CAUGHT IN THE WEB

Crit­i­cism of the in­ter­net is hardly new, but the cho­rus of voices de­cry­ing it as an all-con­sum­ing cre­ativ­ity killer is grow­ing louder, writes Brian Ap­p­le­yard

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Essay -

Jarett Kobek’s I Hate the In­ter­net is a bad novel. This is not a crit­i­cism, it is praise. Kobek in­tended it to be a bad novel. He couldn’t bear to write a good novel be­cause good nov­els have be­come ir­rel­e­vant. “For more than half of a cen­tury,” he says, “Amer­i­can writ­ers of good nov­els had missed the only im­por­tant story in Amer­i­can life. They had missed the evolv­ing world, the world of hid­den per­suaders, of the de­vel­op­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tions land­scape, of mass tourism, of the vast con­form­ist sub­urbs dom­i­nated by tele­vi­sion.”

Kobek is over­fond of lists — one rea­son this is a bad novel — but what, in a nut­shell, he is say­ing is that smart good-novel writ­ers missed the in­ter­net. As he sees it, the in­ter­net is a colos­sal scam, a gi­ant, cul­ture-de­vour­ing vam­pire squid, a “bad ide­ol­ogy cre­ated by thought­less men”, “a com­puter net­work which peo­ple used to re­mind other peo­ple that they were aw­ful pieces of shit”. This may be a bad novel, but it’s a great polemic.

There is a great re­cent film that’s also a great polemic on the same sub­ject, Werner Her­zog’s Lo and Be­hold. Her­zog’s wry, po­etic and dis­turb­ing doc­u­men­tary style finds its nat­u­ral sub­ject in the sci-fi imag­i­na­tions of Sil­i­con Val­ley. He takes us into ever stranger as­pects of the tech­nocrats’ fu­ture, grad­u­ally un­der­min­ing their op­ti­mism by mak­ing it clear this fu­ture will be a post-hu­man ma­chine par­adise.

The rev­e­la­tion that the in­ter­net is not, in fact, a won­drous tool for cre­at­ing heaven on earth is not new. Net scep­ti­cism has been grow­ing for years. Dave Eg­gers’s novel The Cir­cle (2013) evoked the to­tal­i­tar­ian creepi­ness of net tech. I’ve ques­tioned the net’s ide­o­logues in print, as have aca­demic Evgeny Moro­zov and, most po­tently, Sil­i­con Val­ley apos­tate Jaron Lanier. Bril­liantly, in a sin­gle sen­tence, Lanier took apart the Val­ley’s claim to be pro­mot­ing con­nec­tion and shar­ing: “You have to be some­body be­fore you can share your­self.”

This anx­i­ety that the in­ter­net is re­duc­ing us to dis­em­bod­ied, ma­chine-read­able cor­po­rate serfs was ex­pressed poignantly and elo­quently by nov­el­ist Zadie Smith in The New York Re­view of Books in 2010: “When a hu­man be­ing be­comes a set of data on a web­site like Face­book, he or she is re­duced.

“Ev­ery­thing shrinks. In­di­vid­ual char­ac­ter. Friend­ships. Lan­guage. Sen­si­bil­ity. In a way it’s a tran­scen­dent ex­pe­ri­ence: we lose our bod­ies, our messy feel­ings, our de­sires, our fears. It re­minds me that those of us who turn in dis­gust from what we con­sider an over­in­flated lib­eral bour­geois sense of self should be care­ful what we wish for: our de­nuded net­worked selves don’t look more free, they just look more owned.”

Mean­while, the fi­nan­cial, po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic side of the in­ter­net is be­ing un­der­mined daily by cy­ber war­fare, hack at­tacks, on­line fraud and prob­a­bly count­less other things of which we know noth­ing. In the face of this, one pre­vi­ously high-pro­file web fan, aca­demic and writer John Naughton, re­cently re­canted and now fears “cy­berged­don”, the de­gen­er­a­tion of the net into “a vir­tual failed state and all that that im­plies”.

So, net scep­ti­cism is not new. But what is very new about Kobek’s bad novel is it’s hip, it’s cool, it’s now. He is not, like these other crit­ics, speak­ing de haut en bas to the gullible young. He is not that young (38) but he is an out­sider. In one photo, he wears the ul­ti­mate badge of out­sider­dom, the woolly Ti­betan hat. And this bad novel was self-pub­lished, though it re­ceived rave re­views.

