easier to harness technology than to change the fundamental (and fundamentally secretive) nature of power.

However you regard Assange and his cyber-assault on diplomatic secrets, it's in large part because of him that 2010 will be remembered as a pivot point in the tussle between social and antisocial networks. In the year now concluding, we've seen a ratcheting up of the contest pitting networks that open our minds, disseminate useful information and constructively connect us with one another against networks that exploit our emotions, replicate falsehoods, enslave us to high-tech toys and turn the awkward traces of our personal lives into public titillation and downloadable humiliation.

Assuming, that is, that those are separate networks. But of course they're not.

Technologically speaking, the network that enabled WikiLeaks to broadcast state secrets as openly as if they were pop-up Viagra ads is the same as the network of credit card companies and website hosts like Amazon that tried to pull the plug out from WikiLeaks after politicians began howling in protest. And it was the same technological network, in turn, that enabled WikiLeaks' anonymous supporters to bombard Amazon, Pay Pal and other corporate powers with hacker attacks.

"The Social Network" wasn't this year's only harbinger of the smack-down between competing social and antisocial agents. From a cultural standpoint, 2010 began not on Jan. 1 but Jan. 27, with the launch of the iPad. Rapidly elevated into a fetish object, it became a holy relic that people feel free to fiddle with in bars and airport terminals, at public lectures and in the middle of concerts. (If I'm e-mailing birthday greetings to my best friend, scanning my L.A. Times app or sending a donation to Doctors Without Borders on my WiFi-powered iPad in the middle of Beethoven's Fifth at the Hollywood Bowl, thereby temporarily distracting and annoying the people sitting around me, does that qualify as social or antisocial behavior, neither or both?)

The ambivalence over whether a network is social or antisocial (i.e. constructive or destructive) at its core could be seen this year in everything from the rise of, and popular reaction to, the "tea party" to the kerfuffle over the putative vote-rigging uproar surrounding Bristol Palin's plebiscite-fueled longevity on "Dancing With the Stars." Meanwhile, as China cracked down on political dissidents using Hong Kong-routed cyber-networks to trade information, the U.S. Congress wrestled with whether Internet users should be empowered to opt out of having online tracks mapped and recorded for all eternity by retailers or other entities with more ominous intentions.

Before the Internet, the word "network" in a mass-media context was pretty straightforward. In the United States there were just three major television networks until some viewers got mad as hell and vowed not to take it anymore, at which time Rupert Murdoch invented a fourth network.

In the 1980s, the term "networking" came to signify a kind of schmoozing — opportunistic, self-promoting, vaguely disreputable.

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