Reading Online: I Hate the Internet

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“One of the curious aspects of the 21st century was the great delusion…  that freedom of speech and freedom of expression were best exercised on technological platforms owned by corporations dedicated to making as much money as possible” Jarett Kobek, “I Hate the Internet.” 

In one of the running segments in my BookLikes blog, Reading Online, I discussed works of literature that deal with the effect that the rise of the internet has had on reading, on writing, and on literature and books in general. You can find a couple of my favorites here, and here. After reading this blistering novel by Jarett Kobek, who goes into some of the background of his novel in an interview with the Guardian, I had the perfect topic for the first entry on this theme here!

A razor sharp satire of the current hour, Jarett Kobek’s searing and hilarious screed against the hypocrisy, delusion, and dangers of the tech boom is a refreshing, if bleak, exploration of exactly what it means to live under the shadow of the internet. It rings so true, and yet is so funny, going off on so many interesting, disturbing tangents, it feels like it could have sprung only from the internet itself. “I hate the internet” might just be the most illuminating book I’ve read on the corrupt, dark, reactionary heart the fuels the startup bro culture of Silicon Valley, weaned on Ayn Rand and the stolen labor of the masses. I read this weeks ago, before the horror that was Election Day, but I should have known what was looming after taking in Kobek’s deep understanding of how the internet has failed us, as Facebook still does not distinguish between fake and real news and the alt right continues to infect the online world.

Kobek writes in a deadpan, technical style explaining each bizarre conceit of contemporary society (sports, fantasy movies) as though it were the backwards world of a quaint and irrational culture, so that I feel Kobek has created a novel that could truly be used as a time capsule to capture just what things were like in this time and place. Bracketed by a loose plot involving a pretentious comic book artist with a silly, affected transatlantic accent and the unfortunate position of being a woman who publicly shares her opinion online in a society that hates women, Kobek takes on a variety of targets with a verve and cheek that never takes itself too seriously. In particular through a minor character, the autobiographical Turkish-American writer who finds himself ranting to the audience a lot, Kobek captures that overwhelming excess of information to be taken with a grain of salt (Tolkien is for morons), weird factoids (the word “polyamory” was coined by a woman who tortured goats to create “unicorns”), and the private information of everyone you know.

Here I am, a guy who, like the creators of the internet, “lacks any eumelanin in the basale stratum of my epidermis,” providing unpaid content to boost the revenue of a social media site owned by “an unprofitable website dedicated to the destruction of the publishing industry,” and frequented both by fans of “good novels,” crappy science fiction, and self-described “bad novels” like this one. Going off on so many tangents, so many asides, yet stringing each of these disparate parts into a web of absurd truth, it feels like Kobek takes the internet to task for all the right reasons. Like the internet itself, Kobek pastes together a meandering but concise screed against the idea that the internet can change, in any way, the sexist, racist, homophobic, capitalist culture that prioritizes money, that pernicious fiction, above all else. Secretly, or not so secretly, all of this unprecedented access to information, connection, culture, exists as nothing else has to advertise to us and to harvest our productivity for profit.

Most of all, Kobek comes off not as a curmudgeonly tech hating Luddite raging against “kids these days,” but as someone weaned and surrounded by the rarefied world of the information age which has, for better or worse, taken the reigns of our culture, though writing with a sharp, biting, and justified anger. Whether through BuzzFeed listicles, the hideous bloviating hatred of Reddit, or the mindless navel gazing of Facebook he understands the appeal and the costs of social media. There’s a reason, of course, the likes of Twitter or Reddit cannot, and in fact, have no desire to combat the festering pits of hatred that metastasize inside them- all content, every inflammatory flame war, death threat, hashtag generates money. There’s no incentive to ban the white supremacists, the MRAs, the “deplorables,” any more than in promoting healthier alternatives- attention creates profit, and everyone is just feeding the machine. In the end, I hate the internet, in spite of its biting cynicism, is a refreshing and hilarious takedown of the technology that we were sorely lacking. Now, more than ever, the irreverent stance taken by Kobek in this novel may be just what we need to survive.*

*This review also appears on Goodreads, here.

Theme Music: “Oh Comely,” Neutral Milk Hotel, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, 1998

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