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Entangled

Tadhg Hoey

The Disconnect: A Personal Journey Through The Internet, by Roisin Kiberd, Profile Books, 304 pp, £12.99, ISBN: 978-1788165778

The late American critic and essayist George WS Trow, in his best-known work, Within The Context of No Context (1980), wrote that the institutions which people had depended upon for centuries to make sense of their place in the world ‑ family, subcultures, organizations ‑ had been slowly receding and had been replaced by television since the sixties. Reality, he argued, became unmoored and chained itself to the screen. By flattening all of the other contexts, television created its own seductive reality, or context, through which all of life, as it had once been lived, came to be experienced. “The work of television,” Trow writes, “is to establish false contexts and to chronicle the unraveling of existing contexts; finally, to establish the context of no-context and to chronicle it.” Television became a thing to unburden us from reality, and, with its hold on us firm, it began remaking the world in its image. Roisin Kiberd’s new book suggests that although the medium may have changed, forty years on, Trow’s message remains valid.

The Disconnect, Kiberd’s first book, is one writer’s reckoning with her own troubled relationship to the internet and the technologies it has spawned. Through her digital shadows ‑ the emails, jpegs, Tweets, stories, DMs, Facebook posts, drafts, voice notes, and, in some cases, the raw data ‑ Kiberd weaves together a personal history of her tumultuous twenties by way of an exploration of the technologies which shaped her, both personally and professionally. From hustling through multiple tech-related jobs in Dublin and London and almost being hoovered up by corporate tech culture, to diving into the mercurial world of internet subcultures. Along the way, she explores the compulsions and addictions that technology has exacerbated. From obsessively going to the gym late at night, to her love-hate relationship with dating apps; from using Netflix as a sleeping aid, to developing an addiction to cans of Monster Energy whilst a student at Cambridge, Kiberd’s afflictions are distinctly twenty-first century ones.

This is familiar territory for Kiberd, who has been writing about technology for much of the past decade, with a regular column for Motherboard, Vice’s tech-focused imprint. Her personal essays and cultural criticism have appeared in Winter Papers, Dublin Review, The Guardian, The Irish Times, The Stinging Fly and Vice, and she has written about everything from memes and internet subcultures to the hypnotic appeal of Ireland’s maverick mattress man, Mattress Mick. If there’s a thread in all of her writing, it’s a keen awareness of the ways in which the invisible hand of technology ‑ and its abutting economies and subcultures – is constantly shaping and reframing the way we experience reality. Part of what makes her writing on technology so enjoyable is that she is so completely steeped in her subjects as well as their nascent and constantly evolving languages.

Born in 1989, Kiberd grew up in South Dublin. For those born around the same time ‑ or who have even just sat through twenty minutes of random TV commercials during that period ‑ much of Kiberd’s formative experiences with media and technology will be familiar. Microsoft Paint. Playstations. Crash Bandicoot. Tamagotchis. Nokias. iPods. Bebo. To grow up during the early nineties was to find yourself, unknowingly, a part of the last generation of people whose childhoods straddled two worlds ‑ the one we know today, the one in which we’re “always on”, plugged into what the writer Patricia Lockwood calls the “portal”; or, the other world, the one in which it was possible to live without spending hours each day staring into the screen glued to the palm of your hand. Being surrounded by these things from such a young age, we learn, sets the scene for more complicated relationships with other technologies later in life.

“I am the new flesh,” she writes in the book’s prologue, referencing David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983), which tells the story of a man deranged by the media he consumes.

I too am addicted to the screen. Sometimes I think I have spent so much of my life online that I was raised by the internet. I’ve forgotten where the borders are, where technology ends, and where I begin. Am I a mutant? A cyborg? Or just an ordinary human being? ... I outsource my opinions, my memories and my identity to the internet, and I have spent more time with my laptop than with any living being on earth.

