Writing Technology

Dennis Tenen

Read my blog, please, but don’t dare peek into my diary. Even though these two genres employ some of the same conventions—a diurnal relation to time, a preoccupation with subjective experience—one is a product of social media, while the other is not meant to be read by others. Donald Winnicott, the influential British psychoanalyst of the mid-20th century, thought that all art shares that tension between communicating and not communicating. “In an artist of all kinds,” he writes, “one can detect an inherent dilemma, which belongs to the co-existence of two trends, the urgent need to communicate and the still more urgent need not to be found.” The Internet elicits much the same response, as evidenced by the concurrent rise of social media, which aims to connect the world, and crypto-anarchism, which embraces the power of the anonymous.

Two recent novels, The Circle by David Eggers and Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy, take very different approaches to reasoning about the role of social media in our daily lives. Both also represent an attempt to assimilate the Internet as a form into the novel.




When some people smoke too much weed they become paranoid: they feel like they are on stage, their deepest thoughts and insecurities somehow visible and exposed. It must be a debilitating feeling, one that precludes any real possibility of action or reflection.

The weed we are all smoking today, according to The Circle, is social media. Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Instagram—these narcotic spigots of information promote a perpetual state of shallow performativity. Like the stupefying effects of a bad joint, they put us permanently on stage, drowning out the vibrancy of language and emotion in endless social chatter. Emotions are reduced to emoticons. Instead of talking to each other, we “tweet at.” Rather than laughing or loving, we LOL and like; rather than making friends, we friend. Not every novel has a thesis, but The Circle does, and this is it.

That dystopian message comes to us in a hefty 500-page tome. Eggers veils the real-life targets of his social criticism only thinly. Tweeting, in the world of the novel, is “zinging.” Liking is “smiling”; its contrary, “frowning.” The Circle itself, a rapidly growing and visionary data corporation, is likely modeled after Google, even though Google also exists in Eggers’s fictional world. Like Google, which actually has a social feature called “circles,” the Circle makes its living by giving away free services and collecting data on its users. Unlike Google’s relatively staid management team, the “Wise Men” in charge of this fictional corporation preach wildly about their plans to transform the world, to some comic effect. The Circle’s management offers nothing less than “a kind of ultimate and all-encompassing relief” from disease, deception, crime, hunger, and corruption. To facilitate this vision of the world, all we need to do is to “go clear” or “go transparent,” to be completely visible to others, and to share oneself at all times.

I have to believe there’s still room for serious thinking between the alternatives of bowling alone or getting stupid together.

Even though the world of The Circle is supposed to be transparent, the reader is spared the grit and the viscera of a true panopticon. Pooping is taboo. Mae, the young protagonist of the novel, gets to turn off her cameras and recorders when on the toilet, which results in many private conversations “in the stall.” As for sex, men lurk in the shadows to rest their strong hands on women’s “sacrums.” That’s about as steamy as it gets in the novel. Despite the heroine’s surrender to ever-increasing transparency, one of the few marked “shockers” of the novel comes when Mae catches and inadvertently broadcasts her parents in the act. Her father suffers from multiple sclerosis. Because of this, the text implies, seeing her father’s penis is an especially traumatic event. Eggers writes it just like that, penis. I cannot help but wonder: Is that really so shocking to his Internet-savvy readers? Has he seen what women do with cups online these days? Or the widely circulated snuff films of Mexican cartel killings captured on cell phones and surveillance cameras? Amputations, decapitations, deglovings, the car-on-pedestrian violence of Russian dash-cams … In comparison to the disturbing real-world digital refuse of the always-on society, the byproducts of Circle technology read as relatively sterile. Mae severely alienates friends and family; some people injure themselves—but that’s about the worst of it.

This is not the grim vision of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games nor the hyper-melodramatic smut of Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark, nor even the pulp gossip of Dostoevsky’s Idiot, all of which force the audience to watch the minutiae of violence, sickness, anguish, and torture, exploiting emotion in nasty ways that make you feel dirty inside and disgusted with being complicit in watching and observing at all.

The Circle asks its reader only to nod along. By the end of the story, Mae’s following a dozen or so social streams, on at least nine screens at the same time. She and humanity, Eggers warns us, are in danger of losing themselves in a forest of information. This message will resonate with folks who already believe Google is making us stupid. My problem with the novel is that I think it rings false with the insiders. I have to believe there’s still room for serious thinking between the alternatives of bowling alone or getting stupid together.

As a parable, The Circle asks us to reevaluate the Faustian bargain with technology, by which we trade privacy for utility; quiet, solitary introspection for the meaningless buzz of the collective swarm; deep personal relationships for a shallow sense of connectivity. The reality is at once more disturbing and more instructive than the parable. Eggers’s novel posits a certain parity between gain and loss. The Circle collects data on everyone, citizen and government alike. All politicians in this alternate United States eventually choose to “go clear,” putting an end to corruption and crime. Health and food security improve dramatically in a matter of years.

Advocates for open access and transparency could be inadvertently engineering the architecture for future tyrannies.

