Last Friday evening I watched, for the first time, the movie The Social Network, about how Mark Zuckerberg created the social networking site, Facebook. (Full disclosure here, I have a page on Facebook.) After the movie I went home, and later that evening I watched an episode of the science-fiction television series, Star Trek, The Next Generation. (It’s usually abbreviated TNG.) In this particular episode, the android Data (for those not familiar with TNG, he’s a machine, not a biological organism) had a particularly prominent role. But as I watched the TV that night, with the movie still fresh in my mind, I began mentally superimposing the image of Data’s face over that of Zuckerberg’s in the movie. There were eerie similarities, though in the end they were definitely not twins.
A caveat here: all I know about Zuckerberg I got from the movie. I’ve never met the guy, and, truth be told, I’m not real keen on meeting him either. It definitely would not make my day. What does make my day? Sitting at a computer and adding a thousand words to my newest manuscript. But I digress.
In the movie, Zuckerberg was portrayed as an arrogant, insufferable though highly intelligent Harvard geek, capable of leaping tall mounds of computer programming in a single bound. I recall little emotion from his pale, impassive face. And that’s what got me to comparing Data with the geek. Data, or rather the actor portraying him, is made up heavily with a pale, whitish cast to emphasize his “non-biological,” machine-like existence. The movie Zuckerberg was so much like that.
But there were more similarities. Data is unemotional, as was Zuckerberg. Data is a vast store of information, capable of disgorging it at a moment’s notice, and so was Zuckerberg. Zuckerberg, as well as several of his computer geek friends, could drop out of contact with society by adopting a process of being “wired in” in which no one was allowed to bother or interrupt them while they filled computer screens with programming code. Now, Data doesn’t normally drop out like that, but in the particular episode I watched, he did. Other similarities abound, but I’m not going to bore you with them.
There were dissimilarities, too. Data has been programmed not to injure or kill biological entities unless necessary, as, say, in wartime. For example, Data had no trouble blasting the members of the Borg Continuum, those half-biological and half-machine entities that threatened Earth so many years in the future. Zuckerberg never physically abused anyone, but mentally and emotionally he seemed to have little regard to precious human values, like blogging about a woman’s bra size. I saw him as a shrewd, calculating, manipulative person, bent on getting exactly what he wanted, with no regard for anyone standing in his way. (Keep in mind, I’m going on only what I saw in the movie.) Data couldn’t even begin to conceive of treating someone that way. Data is well capable of engaging in conversation with humans, though his grasp of complicated concepts in language, such as similes and metaphors, is practically nonexistent. Zuckerberg knows all that stuff, but fails to use it. In short, Data at least cared about people; Z-berg didn’t seem to.
Where’s this leading us? They say that truth is stranger than fiction. In other words, you can’t write too wild a character without someone yelling as to how that person is unlikely to really exist, and your writing suffers from feeble and impotent imagination. Granted, writing a character as outrageous as Zuckerberg in a science-fiction novel might not be stretching the logic of character development too far, though it might strain the reader’s imagination slightly. But that’s what’s great about science fiction. It’s capable of bringing to life the wild, the weird, and the bizarre. The strange and supernatural inhabit its pages, travelling faster than light and disappearing into the past or the future in the blink of an eye. The character that, in real life, might provoke closer examination by the legal system gets by with all sorts of grotesque and oddball schemes. You might find Zuckerberg in a Jodi Picoult novel, but you won’t find Data.