The internet ‑ or the “WorldWideWeb” as it was once known ‑ came into the world in the same year as Kiberd did. As she suggests in her introduction, “A History of the World Since 1989”, to write about her childhood and the transition into adulthood is, in a sense, to write about the formative technologies with which she grew up. In it, she blends snapshots of her life into some of the past three decades’ more impactful technological milestones. Four years after her birth, Jeff Bezos (with a huge loan from his parents) founded Amazon in his garage. Two years later, in 1995, Bill Gates was dancing across the stage to “Start Me Up” by the Rolling Stones. Y2K. It’s 2003 and a sophomore at Harvard, Mark Zuckerberg, creates FaceMash, a social networking website for students at Harvard to rank their fellow students as “hot or not”. By 2008, 145 million people worldwide had signed up to Facebook.

It’s 2010 and Steve Jobs ‑ who would die a year later of neuroendocrine cancer, having mostly shunned standard medical advice in favour of alternative medicine ‑ is dancing across a stage, ready to announce the launch of the iPhone 4, the first phone purposely designed for taking selfies. It’s 2011 and Mark Zuckerberg announces “Facebook Timeline”, which will be “the story of your life ... all your stories, all your apps, and a new way to express who you are”. Julian Assange, if you can believe it, is also dancing ‑ but under strobe lights at a nightclub in Reykjavik (look it up) a year before he would go into the Ecuadorian embassy in London and not leave for another seven. There is something incredibly poignant in Kiberd’s portrayal of these years, in how, slowly, the possibility of the internet being an instrument for social good seems to peak some time in the mid-noughties and instead just becomes another means of exploiting our collective vulnerabilities, another instrument of what Shosanna Zuboff has called surveillance capitalism.

Throughout all of this, Kiberd’s own relationship with technology grew more and more complicated. Having been an anxious student at Cambridge around the same time social media was becoming a part of our daily lives, she then finds herself spending her early twenties in London managing social media and PR work for, among others, a famous cheese brand. She burns out after a few years and returns to live in Dublin, a city which is being hollowed out so rapidly by hotels and multinationals that she cannot afford to live on her own and so has to move back in with her parents. Working as a freelance writer and, occasionally, a PR consultant and strategist, she watches as more and more corporations arrive in Dublin to exploit Ireland’s tax haven status, in the hope that, like Apple in 2014, they too might pay just fifty euro in tax on every million euro of profit.

She watches as her city is transformed in front of her, as Silicon Docklands’ placeless energy sinks its roots deeper into the city’s fibre. She attends corporate drinks receptions where “Fail Again. Fail better” is bandied about unironically by men in suits who might do a double-take if she mentioned Beckett’s name. She knows that these companies stimulate the local economy in their own ways, but laments the faux-hip corporate vibe and culture they have grafted onto the city. Kiberd points out that all of this happens concurrently with rising housing prices, increased homelesness and tens of thousands of young Irish people migrating each year.

She takes on more freelance writing work and is, in one sense, free of her corporate tech-culture, but between writing for deadlines, spending copious amounts of time online, keeping up with “the discourse”, cultivating carefully crafted versions of reality and navigating other people’s own carefully crafted realities, her mental health disintegrates and an abyss opens up between her mind and reality. “A distance formed between me and the rest of the world,” she writes. Then, in 2016, when things begin to go upside down ‑ the same year, she notes, that Facebook scrapped its chronological timeline and replaced it with “algorithmic timelines, tailored to each individual” ‑ she wrote out all of her passwords, muted her social media accounts and sank enough pills to almost kill herself. “It didn’t feel like suicide, because it didn’t feel like I had a life anymore. I would simply remove myself from existence, as easily as deleting an online account.”

She spends six months in an outpatient recovery centre where she reflects on what changed, both inside her and around her, during the year of fake news, in which “voices got louder, opinions and actions became more extreme, and online society, overall, began to compete for the attention of these same algorithms”. When Facebook changed its algorithms, Kiberd argues, “[t]echnology rewrote time, and told us only what we wanted to hear, and in the process, I believe, helped to destabilise the truth”. Big tech, she points out, is alarmingly adept in getting us to believe that new features or updates in their algorithms actually improve user experience ‑ because, of course, user experience is paramount. The most important aspects for any of these companies, as we have seen time and again, are market dominance and the monetisation of data. That Kiberd’s life ‑ and the lives of millions of others ‑ were thrown into disarray because of these updates is OK ‑ because, after all, we can, at any moment, leave this prison we’ve walked into.

