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David Fincher’s fantastic The Social Network opened this weekend, sporting an impressive 98% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and turning the story of Mark Zuckerberg and the creation of Facebook into a tense, well-acted drama. The Information Age has provided us with the world’s youngest billionaires, an updated and revolutionary way of communicating with each other, and a new source of contemporary drama at the movies. The Social Network isn’t the first or the last one of these, though it just might be the best.
The creators of Facebook, Amazon, YouTube, eBay, and countless others are revolutionary in their own right, but their achievement stems from that of a select few individuals in the 1980s. Martyn Burke’s 1999 film Pirates of Silicon Valley chronicles the experiences of Bill Gates (Anthony Michael Hall) and Steve Jobs (Noah Wyle) as they build the personal computer industry from the ground up.
We are introduced to these computing giants at a convention in 1997 where they’ve reunited after what most would term a rocky relationship during the ’80s. Then we are jumped back to Berkeley and Harvard in the '70s where both are attending college.
“Information is power,” Jobs says after they’ve devised a box capable of calling the Pope. Eventually, he and cohort Steve Wozniak devise a computer (encased in wood) that they claim to be the first computer for the average person. If it’s perfectly obvious now, it’s made clear just how revolutionary the concept was back then as they show it to Wozniak’s boss at Hewlett-Packard.
“What on Earth would ordinary people want with computers?” his boss asks.
Undeterred, they continue filling orders for their new company, Apple, which is probably the first and last company to ever use a band saw in their production of computers. Around this time Jobs hears of this company called Microsoft and Gates hears about this company named Apple. Their paths intertwine as they develop their respective companies and butt horns with each other, in an exciting tale of the coming of age of computer technology.
The film shares some interesting similarities with The Social Network. Gates, like Zuckerberg, was a nerd of sorts who dropped out of Harvard, and Jobs shares with him the same sort of slacker “I don’t wear socks to work” sort of transformed hippie mentality. All succeed despite their personalities, which constantly threaten to get in the way of their progress.
Both stories deal with the ideas of intellectual property theft. Is what they do stealing? Facebook borrows/steals/improves The Harvard Connection. Microsoft uses Apple’s operating system as a guide, which Apple got from Xerox. Even earlier, Microsoft sold an idea to IBM that they didn’t even have. In a mad dash, they buy some guy's operating system for $50,000 and flip it to IBM for millions. Savvy business, or unethical? Is it both? It’s not so clearcut a question. These, for lack of a better phrase, ripped-off ideas have generated billions of dollars and changed the way we communicate and function on a global level. What I do know for sure is that these stories have given us excellent fodder for entertainment. If you enjoyed watching 23-year-old Mark Zuckerberg climb to the top of the Internet food chain in The Social Network, check out Pirates of Silicon Valley.