New Criticals

Because Facebook appears as a banal aspect of everyday life, there is a risk of overlooking the profound ways that it is, and is always becoming, life itself. David Fincher’s 2010 film The Social Network, is likely one of the ways we overlook the profound novelty of life lived with digital media. On the surface, it supplies an origin story for Facebook that is determined by what Facebook will have become. It retroactively produces the political conditions of Facebook as it exists today. But, instead of asserting that the historical account offered in The Social Network “tells” us about Facebook, analyzing the film can reveal the ways Facebook is mediationally complex and an ongoing sociopolitical process. The depiction of a Facebook origin story on film also tests the limits of contemporary cinema’s ability to represent its own digital medium, as code appears as yet another discourse of reading and writing. The screen-ness of watching a film about programming is in tension with the narrative work of retrofitting the new normal.

The screen mediates programming code—as the computer monitor—and it is also a site of our cultural mediations about digital life—as cinema. Within studies of digital media, the status of the screen has been challenged: screen-based media studies have dominated critical work on new media, perhaps at the expense of what Matthew G. Kirschenbaum has called the “mechanisms” of digital media. New critical scholarship on media infrastructures also reminds us that digital media is never only an encounter that happens between a human and a screen; it is also data centers, cell towers, undersea cables, and rare-mineral mining, as well as the human, animal, and environmental bodies living, working, and passing through these sites.However, the site of the screen is a problem for narratives of code: what we see on-screen is an abstraction of computational process—no matter how data visualizations might lure us in with the promise of seeing the digital event on screen. If the digital banal is the process by which an encounter with digital media and computation as novel is itself reiterated as to be expected, so that an engagement with the novelty of digital media is affectively obfuscated, then the screen is the first point of (non)entry. Rather than work from an assumption about whether the cinema screen can or cannot enable a way of seeing behind the computer screen, we can attend to the screenness of programming in films, watching the way computer monitors—and the bodies that sit with them, the hackers and programmers—limn the action of code.