Kiberd’s disdain for big tech is palpable throughout the book. In an essay on Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook, one gets the impression that she expects his face to fall off at any given moment and for there to be little more than microchips and wires tucked neatly into a blue, thumbs-up-shaped microcomputer. The man is an enigma. Not only is he one of the world’s most powerful men, he’s also one of its dullest. Kiberd describes him as “a kind of latter-day Andy Warhol, every bit as blank and vastly more boring”. You only have to watch a random five seconds of the infamous “smoking some meats” video, in which Zuckerberg tries his hand at playing a human before you realise that his embrace of normcore ‑ and “luxurious blandness” as Kiberd calls it at one point ‑is just another attempt by his PR team to portray him as less of the billionaire God figure he actually is.

For all of Zuckerberg’s emphasising how much he values transparency ‑ working from a glass office so that everyone can see that nothing nefarious is going on ‑ Kiberd points out that he also has a secret room at the back of his office where he can hold private meetings. This could be a metaphor for Facebook itself, which claims to be about connecting people, but, in actuality, just below its optimised and user-friendly veneer, hides capitalism’s shape-shifting machinery, finding newer and more efficient ways of sweating profit from its consumers who, increasingly, aren’t even aware of their position as consumers.

This is also true of dating apps, to which, drifting through her twenties, Kiberd finds herself turning at various times. “I feel like a nun wedded to the internet,” she writes of her reliance on apps and online dating. Dating apps, she writes, are “... perfect for a generation denied stability ‑homeownership, job security and the chance to grow up”. The gamification of dating is just another aspect of millennial life that she finds herself self-consciously and awkwardly enveloped in as it becomes the new normal. In two chapters entitled “Men Explain the Apocalypse to Me”, Kiberd explores the apps and the cultures which have sprung up around them. She finds herself on a series of fleeting dates in bars throughout Dublin, many of which end in a sort of ghosting (one party not responding to the other), or as a friend of mine calls it, mutually assured ghosting (both parties not responding to one another).

There is, first, a Frenchman obsessed with collapsology, a man named Odysseus (“adrift on a downloadable dating app”), and, among others, a man who used his business headshot as his picture and who “spoke of his longing to escape the office, and his plans to hike the Appalachian Trail … like some helpless businessman from a George Saunders story”. Variations of the eschaton recur throughout Kiberd’s dates ‑ both as a topic of conversation with the men she encounters and also in the idea that she is worried she’ll die alone as we hurtle towards an apocalypse. She does an excellent job of capturing the excitement, awkwardness, and, occasionally, the strangely pleasant feeling of ambling drunkenly through a city with a stranger you’ve arranged to meet through an app on your phone.

Like Trow, Kiberd points out that technology has usurped yet another aspect of everyday life – dating ‑ and placed it within the only context many of us now understand: apps. And, in case we didn’t already know, it is a truth universally acknowledged that a single millennial in possession of an internet connection must be in want of a date. So why would a millennial ever leave their house if they can just pull out their phone, find a date, order food, even invest in meme stocks, all in the space of ten minutes, from bed? Dating apps ‑ like more apps ‑ incentivise spending copious amounts of time alone staring at a screen, ensuring that the realities they strive to create remain at the centre of our worlds, nudging out anything else which threatens their power over us. More swipes, more clicks and data means more profit.

