Please Hold While I Disconnect You

Both novels and non-fiction suggest exhaustion, disappointment, and listlessness are central to digital capitalism.

While laughable today, Google’s famous “Don’t be evil” slogan was part of a world that envisioned technology with anticipation. I was maybe nine years old when my parents got our first home computer. It was a clunky Compaq, and I know they got it on sale at the RadioShack in the Mesilla Valley Mall because, at the time, what is now a Best Buy was a department store. I remember when it closed because my friend’s parents—who had worked at the store their entire adult lives and had slowly ascended the ranks to become managers—were laid off. The electronic whirring and beeps of dial-up modems seemed painful at the time. Now they remind me of afternoons when I waited patiently to log on, not understanding the larger disconnections around me.

Then, nothing seemed more upsetting than being disconnected from the World Wide Web. Today, it follows me everywhere and I follow it: in this way, the internet is reliably always “there” for you. But the excitement of connection has been lost, and it’s no wonder why I keep downloading and deleting the same apps. On, off, on, off.

Indeed, being trailed through a digitized reality is less dystopic and more dreary than perhaps we once imagined. In scholar and poet Tung-Hui Hu’s recently published Digital Lethargy: Dispatches from an Age of Disconnection (2022), he names this feeling “digital lethargy.” It is a state of exhaustion, disappointment, and listlessness central to digital capitalism.

That feeling is encapsulated in Jennifer Egan’s The Candy House (2022), a companion novel to her Pulitzer Prize–winning 2011 novel A Visit from the Goon Squad. The world of Egan’s The Candy House is one that is uncomfortably close to the future proposed by crypto enthusiasts, NFT fanatics, and proponents of life in a metaverse. Characters negotiate a life increasingly shaped by algorithms and uploads. Digital repositories for memories allow their present selves to observe both their own past and the pasts of the people who appear in our memories. In this way, all uploaded memories become portals into the lives of others. Intimacy is shared, but it’s also the price of entry. This tension binds the characters as they negotiate the exhaustion of the past in the present while trying to imagine the future.

Where Hu and Egan point to ways to escape the isolation engendered by digital capitalism, Kristen Radtke’s second graphic novel, Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness (2021), illustrates the lengths to which people have gone to disguise the chasm between our public selves, inner lives, and the world. The first section of the book is appropriately titled “Listen.” We learn that monotonous beeps sent out by amateur radio operators on the airwaves were once called CQ waves. This code, for the French “sécurité” (“pay attention”) was heard by the English-speaking ear as “seek you.” While radio seems analog today, it remains a technology that mediates communication across frequencies, a connection that is translated as yearning. In these texts, technology does more than expose the loneliness of protagonists: it fundamentally shapes the nature of how isolation, ambivalence, and disconnection are structured and experienced.

Each of these authors theorize and speculate about how we got to worlds on and offline that we cannot “unplug” and what strategies are available to us as the present slips into a future where optimization serves to condition good, responsible neoliberal subjects. The stakes of this development expose crucial questions about the demands of capitalism on the most mundane aspects of life and relationships.

But maybe, they suggest, we can read loneliness as a rejection of these systems, and not just a symptom of a larger problem. Each author considers refusal as a political orientation that can lead to new possibilities. They also read in between the loneliness and refusal to wonder about ennui and listlessness. What does it mean to be evacuated of urgency in times of unending crisis?

The Candy House is populated by characters mentioned or connected to the principal narrators of A Visit from the Goon Squad. Egan introduces us to characters readers may recognize as the lovers, siblings, friends, and children populating the previous novel. Mindy, the young girlfriend of a wealthy record label executive in the first book, becomes Miranda Kline, an anthropologist who is known for the concept of “affinity charm” and whose work has been taken up by the tech world to produce forms of cybernetic human connection. Much to her horror, Miranda’s affinity algorithm sutures together the visions of tech moguls and academics—both a class of elites working to shape the world or explain it away.

