The Internet got wiped out last year, twice. Why?
In March of 2019, Tim Maughan published Infinite Detail, and in June, Karen An-hwei Lee published The Maze of Transparencies. These two very different novels are structured around imagining a complete global collapse of the Internet and the far-reaching effects of that in our hyperconnected society.
In other posts, I've written about some of the challenges of writing in the digital age, as well as how mainstream writing is quickly catching up to online life. These two works fall somewhat outside those schemes, however. In imagining a post-Internet future, both writers craft a narrative which is deeply immersed in the remnants of our current technological society. In this post, we'll be exploring this approach, as well as the synchronicity of these publications.
Multi-Generational Writing in the Digital Age
Infinite Detail jumps back and forth between a near-future smart city and a generation down the line when the global Internet has been wiped out. The Maze of Transparencies looks at a very small sliver of time post-collapse, but situates a cross-generational concern in marking out a pre-digerati, digerati, and post-digerati, as well as looking ahead to what wisdom can still be scraped together and recorded by hand to pass down several generations.
Recognizable distinctions, pre-digerati experienced a life pre-Internet, while the digerati grew up always online. These vastly different backgrounds shape distinct frameworks and values, but neither group is free of the risk of "cloudbit addiction" or "microdevice dependency" (Lee). The fiscodigital collapse creates a dramatic moment which shocks society out of complacency, and forces everyone to face their lack of vision for the future, but do normal people really have a vision for the future today?
Writing about the "near-future" is a great trick for writing about any element of high tech life. It allows you to
- Exaggerate present details for emphasis or more specific satirical effects.
- Explore in-development or currently hypothetical technology with a nod to how rapidly such future development seems to fall upon us.
In thinking about different generations, the near-future is relatively easy. Take any selection of on-the-horizon technology and play it out in a practical scenario, usually in a worst-case scenario. To move a little further in the future, however, consider how different the digerati are from the pre-digerati. Now try to imagine successive generations of digerati. There is already a mass ignorance of the particular experience of Gen Z, and an even more horrific lack of awareness of what exactly an entire life of mass surveillance – at home, in school, on the street – will do to Gen Alpha. What of the generation after that?
Imagining the succession of generations does not just mean a rough sense of how far technology will progress in 10 years, 30 years, 50 years, etc. You need to imagine what people will be like in that society. As we continue to shape the digital world, we are forming a heavy inheritance for those future generations. The weight of this is perhaps too much, and so it is easier to scrap the whole of it – just assess what we know and experience right now, and figure out on a smaller scale what we essentially want to pass on.
Since both works stick close to the implications of digital technology, we can take those fundamentals and fold them back into our reality. Really pulling that off is tricky, but such serious literary consideration is a critical start.
Infinite Possibilities Post-Internet
Imagining a global collapse of the Internet is one thing, but would it really be permanent?
One dystopic model of the future is wide-scale destruction. This can be via warfare, eco-collapse, a biological failing that limits our ability to reproduce, and so on. Both texts borrow most closely from the first, warfare, but more modernized. In contrast to late 20th century narratives like "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream," the surface of the Earth is still livable. It's just that our devices don't work.
Tim Maughan imagines a coordinated series of EMP strikes for Infinite Detail – tech-terrorism. Karen An-hwei Lee imagines a more ill-defined series of information wars. (A perverse irony is that these wars led to the ban of figurative language – something Lee explicitly recognizes is, of course, impossible – while the very idea is already figurative, and so we no longer have the language to understand precisely what happened.)
What each writer gains from imagining a digital collapse is a blank slate. Instead of barrelling towards the future, we get to pull back and re-evaluate. As things progress, technological decisions only get more locked in. Wipe out the Internet and you get (fictional) mass suffering, but increased freedom to imagine future directions.
In Future Shock (1970), Alvin Toffler described the inability to process rapid change and how this psychological phenomenon expands from individual cases to societal structures. One issue is our reliance on stories to put things in perspective and the shortcomings of futurism. In Present Shock (2013), Douglas Rushkoff updates many of Toffler's idea for more current cultural critique and the particular situation where many elements of the future predicted through the last 20th century are now here, yet remain shockingly hard to keep up with. He argues that this anxiety fuels the popularity of apocalyptic fiction and prepper culture, noting,
The hardest part of living in present shock is that there's no end and, for that matter, no beginning. It's a chronic plateau of interminable stresses that seem to have always been there. There's no original source to blame and no end in sight. This is why the return to simplicity offered by the most extreme scenarios is proving so alluring to so many of us.
