In the wake of the release of the (second) Steve Jobs biopic, media consumption based on lives of influential figures (Alan Turing, Stephen Hawking, Abraham Lincoln, Mark Zuckerberg, to name a few) is at an all-time high. In particular, in the barrage of emergent online businesses, apps, and gadgets flooding our digital field-of-view, what stands out as a critical element in a tech brand’s success in the 21st century is the archetypical visionary, who puppeteers entire companies on creative whims. These people allow otherwise uniform, inhuman brands to exhibit character embedded with social values and political messages. Think the counterculture of Steve Jobs, or the humble philanthropy of the now retired Bill Gates. In our eyes, these geniuses are white males in their early-to-mid twenties who drop out of university to pursue their world-changing idea. Success is built into them. Their entire character is an amazing architecture of passion, innovation, and moneymaking talent. And as fascinating as these Zuckerbergs and Jobs are, research from UC Berkeley has revealed that most founders of successful tech start-ups have their Masters, with the average age being 38. So why is it that we stand so firmly tied to the concept of a the innately abled innovator who makes it against all odds? Well we become captivated by the story.
The most ridiculous scene in The Social Network isn’t any of the antics that the characters share in the Harvard campus or in Palo Alto, but one that takes place soon after the concept of “The Facebook” is fleshed out, as the team takes shape. What follows is a short exposition by Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), naming the key players early on in Facebook’s history, as he allocates share percentages in his Harvard dorm room. For those that had paid close attention to the film, it had been mentioned that Zuckerberg and a friend created an app that was nearly bought by Microsoft, but was uploaded for free anyway. This app was called Synapse Media Player, and one of the companies who were interested in purchasing it offered $950,000. Zuckerberg and his partner rejected the money. How odd then, for a person who had turned down nearly a million dollars, to allocate shares that he most definitely knew would be worth many times that amount, over some beer in a dorm room? At the same time, how could the scene have been made differently? The aim is to compose the feel of the events, as opposed to pinpointing and portraying facts and reality.
In response to criticisms about historical accuracy in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game, screenwriter Graham Moore said: “When you use the language of fact-checking…[you] fundamentally misunderstand how art works. You don’t fact check Monet’s Water Lilies. That’s not what water lilies looks like, that’s what the sensation of experiencing water lilies feels like.” And this is precisely the key to understanding the obsession with these genius-figures. The dorm-room isn’t where Facebook was created, but it provides the exact feel of a rag-tag group of young, bright individuals collaborating on an idea that fundamentally alters the fabric of society, and we are transfixed by this narrative. The same lines, delivered in the same way, in an office, wouldn’t nearly have had the same kind of effect.
These films often forgo realism in order to opt for feel and emotion. Young and talented leaders give us the feeling that everything is possible, and that the snobbery of societal tradition, led by greying, suited businessmen, don’t dictate the rules of the game anymore. And while we know supposedly fact-based films skirt around the concept of truth, they still serve to satisfy historical curiosity as to the nature and foundation of brands, people, particular careers, ideologies, and more. This is not to say these films are malicious. They signify a longing for narrative that expresses in the most intuitive way possible, particular human traits, emotions and abilities, particularly of people that we are interested in because of the sheer impact they’ve had on our lives. The reality of this impact doesn’t just slot into a scene “before” and scene “after”. It can’t be explained through montage of “creativity and hard work and late nights” shots. Narrative has structure, logic, and rules. It allows us to digest large amounts of time, a complex dynamic between characters, and world-changing ideas, in the space of a couple of hours. This is what distinguishes a biopic from a documentary, and in the words of Twitter founder Biz Stone, changes ten years of hard work and perseverance into an image of overnight success. Wariness of our longing for narratives as a means to interpret reality, particularly in consumption of media, allows us to remain grounded as to the true nature of work, success, and fulfilment – nothing ever begins and ends neatly. There aren’t any end credits.