While tech networks and platforms comprise the background, one of the great successes of Egan’s writing is in her portrayal of academics—their conversations, anxieties, cadences, ambitions, and approach to life planning that is characterized by a sense of having to plan for a future that is never guaranteed. Technology’s omnipresence allows for their speculative world to feel “real”: we know it’s everywhere, almost inescapable, an alluring metaphor for distraction or some other kind of drug.

However, the adult and young protagonists of the novel are in many ways equally cynical and mistrusting of the options available to them. At times, they’re deeply aware of just how unsatisfying their choices are, knowing from the start they won’t be happy when they get what they’re looking for. On offer to them is Mandala: a collective stream of consciousness where users can upload their memories. Once uploaded, they can access streams of others who share their interactions, anonymously, if they allow access to their stream.

It can be easy to misread these characters as techno-optimists given their superficial successes, but they are in fact deeply lethargic, and in their resignation, they grasp for any avenue to connect to the people they have lost over time. For example, founder Bix Bouton’s proposal that Mandala will connect him and all of his subscribers to their past grants him the status of “tech demigod.” In actuality, his creation compromises both individual security and the possibility of privacy. It also materializes anxious tendencies to ruminate over the worst moments of one’s past. Characters replay the lows of addiction, walking in the opposite direction before tragedy, silently yearning for the attention of someone else.

But even read as a relatively benign strategy for tackling emptiness, tech comes packaged with the exhausting imperative to be “on.” Other characters purposefully scream in public spaces, to interrupt the flow of a moment and ostensibly to jolt people into sincerity or become someone else or attempt to engineer situations that will result in the most “human” interaction.

In the end, tech enables and consolidates our attempts to grope for each other in the dark, distracting us from the fact that we are always in the middle of a flurry of connection. Such webs aren’t always traps, but some ties may hurt to hold onto, even if we yearn to reel them in closer. Like in the novel’s older sibling, Egan takes us in and out of lives that are all shared with one another, even if they have no awareness of each other, which is about as close to the experience of being in a room of strangers as you can get. Refusal for Egan isn’t disconnection or unplugging, but walking out and seeing how easily we can enter and exit each other’s memories, lives, homes, arms.

Being trailed through a digitized reality is less dystopic and more dreary than perhaps we once imagined.

The blurring of such a network of people in Egan’s work allows for this sense of coming and going. Similarly, the potential of being lost in the static storm is at the core of Digital Lethargy’s six ambitious chapters. As an invitation to consider the unromantic reality of daily endurance in digital capitalism, Hu proposes we pause and cease to consider the false urgencies of life online.

Each chapter ostensibly seeks to linger with artists whose work resists expectations of “animatedness.” The term comes from cultural theorist Sianne Ngai, refering to the “stereotype of racialized subjects as excessively or minimally emotional and expressive.” As such, these works are “recessive, self-defeating, even passive,” and the chapters chart out how the burden of lethargy is uneven, with “liveliness and interiority … both manufactured and shouldered by today’s servers.” Overall, what Hu wants us to pay attention to is how these works invite us to consider what it might mean to endure—not out of perseverance, but out of the sheer drudgery of knowing what kind of lives and affects we are expected to espouse, perform, deliver. Hu situates this awareness as digital lethargy, an affect unique to our contemporary moment conditioned by digital capitalism’s all-encompassing efforts to keep us “always on.” This concern is one that mirrors Egan’s examination of the kinds of personal costs that come at the expense of sustaining our efforts, innovations, and stakes of maintaining a public persona.

