Writing a good novel about the Internet is almost as difficult as shooting a good film about the effects of drugs. You may try all the available fireworks, and you’ll still fail. Blurred images, out-of-focus edges, tweaked sitar sounds, ridiculous echoes, and still you’ll get nothing close to representing the experience.
So far, defining the Internet with the language of literature has been as hard as explaining consciousness. Attempts to subsume the Internet into contemporary literature have been embarrassing. How can the instrument of knowledge understand itself? How can our own mind, slowly melting into a server where we store our photographs, memories, comments, emotions, chats, bank details, dreams and aspirations, understand its own technological nature? More importantly, how can a powerful instrument of meaning like literature be used to understand what seems to be its nemesis, the constantly distracting need for useless and disconnected novelties—the Internet of social networks?
One writer has succeeded in this mission, and in such a creative manner that, although everything indicated he would miss the mark, he triumphed. First of all, he wrote it on a computer. And he sees the contradiction: “Now writers used computers, which were the by-products of global capitalism’s uncanny ability to run the surplus population into perpetual servants. All of the world’s computers were built by slaves in China.”
Jarett Kobek, the author of I Hate the internet knows what he’s doing. And he tells you. In detail. It’s beyond meta-literature. It’s pure brilliance.
Writing “a bad novel”
It’s hard to write about the Internet because it is so ephemeral. Harder still is it to have the guts to self-publish a novel built with the hyperbolic language of online interaction. And then to market it as “a bad novel” that promises to mimic the Internet “in its irrelevant and jagged presentation of content.”
Kobek delivers on the promise, because his style is a mix between a troll’s rant against Silicon Valley’s tech barons and the language of Wikipedia entries, which is actually inspired by Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5.
I Hate the internet—A Useful Novel Against Men, Money, and the Filth of instagram, as the full title explains, has become an immediate sensation after an enthusiastic review in The New York Times. But it is a text that most publishing companies couldn’t print because of its candid attack on so much that Western society stands for. Including publishing companies. Funnily enough, success arrived thanks to the Internet. Kobek used his enemy’s weakness for the first successful pushback against the culture of Silicon Valley’s smiling billionaires—the perfect Judo move.
“Actually,” he admitted, “I could have called it I Hate Four Companies and Social Media. But that is such a bad title.” Indeed, the attack is not on the entire Internet, but mostly on its social media phase.
We knew about this
The damage to our privacy caused by the explosions of anonymous rage online has been diagnosed long ago. So don’t be surprised if the backbone of the plot of this book is simply the story, set in San Francisco in 2013, of 45-year-old Alina, a comic book artist, semi-famous in the 90s, who is ravaged by a Twitter storm.
It all happens because someone posts a YouTube video where Alina dares to publicly say that singer Beyonce has done nothing for social progress. The fans’ attack is vicious and life-changing for Alina and her friends.
The plot’s kernel is something you can find in TV series like ‘Black Mirror’ and ‘Mr. Robot’, or in the sit-com ‘Silicon Valley’, which mocks Internet moguls who constantly promise “to make the world a better place.” But in this book, as the narrator warns us, “the plot, like life, resolves into nothing and features emotional suffering without meaning.”
The fallout from the surreptitious recording is as central a theme as the feeling of revenge. Recrimination is what you hear in the frustrated scream of the autobiographical voice. In a hilarious parody of the climax of Ayn Rand’s libertarian novel Atlas Shrugged, standing on top of a hill, the protagonist howls: “I know what the internet was like before people used it to make money. I am the only literary writer in America with a serious tech background! I am the only literary writer in America who ran Slackware 1.0 on his 386x!”
This is the same troll-like voice blurting out these gems: “Wars were giant parties for the ruling elites, who sometimes thought it might be great fun to make the poor kill each other.” Or describing Thanksgiving “as a holiday in which America celebrated the genocide of its indigenous people through the gathering of extended families for a meal during which young people were made to feel awkward by their elders expressing thoughts of casual racism and homophobia.”
Kobek acknowledges having adopted Vonnegut’s, and stand-up comedy’s, technique of defining things in order to make the truth shine with a laugh—to explicate everything as if the world had to be described to aliens. This is why, although author Jonathan Lethem compares him to French novelist Michel Houllebecq, the resemblance to Vonnegut holds better.
The central criticism in the book is that because the digital network is tailored to the mind of a 15-year-old (its language that of a 12-year-old) humanity is being pushed into cretinism. Not just because of the constant interruption of deep thought transforming us into fast yet shallow decision-makers, but because it is designed to keep us in a state of constant narcissistic adolescence.