In the real world, however, the bargain does not work like that. There’s seldom parity between those who govern and the governed. In the United States, it is becoming increasingly clear that as the country’s citizens are losing ground when it comes to personal privacy, the state is expanding the sphere of its secret activities. In fact, the two usually go hand in hand. Witness the recent closing of Lavabit, a company providing encrypted mail services to almost half a million people, including Edward Snowden. In a recent article in the Guardian, Ladar Levison, the founder of the company, claims he chose to shut down his site rather than cooperate with the FBI, which had tried to compel him to share his customers’ encryption keys in secret court. Because the court was secret, Levison claims he was denied due process and adequate legal representation. Describing his predicament, he writes, “If we allow our government to continue operating in secret, it is only a matter of time before you or a loved one find yourself in a position like I did—standing in a secret courtroom, alone, and without any of the meaningful protections that were always supposed to be the people’s defense against an abuse of the state’s power.” The situation is even more complicated globally, where the gap between the ruling and the ruled is visible in forms of outright censorship and political repression.

Eggers is right in observing that our notions of transparency and surveillance occupy the same side of the access coin. By “transparency” we usually mean something good, like the complete visibility of our public institutions. Eggers shows us how the same ideal, when imposed onto the individual, can devolve into something terrible, like mass surveillance. This insight highlights a dynamic that may be counterintuitive to some: that advocates for open access and transparency could, in fact, be inadvertently engineering the architecture for future tyrannies.

The other side of that coin works the same way. Privacy, a good when applied to the individual, becomes the undesirable “secrecy” when exercised by state or corporate actors. By this logic, we know that advances in encryption technology, which help limit access in general, can serve to empower privacy and secrecy alike. As far as the technology is concerned, one cannot separate one use case from the other. For this reason, and counter to the logic of The Circle, engineering for privacy alone cannot answer the problems of mass surveillance. The tools that veil or expose an individual are the same tools that veil or expose the mechanisms of governance.

Achieving total public accountability could indeed be worth the complete erosion of personal privacy, especially if the trade-off really did give us a more robust version of participatory democracy, without corruption, police brutality, and other abuses of state power. Imagine a world in which neither Watergate nor another Rodney King beating were possible. Imagine also another alternative, not discussed in the book: total privacy and total secrecy, with the social and political outcomes they entail. These are intriguing thought experiments, and perhaps somehow dangerous to our collective sense of humanity. But the darker dystopia is that of the present, where a powerful few control both sides of the coin, privacy and secrecy. The recipe for tyranny is writ by a government that insists on operating in secret, while exposing its citizenry to the indignities of mass surveillance, large-scale data aggregation, pervasive tracking, deep biometrics, and frequent X-ray imaging.

By all accounts, I should be a sympathetic reader of Eggers. I lived in the Bay Area for years, worked on a huge tech campus at the height of the first Internet bubble. I code. I teach dystopian fiction. Like Mae’s father, mine is suffering from a degenerative neurological disease. I care deeply about the issues of privacy, access, surveillance, and human agency. But I was most moved not by the obvious cautionary tale of the novel, but by its unexpected flights of lyricism, particularly in the many nature passages in which the reader catches a glimpse of the bay. Listen to this, for example:

 

When the water fell again, it left a wide swath of bizarre, bejeweled seaweed—blue, and green, and, in a certain light, iridescent. She held it in her hands, and it was smooth, rubbery, its edges ruffled extravagantly. Mae’s feet were wet, and the water was snow cold but she didn’t mind. She sat on the rocky beach, picked up a stick and drew with it, clicking through the smooth stones. Tiny crabs, unearthed and annoyed, scurried to find new shelters. A pelican landed downshore, on the trunk of a dead tree, which had been bleached white and leaned diagonally, rising from the steel-gray water, pointing lazily to the sky.

 

Lines like these made me long for the West Coast again. But, by the logic of the novel, the lyricism is merely subservient to the didactic thesis of the work: nature good, data bad. I am sympathetic, but find myself drifting to the serene beauty of the dreamy water passages; drifting toward the seals and the bat rays who care nothing about our wired drylander ways.

 



Just as I am the right reader for The Circle, as a white(ish) geeky male in his mid-30s, I am exactly not the target audience for the latest installment of Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones novels, Mad About the Boy—at least from judging the book by its cover. I know nothing about the franchise, and I have as much interest in reading other people’s fictional email, diaries, tweets, and SMS messages as I do in reading real ones: none at all. I therefore approached the novel with extreme prejudice. The book’s packaging screams “chick lit.” I am ignorant enough about the genre not to know even whether folks find that term offensive or empowering. I do, however, take umbrage at the infantilizing gendered color-coding of adult products. The cover of the edition I have is white and pink all over. Be I a man or a woman, I don’t feel good holding this object in my hands.

These were all the more reasons to make me want to read the book. I lugged it with me everywhere and brandished it proudly at the park and on the train, in hopes of scandalizing the somber sidewalk and subway audiences of Morningside Heights. This being New York, nobody seemed to notice.

Cracking the spine revealed an unexpectedly enjoyable and rowdy antidote to the dark anxiety of The Circle. As a protagonist, Eggers’s Mae is almost completely cowed by technology and, perhaps more problematically, by her male handlers. She is only a marionette, manipulated by performance metrics, social zings, and the voices inside her headset. When she acts of her own accord, she does so impulsively and with little understanding of what she is doing. Unable to understand herself, she is easily shamed by her male superiors into obedience.