The first three chapters of the text lead us through the etymological and poetic case for considering “lethargy” as lens to interrogate our contemporary historical moment. Hu explores how our digital self and digital lives inform both individual self-knowledge, and also an awareness of how global digital capitalism mines our lives, transforms clicks into data, data into profit, and sells “us” back to ourselves. Hu’s past life as a network engineer shines greatest in these passages that explain the scales and assumptions of digital labor. Chapter One, “Start When It’s Too Late,” examines Heike Geissler’s memoir Seasonal Associate about working in an Amazon warehouse in Germany. The following chapter, “Wait, Then Give Up” takes up what Hu considers lethargic art, works that “construct the figure of an ‘unfit’ user who fails to use digital culture correctly, but who can nevertheless redirect a viewer’s focus to the invisible forms of communicative labor within it.” Together, both chapters work to argue that endurance has been ignored by critics and that enduring is a different way to mark time in the face of digital life’s constant alerts, pings, and manufactured urgencies.

The strand of Hu’s argument that most allows us to understand digital lethargy is in his assertion that alternative temporalities are means of rejecting the demands of digital capitalism. Hu elaborates that lethargy as a concept can be traced to the mythological waters of the river Lethe, which was said to strip all memory away from those who drank from it. This is fundamental to keep in mind when considering how lethargy can separate oneself from a sense of self. At the end of a day doing repetitive tasks, of being told what you like and who you are, what if you just … stopped? Digital capitalism has found a work-around:

Even though digital platforms simply ask you to “be yourself,” that datafied self that digital platforms ask us to identify with is not just an idealized, better, Instagrammable version of that self (though that may well be the case). On a deeper level, it is also a self that is never in perfect synchrony with the phenomenological present, but exists somewhere between past behavior and future projection, and somewhere between population and individual, as algorithms construct “your” preferences through the preferences of other people who supposedly think like you.

Sitting with this awareness that whoever we have become doesn’t really and never really will exist, “lethargy arises not just from exhaustion or being ill at ease, but also because digital platforms specify the only certain forms of interaction—most obviously, interactions that generate value—count as ‘being yourself.’”

How exhausting. In part, because with the awareness comes a sense of fatigue, a heavy “well … might as well join them.” A disaffected “if everyone else is doing it …” that is evacuated of any sense of enthusiasm or even enjoyment. It. Just. Is. It is easy to misread participation in our digital commons as the success of techno-optimism, the kind of attitude that technology represents a net good and provides solutions that will better human (read: neoliberal) contentment. Hu points us toward a consideration of the kind of pressures we have come to take in slowly and now live with as a constant, uncontested, and unquestioned feature of modern life.


Digital Lies, Real Ghosts

By Rae Greiner

This repetition is cast in blue light, the same tones that filter throughout the third section of Radtke’s Seek You, which illustrates the lengths to which people seek to bridge the gaps between the interior and exterior spaces that condition us to cleave our desires in half. The first section of Seek You is appropriately titled “Listen.” We follow the monotonous CQ waves sent out by amateur radio operators as an invitation to a history of media that contours how we approach everyday sensations of loneliness as a failure to connect to another person. She takes us on a tour through amateur radio, the laugh track, and the web page. A sensorial text, Radtke’s graphic novel is organized into five sections, the first four containing short chapters; bookending the text are two sections both titled “Listen.” The first instance of “Listen” is illustrated in green tones, perhaps signaling the color of a sonic wave on a machine. “Watch” is an orange glow, the kind of bright light that comes off an old television where we watch John Wayne and learn that to be alone is to be a US American—to be an individual is to be someone and to be someone is to matter. “Click” is awash in subdued blues. The shortest section, a love letter to self-making via html, storytelling, self. Radtke walks us through Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirror Room, an installation that seems self-consciously destined for Instagram. There, we perform an awareness that snapping pictures of ourselves is one way to capture the unease between knowing we are narcissistic and muted self-awareness. Selfie as document that we were here.

In sepia tones, “Touch” explores the sensations and study of attachment. It is this section that is most striking—if not for the subject matter, then for the ease with which Radtke weaves history and story and is able to theorize about loneliness, love, and connection from this intersection. The colors of the pages recall old photographs, which deepens the reflective self-awareness of Radtke’s narration. Passages reflecting on types of loneliness both catalog memory and the uncomfortable truth of time: it doesn’t ever repeat. In Seek You, we are always made to remember that even in our most idealized past, we were aware that the moment was finite, time an expanse before us: “Barring some premature catastrophe, we know that everything we have trickles out and thins—our lives begin to leave us before we leave them. Our parents, our partners, our friends, our minds.”