Intellect is the hero of this novel, as the Los Angeles Review of Books has written. And, Kobek tells us, the Internet is the enemy of the intellect.
Dataism and cyborgs
Criticism of that vulnerable phenomenon called culture has been formulated eloquently in the last 10 years. The latest, most successful non-fiction attempt is the lucid Homo Deus by Israeli professor Yuval Noah Harari, who concludes that if we let the Internet transform our mind, there’ll be two options: dataism—obsolete humanity substituted by machines; or techno-humanism—humanity upgraded into cyborgs, half organic, half machine.
This is not sci-fi. Algorithms already control not only book recommendations on Amazon, but stock market investment, the lives of Uber drivers, and the selection of partners on websites. They are used in medical diagnosis and legal counsel. They are on the boards of directors of multinationals. And they might soon be allowed to own property. None of this requires conscious awareness, so this scenario could play out even if machines don’t acquire a consciousness. Even love, science now tells us, is nothing but an algorithm of emotions.
These are not the hysterics of net-Luddites who ask us to go back to horse-carriages, fountain pens and travelling pigeons. Artificial Intelligence is happening.
The best criticism of this phenomenon has been developed by Nicholas Carr in The Shallows—What the Internet is Doing to our Brains, and also by Lee Siegel in Against the Machine—Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob, which points out that losing these bearings can have quick, catastrophic repercussions: “It is knowledge that gives us our ethical and historical ballast, and knowledge also brings the critical detachment necessary to arrive at that humane stability. Critical detachment, not the multiple diversions and distractions of information, is the guarantor of a free society.”
Married to a digital Golem
As Goethe famously said: “None are more hopelessly enslaved that those who falsely believe they are free.”
And this is exactly what is happening, according to Kobek. “One of the curious aspects of the Twenty-First Century was the great delusion among many people, particularly in the San Francisco Bay Area, that freedom of speech and freedom of expression were best exercised on technological platforms owned by corporations dedicated to making as much money as possible. In fact, all of the people who exercised freedom of speech and freedom of expression on Twitter were doing nothing more and nothing less than creating content that they did not own for a corporation in which they had no stake.”
In the 90s, David Foster Wallace wrote an essay urging young novelists to come to terms with television in contemporary life. Kobek achieves this with the Internet, showing there’s also room for a new narrative focused on our changed sense of perception, morphed as it is by our technological prostheses. It’s time for novels that will render the loss of linearity in our thinking and in our feeling, a process brought about by our marriage to the digital Golem.
In his 1991 movie Until the End of the World, German director Wim Wenders described a futuristic machine capable of recording human dreams. The people involved in the experiment, in a secret cave in the Australian desert, eventually became addicted to viewing their dreams on portable video screens. I’m always reminded of that old movie when I encounter the contemporary abuse of smartphones, although Wenders’ dreams are more gracious than the immanent flow of feline sentimentality, inane tourism, and uninformed opinions filling our Facebook, Instagram and Twitter timelines today.
Disease of images
At the end of the film, it is a writer, with his reconstruction of a linear story of what happened, who saves the heroine from her iconodulism, her adoration of images that glues her to the screen night and day. It is in the written words of his book that she finds a cure for her “disease of images”.
Wenders, the most literary of directors, understood the importance of words in bringing us meaning against the senseless hypnotic obsession for images.
This is why literature can still save the day. And why there is value in cultivating deep thought. Through reading. Otherwise we are bound to become that army of unaware, foolish zombies described in I Hate the internet: “People who spent their leisure time tweeting and creating intellectual property for Twitter were going out into the world and dressing themselves as the intellectual properties of major international conglomerates. They had transformed their bodies into walking advertisements for entities in which they had no economic stake.”
Take a walk in the closest mall or shopping centre, factory, office or promenade and look for yourself. The future is here, and we had better do something about it. It could begin by teaching children how to focus on a good book for two hours straight. Even on an e-reader, it doesn’t matter, as long as you’re able to turn off the wifi or 3G.
Choosing how we assimilate knowledge is what can save us. There’s no need to smash the machines, no time for Luddism, but time to understand the message in the medium.
The writer is an author and professor of communication theory. His next book, The Edge of an Era, will be out next month.
Excerpted from The Hindu Literary Review, Sunday, 28 May 2017
image courtesy: vagabomb