There are no good novels about the internet because the internet itself is too powerful a text, it’s rife with ambiguities and inconsistencies and bracing shocks, hidden meanings, fathomless mystery. It’s not the role of the novel to dilute anything, and I doubt you can write the internet without diluting it in some way. You can watch teens eat Tide Pods on it, you can watch people die on it, you can sign a petition to change the ending of a videogame on it. On Amazon, you can buy print-on-demand books beloved by white power terror groups (but why would you, when you can download the .pdf?), you can buy phone cases adorned with cropped images of Jeff Bezos’ nose. There are 24/7 live streams of free-range chicken farms. Kids in Macedonia make non-partisan profit delivering hyper-partisan fake news to the world’s flailing superpower. The internet is no longer an interface, it’s an ever-present thrum, a vapour in the air offering convenience and knowledge and catharsis and anguish in exchange for behavioural data.
I read a novel recently, Amygdalatropolis by B.R. Yeager, about a man addicted to online imageboards like 4chan and 8chan. The most striking thing about the book—and perhaps the only striking thing about it—is how it changed my instinctual imagining of Anon (shorthand for anonymous imageboard users) and the internet in general. In real life, when I hear of mass gatherings of deliberately nameless and faceless internet users, there had previously been a certain face and figure that would involuntarily come to mind. I won’t describe it, except to say that it was a kind of human shape or shadow with no specific eye colour or expression.
When I started Amygdalatropolis, I suspected it might substantiate this shape I’d imagined, but it only served to abstract it even more, so that now I’m left with—no kidding—an eerie kind of scribble. Now, whenever I read about or think about the users of notorious online imageboards, I see this eerie kind of pixelated, animated scribble (perhaps illustrated using MS Paint). And this helped me notice, for the first time, that I’ve always imagined the internet as a spectral landscape with a spectral population. I’d developed ghostly shapes for its users, and I’d also developed their voices, albeit voices with no resemblance to human speech. There is something close to a material version of this virtual world inside my imagination, one with geographical qualities. But Amygdalatropolis inadvertently started dismantling this physical framework, this trove of placeholders. Now I believe that if a great novel about the internet were ever to exist, it would need to painstakingly avoid the evocation of familiar earthly shapes.
Amygdalatropolis is a dispiriting depiction of the (surely mostly performative?) misanthropy of the internet’s underbelly, a novel of ghastly online exchanges. But it also depicts the waking life of a single flesh-and-blood participant, and this component feels clumsy. The novel is alienated and grotesque, the quoted online exchanges (some of which are cherry-picked from actual online discussions) are elusive and detached and ugly, whether desperate or ironic it’s never possible to know. So when the novel turns its attention to its real-world protagonist, when it seeks to clarify why that real-world protagonist is steeped in and addicted to a perverse and miserable online reality, I feel that this flesh protagonist cannot be directly correlated with his virtual version, the version sustained by pleasure in violence and human pain. It just doesn’t work and it’s not Yeager’s fault for trying, I admire that he tried at all. Maybe he was scared of throwing a novel like this into the world without appending a moral yardstick (a human body). I can understand this fear. But I feel that it’s an irrevocable truth that the internet is creating new kinds of consciousness and new kinds of interaction, new opportunities for age old impulses, none of which are directly comparable to the flesh world, even though they are fated to interact. A great internet novel would need to do away with the flesh world entirely, a great internet novel would be at the very least amoral, or else steadfast in its dedication to the depiction of amorality.
The internet births for each of us a parallel being and, increasingly, that being is not even our own. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff lays out blow-by-blow the evolution of a new strand of capitalism buoyed by the exchange and exploitation of behavioural metadata. She refers to the internet as a text, which itself hides a shadow text, the shadow text being the matrix of behavioural data that is pillaged and distributed for immense profit by the likes of Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Amazon.
Reading Zuboff’s work, I was amused that this matrix’s primary use is to serve us ads, or to otherwise compel us (control us) to buy things. How astoundingly banal. This shadow text, an illegible networked collation of our globally connected behavioural essence…this must surely be art in a manner of speaking, perhaps it’s the great, crowdsourced, forcedly collaborative internet novel. It’s an unwieldy mass of data capable of predicting the future, only parsable via complex algorithm, only barely comprehensible as statistics. All human compulsions and motives, all fears and desires, are crushed into data that cannot be understood, only graphed. As Zuboff notes constantly throughout her book, it’s not the fault of technology that it’s used to surveil us: it’s the utilisation of that technology by capital. Imagine the possibilities, if we could somehow liberate this shadow text from capital. Would we put it to other uses, could it be put to other (more noble) uses? Or would we seize the opportunity to destroy it?
In his 2018 book New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future, James Bridle describes a weird and prolific kind of children’s YouTube video. These cheap CGI videos indelicately mush popular keyword searches into kaleidoscopic and baffling blends. There are tens of thousands of these, usually featuring Spiderman with Elsa, or Peppa Pig with Lightning McQueen, created en masse and quite possibly algorithmically. Due to the way YouTube will play ‘related videos’ endlessly until you press stop, and based on the logic that children are far less likely to skip interstitial ads compared to adults, quite a roaring trade has blossomed.
Most often these videos are a harmless kind of uncanny, but sometimes they explode into abrupt violence (Elsa pushes Spiderman into a pool; a trebly, low-fi, high volume baby screech clips through your speakers). Is this not the shadow text speaking, is this not a suddenly legible passage in the shadow text, a terrifying translation, a gash in the portal? When Elsa pushes Spiderman into the pool, and when the terrifying baby screech sounds, is this not the logical inconsistencies of our macro-scale behavioural data tearing a fissure into our awareness (the front-end text)? Is this not an error of the shadow text, metastasising?
We’re already subservient to the uses of behavioural data, much of our media is, it directly collaborates with algorithmic logic to make us click. Should we write away from it, or deeply into it? And if we were to choose the latter, and if we were to find a way of doing so in a manner that felt both authentic and illuminating, would the resulting novel ever be available, no shipping fees, from Book Depository?
Shaun Prescott is a novelist based in the Blue Mountains. His debut novel is The Town.