When it comes to apps, business models aren’t built around satisfied customers, because truly satisfied customers, Kiberd points out, wouldn’t need to return. This is painfully apparent within the dating app industry, where AI bots are used to drive engagement and give users those breadcrumbs, those little hits of dopamine which keep them swiping and straying through the infinite nothing in search of “the one”. And as Kiberd reminds us, the action itself is robotic; and we wonder why, after “being taught to love like robots ... we are surprised when we inevitably feel nothing”. After Kiberd decides that she has enough with dating apps, she hounds Bumble into reluctantly giving her back her data from her account. The moment is beautifully described as like the “internet’s equivalent of drawing blood … the point where you realise that you are what the internet is made of”.

Sleep, too, is another of the ways in which Kiberd has struggled to regain the power she has ceded to technology. She documents her ongoing relationship with her insomnia and the subsequent anxiety, paranoia and self-loathing that comes with her bouts of sleeplessness. Instead of dreaming, she is haunted by former online selves, obsessively wondering about how she is being perceived, re-editing her profiles while everyone around her sleeps. Netflix, her drug of choice most nights, is what Kiberd calls “automated company”, a presence in the absence of human company, making being alone at night less unbearable. Entire seasons of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia pass her by almost entirely unnoticed.

Having tried various sleeping pills (there is an entire chapter dedicated to the various drugs she has tried in her quest for more regular sleep) Kiberd learns about a nap hotel in London which she visits and ends up spending her time on her phone instead of sleeping. She traces our obsession with sleep back beyond its ties to capitalism ‑ before sleeping aids, and mattresses targeted at millennials ‑ and notices that people (among them Thomas Edison, Leonardo DaVinci, and, more recently, Arianna Huffington) have been obsessed with productivity and getting more out of the day. Added to capitalism’s already well-established ties to sleep, better, more efficient sleep (and, allegedly, increased productivity) is just another way that capitalism can sell your sleep back to you.

Such an important commodity has sleep become that in 2017, Kiberd notes, Netflix’s CEO Reed Hastings told investors that “sleep is our number one competitor”. The biggest losers are those trapped in between companies like Netflix, who constantly vie to keep eyes open, and the companies who win when people sleep, (Fitbit, now owned by Google) who use our data ‑ how often we sleep, information on our heart rate ‑ to fill in the blanks in their algorithm and improve the ads which get shown to you. A few weeks after her trip to the nap hotel she receives an email from them to let her know that they are now offering professional cuddle therapists. Though she doesn’t take them up on their offer, it provides her with one of the book’s saddest realisations: “I think I would give up a lifetime of Netflix to be held, even for a short while, before I fell asleep.”

The loneliness palpable throughout The Disconnect is a familiar one. “I cannot stand to be alone and yet I seek a cure in loneliness.” It is a type of loneliness which has arisen out of the space technology has wedged between ourselves and the world; the type of loneliness that sees us reaching for our phone rather than one another. It is a direct product of the nostalgia of someone who has grown up along the edges of this world, knowing that there is another way of doing things, of being in the world. Kiberd’s book is a rare and wonderful attempt to acknowledge that, for many of us now, the distinction between “real-life” and the more nebulous realities that the internet provides us with have, in a very real sense, broken down. And with memory now so intertwined with our experience of online reality, it seems bizarre to discount the importance of a digital fragment, when what many of us are now is made up almost entirely of digital fragments.

There’s a famous line in Susan Sontag’s On Photography in which she writes that a photograph “is both a pseudo-presence and a token of absence”. So too are the phones we carry around with us constantly. In one sense, they remind us that the people we love, miss, maybe even desire, are a call, a text, or a swipe away; in another, they remind us that we are often, in fact, alone. For much of The Disconnect, Kiberd finds herself alone, beset by memories of ex-boyfriends, whose digital shadows loom large over her. On the internet, in email threads, and messages. When, towards the end of the book, a meaningful connection finally presents itself, first over emails and then later in-person, Kiberd, now at the end of her twenties, is ready to take it. “I’m not looking for an apocalypse,” she writes. “I’m looking for a future instead.”

1/3/2021

Tadhg Hoey’s writing has appeared in BOMB, the Dublin Review of Books, Headstuff and The Irish Times. He lives in Dublin.

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