Dispatches from the Cathode Ray
The Disconnect, Roisin Kiberd, Serpent’s Tail, 2021, 283pp, £12.99 (paperback)
The insidious workings of Big Tech have inspired a profusion of non-fiction titles in the last few years. Months before The Great Zoomification of 2020, Shoshanna Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism projected a world where electoral democracy, commerce, media, and privacy all bow to the might of our data-hungry overlords, Facebook, Google, and Amazon. New York Times journalists, Sheera Frenkel and Cecelia Kang’s upcoming investigative work, An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination, looks set to only deepen the gloom and paranoia. In fiction, meanwhile, novelists like Lauren Oyler and Patricia Lockwood are at the vanguard of a generation coming to terms with the particular neurosis that arises from struggling to live up to one’s online self. The cybersphere has also spawned an interminable stream of confessional writing, autofictions and personal essays by the likes of Jia Tolentino, that marshal the author’s trauma, alienation and ennui to critique the excesses of the oversharing economy. This latter genre often involves a precarious balancing on the edge of the crypto-coin and, even when carried off convincingly, leaves the author open to accusations of exactly the kind of equivocation, cynicism and narcissism they purport to expose (see Lauren Oyler’s caustic appraisal of Tolentino’s Trick Mirror for the LRB).
Roisin Kiberd’s mind-expanding essay collection, The Disconnect, explores the banality and horror of a life hooked on ‘the infinite scroll’. Like its cyborg-identifying author, the collection embraces hybridity with personal essays blossoming out into free associative derives through the internet’s symptoms and subcultures.
‘I am the new flesh,’ Kiberd declares, invoking David Cronenberg’s 80s cult horror, Videodrome. The allusion is an earnest one. Born in 1989, the same year Tim Berners-Lee submitted a proposal for a ‘World Wide Web project’ to his employers at CERN, Kiberd was weaned on glittering digital utopianism, developing in adolescence a selfhood owing as much to optical fibre networks as to blood, flesh, and bone. Having an author so avowedly consubstantial with her subject makes for an interesting set-up, and Kiberd queries at each turn where dissection of the internet ends and vivisection of the self begins. ‘If I am a cyborg, I write in the spirit of this ambivalence, in defence of the imperfect and human,’ she writes while considering Donna Haraway’s seminal posthumanist essay, A Cyborg Manifesto. This stolid indecision is among the collection’s greatest strengths, a rejection of the inflexible biographies, timelines, tribes and filter bubbles Kiberd maintains have replaced human complexity in the online sphere.
Kiberd is a seasoned psychogeographer of the web, and most of the essays here are updated and expanded versions of work previously published in The Guardian, Motherboard, The Stinging Fly and The Dublin Review. It’s an eclectic bunch that investigates Silicon Valley’s infiltration of the 21st century heart and brain via erudite dissections of 24-hour gyms, Monster Energy Drink, Tamagotchis, Mark Zuckerberg’s wardrobe, sleep hotels, incels, and much more. After tearing through the first couple of essays, I began to share in her identity crisis: Am I a cyborg? Are my opinions, my emotions, my dreams truly my own or have I outsourced them, like so much else, to servers and search engines? Will this review ever scroll past a human retina or are you too, dear reader, a piece of algorithmic software engineered to parse content for style, wit, and ideological purity? Kiberd is the perfect companion for this thrilling, chilling and irresistibly playful existential nightmare, leaning into the gothic just enough to transform Mark Zuckerberg from an insipid tech bro to an avatar of the Cthulu-esque abyss at the heart of the web.
The personal is a springboard that gives context for Kiberd’s adventures, and for the most part the focus is kept on technology and broad behavioural trends. Nonetheless, she is candid about her own turbulent relationship with the internet – from eating disorders and a suicide attempt to toe-curling Bumble dates and the transformation of her native Dublin city by the influx of Big Tech capital in the 2010s. An attempt in the book’s final third to retcon the essays into a faintly redemptive love story feels a little forced, as though we are in need of some reassurance that nature finds a way in spite of the dystopian squalor. This is far from fatal and will be scarcely noticeable to those who read the essays out of sequence, but it does point towards a kind of narratorial structuring that seems contrary to the freewheeling ambience of the pieces themselves.
The Disconnect’s striking achievement is that it resists the kind of cynicism and jaded irony that has become the centre of gravity for so much commentary on this subject. Instead, each essay is shot through with melancholy for how far short of its early promise the internet has fallen. Kiberd clings on to a time in the early 90s when the internet symbolised truly transcendent possibilities, an anarchic playground for boffins, hackers, geeks and gamers. It could have all been so different, she writes. A world wide web of free inquiry, with no hobby too niche, no cause too marginal that it could not find community across the void. A liberating force, freeing us from our narrow identities and alleviating our loneliness instead of mining it for profit and control. It is this utopian vision that animates each one of these essays, a lost vision of paradise the collection mourns but stubbornly refuses to let go of. When Kiberd echoes the late Mark Fisher in asking ‘is there no alternative?’ it feels as though the conversation has just begun.
The Disconnect: A Personal Journey Through the Internet by Roisin Kiberd is published by Serpent’s Tail.
William Brady is a writer and lecturer based in London. He holds a PhD in English Literature from Trinity College Dublin.
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