The second “Listen” is rendered in warm oranges and yellow, and gestures toward learning to listen carefully to how people seek to maintain closeness, even if the only way to express attachment is to register the severing of connections over the airwaves. Radtke’s tone of melancholy resignation—or what Hu would diagnose as lethargic orientation—rests on the fact that loneliness is ultimately something we all endure. We grasp and reach out for connection as a way out of isolation; our skin hungers. And for every suggestion (the cuddle industry, the remote workers collecting our data so we can click on the next prompt to be more “ourselves,” or a shared stream of consciousness) that we might “really [be] more removed from one another than we once were; we can wax on about technology and detachment and ‘we’ve all just gotten so darn busy.’ But it also might imply that we now simply live in a culture that’s soothed by accessible self-help and commodifiable experiences and the buzzwords utilized to sell these things.”

In Seek You we get a memoir, essay, and media history that complements the case studies in the latter half of Hu’s text. The uncanny history of the laugh track as a sonic palliative for an empty room helps me understand Hu’s examination of “endurance” pieces exposing a burden of animatedness, ranging from Mexico City–based Yoshua Okón’s Risas enlatadas (Canned Laughter), Julia Leigh’s film Sleeping Beauty, and choreographer nibia pastrana santiago’s performances. Hu argues that these works expose the uneven burden of having to be “on” that digital capitalism (as a distinctly racial and global order) demands. Hu’s protagonists shy “away from the modernist premise of a subject’s interiority and toward a cybernetic model of a ‘black box’ consciousness … and an opportunity to reconceive what liveness, privacy, humanness are today, and, as a result, what we take to be political action by workers who merely endure.” Hu closes with optimism in his coda, which is his most engaging writing. He invites us to really “do nothing” and, instead, imagine. After all, “… lethargy is a drag: it weighs down our ability to rush to solutions, and forces us to listen to the unresolved present.” So, why not learn to dwell in the interminable pause of now?

I read A Visit from the Goon Squad once a year because it remains a deeply hopeful novel. I read it every year because it helps me mark time; helps me really listen to a pause in a rock song as a sacred space of connection. And that’s what it’s really about: What are we choosing to listen to, and by extension, hold onto? The chapters and characters are constantly seeking avenues to find themselves and their way back to each other. Their searches spill over in The Candy House.

My life has been punctuated by advances in technology that have been praised as better ways to be connected to each other. The logic was that the more you could make yourself digital, the more available you’d be to the world and the possibility of relationships outside your immediate surroundings. And yet: here we find ourselves, not able to feel that closeness promised by the plentiful optimization of our lives and sold as market driven solutions, itemized services, consumer data analytics.

Digital Lethargy speaks to the exhaustion that pressure generates, while pointing toward the rather too-easy-to-hide global network of outsourced workers sustaining that pressure. Eerily, Egan’s future of parrots (people for hire that avoid the lack of personality associated with bots), the analysts that monitor online profiles to make sure they’re not bots, and the promise of uploading your memories to a unifying stream of consciousness parallel our real-world efforts to either comply with that pressure or circumvent it. Hu describes that for the Greeks, lethargy was a loss of one’s self. Egan’s hopefulness is slow, but that might be because her narrative spools across the scale of years, much like grief, regret, loss, love do.

These are the connections we yearn for and search for in the gaps between life events and it takes time to find them and follow them back to the start. What could be more precious than seeing how we are all able to pick up and find our way back to each other when the distance feels incommensurable? In a small act of kindness, a friend told Egan about my yearly reading at a book signing for The Candy House. Blue ink spirals across the title page of my copy: “With thanks for listening!” icon

This article was commissioned by Matthew Wolf-Meyer. Featured image: Photograph of old computer model by Adam Freidin / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)