Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Social Network: Art Imitating Life Imitating Art

By Carl Hunt
Last night I invested a couple of hours watching the recently released movie The Social Network, the story about the origins of Facebook as developed by its main celebrity, Mark Zuckerberg. It was a good investment of time, both for the distraction well-produced movies offer in general and for the insights it revealed about life in cyberspace.
Since a big part of SENDS is about better understanding, exploring and exploiting life in the interactive connectivity of cyberspace, it seemed worthwhile to experience the birth of an apparently successful social networking environment in a visually entertaining way. And, I wanted to see how better understanding the past helps to design the future.
If you’ve been following this blog, you’ve seen numerous references to emergence and the quest to better understand it before, during and after its manifestations. Emergence is life in action, and science, art and design are important parts of the way in which we will be able to better predict it. Science explains, art visualizes and design blends in harmonious and novel ways.
There have been many attempts to explain why Facebook has achieved its success. The NY Times, for example, has numerous stories in the last few weeks about Facebook, the new movie and even Zuckerberg himself. NY Times columnist Robert Wright wrote his own analysis of the successes of Facebook and Mr. Zuckerberg in yesterday’s online column called “Zuckerberg: Non-Evil Non-Genius?” in which he hypothesized that Facebook successes were based primarily in “being in the right place and the right time,” and benefitting from a well-known phenomenon called positive network externalities (a concept Wright explains in the same column so I won’t repeat it here). I will defer the questions about Facebook’s designers gaining success through unethical behavior to others.
Certainly, one can begin to explain these successes in terms like Mr. Wright’s, but there’s more to it than that. Based on the models presented in other blogs in this series (here, here and visually here), we may also consider explaining the successes of the Facebooks, the Microsoft Windows, the VHSs and similar stories in terms of emergence, enhanced by the environment of cyberspace and the massive connectivity it offers. In the case of VHS versus Beta, this should tell you that cyberspace has really been around for some time, even if more massive interactive forms of connectivity have not!
If the artistry in the movie captured the emergence of the “life” of Facebook (discounting the rise of “intelligent machines” for the time being), it did it because it helped us see how Zuckerberg and other visionaries were able to interact through cyberspace and become more sensitized to what users really wanted in social networking (while confirming that they really did want social networking). They learned through experimentation and experience how to connect people to each other in compelling ways. They designed an environment that not only connected but encouraged the emergence of relationships and sharing of personal information and interests.
Facebook and other social media deserve even more study to learn how people ultimately find what they seek in the connected age. Most seek to explore and exploit the value connectivity offers while some just seek to exploit it (for their own gain all too often). The same principles of exchange and emergence connect them both. It’s hard to make progress in the study of bad connected behavior without understanding all connected behavior, a main focus of SENDS.
In any event, technologies such as Facebook and VHS tapes are outcomes of exchange-driven emergences. Connectivity, in differing forms, enhanced the acceptance of both. Science helps to explain these outcomes but often not until well after the fact. This accounts for why emergence is so tough to predict, particularly when accommodated by the connective fabric of a technological environment like cyberspace.
Harold Morowitz notes that the “role of technology in science is summed up in this statement: steam engines have taught us more about thermodynamics than thermodynamics has taught us about steam engines” (Morowitz, The Emergence of Everything, Oxford, NY, 2002). Sometimes, you just have to build the steam engine, VHS tapes or Facebook to serve as your laboratory to see the emergence after it occurs. In fact, technology is often a manifestation of art and science converging (with design in mind one hopes).
In SENDS of course, we also think you should be able to see glimpses of these emergences in models and simulations, but there are limits to life imitating art. It would be really tough to build a simulation the scale of Facebook and get it right without a lot of experimentation.
Indeed, there are limitations to everything and for that reason we need both the arts and the sciences (and the technologies their interactions emerge). And, as noted elsewhere in these blogs, we must hope they work together in elegant design, to understand life as humans really live it. The movie The Social Network gives us a good example of that: Art Imitating Life Imitating Art.