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
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