Kobek’s suc­cess is one more sign that peo­ple — even, or es­pe­cially, young peo­ple — no longer look on web giants such as Ama­zon, Face­book, Google, Twit­ter and the smaller wannabes with dreamy rev­er­ence; they look at them with sus­pi­cion, some­times con­tempt. Ap­ple is dif­fer­ent, as its prof­its mainly come from mak­ing and sell­ing phys­i­cal ob­jects; Ama­zon, with some ex­cep­tions, sells other peo­ple’s ob­jects and has a gi­gan­tic cloud in­fra­struc­ture op­er­a­tion. All the oth­ers sell ad­ver­tis­ing.

That is the po­lit­i­cal and, more im­por­tant, cul­tural heart of the mat­ter. Ad­ver­tis­ing as a busi­ness is des­per­ately un­hip, un­cool and, if you think about it, un-Val­ley. If you want a cheap laugh, just ask the next Google em­ployee you meet about the ad­ver­tis­ing com­pany for which they work. They hate that, they ac­tu­ally deny it, but sell­ing ads is re­ally all they do.

Ads are the only way any­body can make money out of the in­ter­net. It’s a good way be­cause the great trick pulled off by the Val­ley com­pa­nies is to get us to work for them un­paid. Ev­ery time we tweet, com­ment, post, up­date our sta­tus or take a pic­ture of our lunch, we are pro­vid­ing tiny sliv­ers of information that build a vast moun­tain range of data, which in turn is used to tar­get ads.

This in­censes Kobek, who uses the story of Caro­line Cri­ado-Perez to make the point. She started a cam­paign to get Jane Austen on the £10 note and was re­warded with a Twit­ter storm of rape and death threats which, of course, in­creased data flow. “So Twit­ter made money out of rape and death threats sent to Caro­line Cri­ado-Perez.” Data trawl­ing is a cold, hard busi­ness.

The fact all these com­pa­nies do is sell ads should det­o­nate one hoary web-ide­al­ist myth: that tech­nol­ogy is neu­tral and it’s what we do with it that mat­ters. This tech­nol­ogy is em­phat­i­cally not neu­tral. It is de­signed to ac­quire information from its users and we have no say in the mat­ter. Lanier’s ex­pla­na­tion of this im­pressed Smith. She writes: “What Lanier, a soft­ware ex­pert, re­veals to me, a soft­ware id­iot, is what must be ob­vi­ous (to soft­ware ex­perts): soft­ware is not neu­tral. Dif­fer­ent soft­ware em­beds dif­fer­ent philoso­phies, and these philoso­phies, as they be­come ubiq­ui­tous, be­come in­vis­i­ble.”

The fact gi­ant, hum­ming server farms ex­ist around the world with the sole pur­pose of watch­ing our ev­ery move is Or­wellian enough, but the flip side of that is even more dis­turb­ing. We, in turn, per­form for the servers, seek­ing hits and web pres­ence, the bet­ter to feed the squid. This has made fame, as Tim Wu, pro­fes­sor of law at Columbia Univer­sity, in New York, ob­serves in his new book, The At­ten­tion Mer­chants, the only virtue. “Fame, or hunger for it, would be­come some­thing of a pan­demic, swal­low­ing up more and more peo­ple and leav­ing them with scars of chronic at­ten­tion-whore­dom.”

Wu’s warn­ing is dire. Fame, how­ever min­i­mal, how­ever fleet­ing, is now a meta-mar­ket con­structed on the foun­da­tions of ad­ver­tis­ing. You can, for ex­am­ple, buy Twit­ter fol­low­ers, and within the wel­ter of likes, faves, retweets and fol­lows, a bustling pop-up mar­ket has ap­peared. And be­cause it is all be­ing so pre­cisely mea­sured, so has a new cul­tural met­ric. Soon, all that will mat­ter is the click and the page view; all else will be con­signed to vir­tual dark­ness.

Amid all this, another squib has ex­ploded, a cu­ri­ous little book called In De­fence of Serendip­ity: For a Rad­i­cal Pol­i­tics of In­no­va­tion, by Se­bas­tian Olma, a Dutch writer, critic and pro­fes­sor of au­ton­omy in art and de­sign at Avans Univer­sity. At its cen­tre is the con­vic­tion that the in­ter­net is work­ing against in­no­va­tion and orig­i­nal­ity. In­stead, it pro­motes what ac­tivist Naomi Klein has called “change­less change”, as gi­ant com­pa­nies dazzle us with their same-again gad­gets to pre­serve a cor­po­rate sta­tus quo. Why, when you think about it, would they do other­wise? Com­mit­ted to a man­age­ment the­ory of dis­rup­tion, they strive to dis­rupt ev­ery­thing ex­cept them­selves.

This cor­po­rate sta­sis has cul­tural symp­toms. Olma quotes philoso­pher Mark Fisher on the way pop mu­sic seems to be frozen in time. “Imag­ine any record re­leased in the past cou­ple of years be­ing beamed back in time to, say, 1995

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