Radical media, politics and culture.

Franco Berardi (Bifo), "Facebook, or, The Impossibility of Friendship"

"Facebook, or, The Impossibility of Friendship"
Franco Berardi (Bifo)

Financial capitalism and precarious work, loneliness and suffering, atrophy of empathy and sensibility: these are the themes that we may extrapolate from "The Social Network," the excellent movie by David Fincher.

The story that the movie is about is the creation and early diffusion of the social network Facebook: an enterprirse in the age of financial semiocapitalism. But the focus shifts on the psychological side of the evolution of the Internet, in the framework of the info-acceleration and stimulus-intensification that broadband has made possible. Love, friendship, affection — the whole sphere of emotionality is invested by the intensification of the rhythm of the infosphere surrounding the first generation which learned more words from a machine than from the mother.

Although the narration of the beginnings of Facebook, and the following legal conflicts and trials corresponds to the real story, biographical details (for instance the end of a love relation in the first scene of the movie) are not necessarily true, but they are useful for a full understanding of the affective side of social life of the cognitarian labor force.

The main character of the film, Mark Zuckerberg, may obviously be described as a winner: he is the youngest billionaire in the world, he is the owner of a company that in a few years has become well known worldwide with 500 million subscribers. Nonetheless it is hard to see him as a happy person, and he can be described as a loser if you think of his relation with women, and colleagues. Friendship seems impossible for him, and the success of his website is granted by the artificial substitution of friendship and love with standardized protocols. Existential unhappiness and commercial success can be viewed as two sides of the same coin: Zuckerberg, in the Fincher movie, is so skilled in the interpretation of the psychological needs of his generation because loneliness and affective frustration are his intimate psycho-scape.

Desire is diverted from physical contact and invested in the abstract field of simulated seduction, in the infinite space of the image. Boundless enhancement of disembodied imagination leads to the virtualization of the erotic experience, infinite flight from an object to the next. Value, money, financial excitement: these are the perfect form of the virtualization of desire. The permanent mobilization of psychic energy in the economic sphere is simultaneously the cause and the effect of the virtualization of contact. The very word “contact” comes to mean exactly the contrary of what it means: not bodily touch, epidermic perception of the sensuous presence of the other, but purely intellectual intentionality, virtual cognizability of the other. Hard to predict which sort of mutation is underway in the long run of human evolution. As far as we know this virtual investment of desire is currently provoking a pathogenic effect of fragilization of social solidarity and a stiffening of empathic feeling.

The genius of Zuckerberg essentially consists in his ability to exploit the suffering energy of the crowd, collective loneliness and frustration. The original idea of the website comes from two rich Harvard’s twins named Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss, who want to hire him as programmer. Zuckerberg pretends to work for them, and actually takes hold of their idea, although he is much more able than they in linking the project to the psychical needs arising from contemporary alienation.

Did Zuckerberg steal the idea from those two undergraduates? Yes and no. Actually in the Network it’s impossible to distinguish clearly the different moments of the valorization process, because the productive force of the net is collective, while profits are private. Here we find the irremediable contradiction between collective intelligence in the net and private appropriation of its products, a contradiction which is shaking the very foundation of semiocapitalism.

This movie is an interesting view on life and work in the age of precarity. The word precarious means aleatory, uncertain, unstable, and it refers not only to the uncertainty of the labor relation, but also to the fragmentation of time and the unceasing deterritorialization of the factors of social production. Both labor and capital, in fact have no more a stable relation to the territory and to the community. Capital is flowing in the financial circuit and the enterprise is no longer based on material assets, territorialized, but it is based on signs, ideas, information, knowledge and linguistic exchange. The enterprise is no longer linked to the territory, and the work process is no more based on the community of workers, living together in the factory day after day, as it takes the form of ever changing recombination of time fragments connected in the global network.

Cognitive workers do not meet in the same place every day, but stay alone in their connected cubicles, and answer to the requests of ever-changing employers. The capitalist is no longer signing agreements in order to exploit the productive energy of the worker during his overall working life. He no longer buys the entire availability of the worker. He is hiring a fragment of available time, which is a fractal, compatible with the protocols of inter-functionality, and recombinable with other fragments of time.

Industrial workers experienced solidarity because they met each other every day and were members of the same living community, and shared the same interests, while the net worker is alone and unable to create solidarity because everybody is obliged to compete in the labor market and in the daily fight for a precarious salary. Loneliness and lack of human solidarity is not only characterizing the net worker, but also the entrepreneur. The border separating work and enterprise is confused, in the sphere of cognitive work. Although Mark Zuckerberg is a billionaire, the way he is spending his work day is not dissimilar from the way his employees are spending their work day. They all are sitting in front of a computer and type on the keyboard.

The main character of the movie, the Zuckerberg described by Fincher, has a friend, only one: Edouard Severin, who becomes the financer of the starting Facebook enterprise. When the success of the enterprise is guaranteed and demands new financers, Zuckenberg does not hesitate to betray his only friend.

This perfectly depicts the personal relations in the sphere of financial world, but unfortunately this is also depicting relations between workers. Although the movie speaks of a billionaire, it’s also telling the story of the social condition of labor. The impossibility of friendship in the present condition of virtual abstraction of sociality, and the impossibility of building solidarity in a society that is turning life into abstract container of competing fragments of time.

[November 20th 2010]