By contrast, Bridget Jones is a bit of a badass. She would certainly not abide by the rules of some Silicon Valley “brogrammer” cult. Yes, she texts (a lot) and tweets and talks like a teenager sometimes, despite being 51. She says things like “Gaah!” and “OMG” and “FUCKWIT” (in capitals just like that). But she is also not defeated by technology. Email, social media, and self-metrics (daily calorie and SMS message counts) are a big part of her life, but so is the chaos brought about by children, farts during yoga, nits, and young nitwit boyfriends.

In Fielding’s vision of the world, humanity stands unbowed before technological onslaught, lame mom and dad jokes intact. Savor this moment, for example:

 

3:05 p.m. FUCK ROXSTER! FUCK HIM! Suddenly doing death-by-texting after all that, that CLOSENESS. It’s inhuman. I didn’t like him anyway. I was just … just … USING HIM FOR SEX … […]

“Mummy?” Billy interrupted. “How many elements are there?”

“Four!” I said brightly, snapping back into the reality of the messy Sunday afternoon in the kitchen. “Air, fire and wood. And um—”

“Not ‘WOOD’! Wood isn’t an element.”

Oh. Suddenly realize “wood” came from a book I read about Elemental Design—when I had the fantasy of redoing the house into a Buddhist Zendo […]

“There are five elements.”

“No, there aren’t!” I said indignantly. “There are four elements.”

“No. There are five elements,” said Billy. “Air, earth, water, fire and technology. Five.”

“Technology isn’t an element.”

“Yes, it is!”

“No, it isn’t!”

“It is. It’s in Wii Skylanders: air, earth, water, fire and technology.”

Stared at him in horror. Has technology become another element now? Is that it? Technology is the fifth element, and my generation just don’t understand it, like the Incas just completely forgetting to invent the wheel? Or maybe the Incas invented the wheel and it was the Aztecs to whom the idea of the wheel just never occurred?

“Billy?” I said. “Who invented the wheel? Was it the Incas or the Aztecs?”

“Mummeeeee! It was in Asia in 8000 BC,” Billy said without looking up.

He had somehow got onto his iPod without me noticing.

 

The prose is wonderfully madcap, in the grand absurdist style of Lawrence Sterne and, dare I say it, Beckett. It is meaty and true and great fun to read out loud. It also somehow manages to convincingly capture the ways technology weaves itself into the human social fabric, here intimately connecting a mother and her son.

I am still confused, however, about the format of this novel. What is this diary business? The pacing sometimes makes no sense as fact or fiction, as when the entries are spaced only minutes apart. Is it possible, for example, to be “suddenly in panic re meeting stranger off Twitter at Leicester Square tube when am single mother” at 9:50 p.m., to WRITE THAT DOWN, and then to note, “just called Tom,” exactly a minute later, at 9:51 p.m.? The device could be another literary convention, by which noting time is a part of the narrator’s world. In this case, though, there are no other narrators. The entire novel is told from the first-person perspective. I am willing to suspend disbelief only when the fictional universe can play along by its own rules.

Masters of the form digest other media, rather than merely imitate them.

The novel, as Mikhail Bakhtin established long ago, is a voracious eater of other discourses. At its best, the novel assimilates them on its own terms. I appreciate Fielding’s carefree experimentation with form and format. On her pages you will find grocery lists, wish lists, tweets, emails, handwritten notes, dating rules, dating profiles, and pro-and-con decision matrices. I love seeing all of these things in a novel, but I don’t need the extra help of emails formatted like emails or notes rendered in comic sans to maintain the illusion of handwriting, as Fielding does here. The sloppy formal conceits, like the pink cover, feel cheap and detract from the quality of writing.

Masters of the form digest other media, rather than merely imitate them. The technical term for such digestion is trans-mediation: a refactoring of one medium into another, with often unexpected results. This is what writers like Virginia Woolf and Vladimir Nabokov did, adapting cinematic techniques to suit their modes of storytelling. The physical affordances of the book gave visual devices such as match cuts or deep focus new power and meaning, forever transforming the novel in the process. The same might one day happen with digital metaphors like “poke” or “cut and paste,” but until then, the ersatz email rendered in funny fonts on a printed page will remain a gimmick.

To be sure, I’ve never liked letters or diaries in long-form novels at all, even in classics by Brontë and Tolstoy. The ascetic in me wants to stare at a wall of unformatted text and, for a moment, to perceive the world as pure textuality—pages of unbroken plain text like the ones in medieval manuscripts, command-line interfaces, or the novels of Thomas Bernhard.

One can object that such text-only interfaces are completely asocial. Perhaps. But concordances and parchment palimpsests anticipate such trendy-sounding terms as the “semantic web” or “community annotation” by centuries. To communicate or not to communicate has always been a writer’s dilemma. Where Eggers is concerned with the impact of new media on the content of our thoughts, Fielding assimilates its form. Both writers understand that something profound is happening at the interface between human and machine.