Both Infinite Detail and The Maze of Transparencies can be read as examples of this. There's just too much to address, and so the shared narrative conceit allows both an ending and a new beginning. Rushkoff ends, though, promoting a sense of balance, such as can be found in the sustained attention of the writing and reading of books. "For just as we can pause," he concludes, "we can also un-pause." Such a pause as imagined by Maughan and Lee is perhaps fitting for a novel-length work, which is already in itself a pause on the fast-paced world which gives us present shock. What distinguishes these two novels further from something like zombie narratives is that they are not imagining this ending as a way outside of our present difficulties. Maughan and Lee keep digital-era questions front-and-center, even when the technology is largely gone.
As a more realistic narrative, Infinite Detail gets into more concrete ideas of rebuilding after the collapse. Maughan looks at political struggle, local communities, and logistics. As a more dreamlike novel – narrated by a former datacloud as she looks down on a former dataminer / poet – The Maze of Transparencies is focused on more fundamental questions of storytelling and meaning. Lee looks at the value of humans in a world of data, and how stories and poetry can expand our understanding and sense of purpose. Maughan imagines hands-on efforts to rebuild; Lee imagines the handing down of cultural knowledge.
One key development in Infinite Detail is the idea of more localized networks. Even within the near-future, when inequality is expanding, surveillance widening, authoritarian control tightening, Maughan still sees value in the technology. It can help bring people together in ways previously impossible, and it opens a wide range of new creative possibilities. Within the novel's apocalyptic scenario, a localized network which allows the good while limiting the bad functions as a last-ditch hope within the story's extreme, but for us now, it is an open range of possibility which we can begin to adopt.
Lee takes a similarly balanced perspective:
I’m handwriting a waterproof book for the post-digerati of my children’s children’s children, so my spawn can freely access a reservoir of wisdom surviving their great-great patriarch who lived through the digital expansion and its untimely collapse, and memorize the adage that information alone is neither good nor evil, but rather, the judicious hearts of those governing its systems must be fair and wise, the latter which I myself have yet to witness.
For us, Lee is promoting the value of the book itself. Whatever happens, works such as The Maze of Transparencies offer an invaluable record of present wisdom, serving inspiration to us present readers and a point of reference to those in the future. As Lee's character Yang works on this book, her narrator encourages him to take care of what is entrusted to him and to not wait for the digital systems to render everything transparent. Through his poetic spirit, Yang has the ability to do so himself, one step at a time. The novel encourages a proliferation of more writing so seriously focused on illuminating this world. With more Yangs and a community of readers, we can illuminate the maze of transparencies and allow people to see a way forward from our present moment.
Questions of timing require qualifications. 2019 was the publication date for both, but there is a much longer time-span involved in planning, writing, revising, and publishing a novel. Tim Maughan also published a short story set within the Infinite Detail universe back in 2012, though his earlier stories were exploring the pre-collapse days.
Setting aside possible differences in writing time, these two novels are just a few months apart. The completion of writing would have occurred close together, as would the initial readership.
In the January 2020 issue of PMLA (Vol. 135, No. 1), Alexander Manshel uses distant reading practices to visualize the shape of the lag between the adoption of different technologies in the American household and the presence of such technologies in novels. Looking at radio and television, Manshel shows a recurring pattern of delayed inclusion, then a dip as the technology becomes too common, and an eventual return where the technology becomes such a standard part of everyday life that its presence in novels is roughly in keeping with its presence in the household. He then extends this to computers and the Internet, differentiating between inclusion in best-sellers and prize winners, which follow different trends.
As I showed in the posts referenced at the top of this page, more literary fiction has moved through various approaches to avoiding or addressing digital life, and we are just now at a point where best-sellers are consistently tackling online interactions. As it becomes increasingly common in the mainstream to imagine the normal progression of the digital world, we can expect literary projects to imagine more alternatives. In 2019, one repeated alternative was a digital collapse. It is only when the adoption and expectation is so high that a writer can so powerfully show a technology being taken away.
Another factor is the generational issue described above. As we move into a second generation of digerati, our concrete imagination is strained. In a video on Infinite Detail, I discuss more directly how the chaos of the collapse can seem less horrific than some of the social implications of further advancement:
And with The Maze of Transparencies, I discuss Lee's sense of an increasingly urgent need for deeply poetic meaning:
We could pursue meaning now, of course, and both of these novels can help us in that task. For the sake of narrative, however, global catastrophe makes the need for a satisfying vision for the future more urgent. An apocalyptic narrative makes our normal, real-world stakes clear in their most extreme form.
Why 2019? Because the need for such meaning was already strongly felt, both by these authors and their readers. These two novels are a great start, but further efforts in deep writing and deep reading will be needed to find a way forward.
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