Two front-runners for best picture of 2010 at Sunday’s Oscar ceremony are “The King’s Speech” and “Social Network.” Both are based on true stories, and both share a theme of communication. One is about a stuttering king and his friendship with an Australian speech therapist. The other is about a college boy with primitive social skills and over-the-top programming talents who goes on to define, if not invent, the concept of social media.
Both also explore the impact of new communication technologies more than 60 years apart.
In “The King’s Speech,” the backdrop to the entire movie is the rise of radio. This new technology was changing everything, even redefining the British Crown. Suddenly, from India to Canada and throughout England, every subject of the Empire could hear his king. He was no longer just a face on a coin or a picture on a wall, but a voice.
This gave the king remarkable power, but it was also a burden: He could no longer live in his splendid cocoon, but now had to meet the expectations of those he professed to lead. A stuttering king could hardly command respect, much less rally his people to fight the likes of Adolf Hitler.
Radio was a new and disruptive technology, understood at the time to be both a mixed blessing and an unavoidable reality, grumbled about, but accepted as a necessary evil.
In “Social Network,” the film documents a few years in the young life of Mark Zuckerberg. Less than 10 years ago, this Harvard undergrad created a social network called Facebook that allowed students to exchange information and communicate quickly and easily with each other over the Internet.
The impact of Facebook has been dramatic, rivaling the other world-changing inventions of the last decade such as YouTube and Twitter. For many over the age of 30, it may be hard to grasp how quickly Facebook has changed personal interactions. It has become a ubiquitous means of communication (along with texting). E-mail is so 2005 to students. It is via Facebook that people are invited to weddings, keep up on gossip and post pictures for all to share.
Like radio once upon a time, Facebook’s power to communicate frightens some and is taken for granted by others. Its 500 million users have made Zuckerberg a billionaire before the age of 30. Zuckerberg created it out of his own felt need, but he stepped squarely into the middle of the zeitgeist. In a world that is at once both more connected and more isolated, Facebook becomes a means of creating mini-social groupings of like-minded individuals. And if it started as a means to hook up with friends, it is now a political and marketing tool of awesome effectiveness.
It is, for a moment, the final word. The only thing for sure, however, is that our pace of change is accelerating to warp speed. Time magazine predicts that humanity as we know it will be irrevocably changed by 2045 when machines become smarter than humans. Even now, the human brain is being reshaped so quickly that it is the youngest among us who are, briefly, the most technologically fluent, as change first empowers each mini-generation and then passes it by.
The Church embraced radio, so it can embrace Facebook as well. But as an institution, it is prone to moving slowly and cautiously, even as its members are racing at the speed of fiber optic. Eighteen-year-olds are running apologetics websites, and grass-roots theological combat is taking place in the 140 characters allowed by Twitter. When Jesus said we must be like the little children, did he mean we must tweet the Good News and friend the unbeliever?
Greg Erlandson is OSV president and publisher.