The New York Review of Books - 24.04.2020

(Axel Boer) #1

16 The New York Review

can recognize them.” Forget 2011’s
treacly digital faith that “truth travels
faster than lies.” He sees that the two
in fact travel at the same speed, along
a road so overtrafficked that we can’t
make out which is which.
Therefore hiding the truth will no
longer require censorship, not quite.
As the president-to-come figured out
before the Occupiers, simply monopo-
lizing airtime and news feeds suffices as
a misinformation technique, and what’s
really being hacked is not our files but
our attention. Overthrow concludes
with a revelation of technological and
governmental malfeasance that seems
to acquit our Brooklynites, but barely
troubles the corporate malefactor, who
realizes that, after 2011, “it wasn’t at all
clear that under the new laws of com-
bat a revelation could still change the
ending of a story.” Leif, the mooniest
but also the most insightful of the gang,
had twigged long previously that focus
itself was to be the battleground of his
time, and even the battle they might
win was part of a doomed war:

Do you think it’s an accident that
the social media companies are
working so hard to hold everyone’s
attention?... And so what we have
to do is draw a new line, not be-
tween knowing and not knowing
but between knowing and being
able to say that you know. That’s
the future. That’s what order will
consist of—not of keeping people
in the dark but of keeping them
from talking about the light.

He tries to put this down in a “dark
poem.” Its narrator, Leif tells Matthew,
is “the devil.”

In a 2007 essay for The New Yorker,
Crain wrote, “If, over time, many peo-
ple choose television over books, then
a nation’s conversation with itself is
likely to change.” But that long ago,
before the launch of the iPhone, when
Netflix streaming was only in beta and
Facebook was still a glorified directory
and photo album, the still principally
textual Web gave him hope. “The In-
ternet, happily, does not so far seem to
be antagonistic to literacy,” he wrote,
though he allowed that that might
change “if the Internet continues its
YouTube-fuelled evolution away from
print and toward television.” Is it awful
to have nostalgia for thirteen years
ago? Now even television has been sub-
sumed into an undifferentiated stream
of content, mixed up with politics
and sex, a good meal or a walk in the
park. All of them, in the decade these
Brooklynites are entering and we have
just survived, were absorbed into the
OLED screen, submitted to recording
and metrification; art was made mea-
surable, citizens became avatars.
Reading novels might be one form
of “friction,” in Zuboff’s phrase, that
allows us to “claim the digital future
as a human place,” to foster the atten-
tion needed to stanch our political-
technological misfortune, and to refuse

the reduction of all life to data. Try if
you can. When I read I put my phone on
the other side of the room, though I did
not need clinical research to prove to
me, as Adrian F. Ward and three other
professors did, that “the mere presence
of one’s own smartphone may occupy
limited-capacity cognitive resources,
thereby leaving fewer resources avail-
able for other tasks and undercutting
cognitive performance.”* While I think
I can still read as closely as before, it’s
starting to read that’s gotten harder,
and four-hundred-page novels like
Overthrow feel as intimidating as War
and Peace once did.
And that’s just on my couch. When
I leave my apartment, the most basic
transactions require the surrender of
swaths of data—no cash accepted at
Sweetgreen or FedEx, and if you take
a selfie at that new inane staircase
to nowhere you must cede copyright
to Hudson Yards. My phone beams
unfathomable quantities of personal
data to states, corporations, newspa-
pers, and pornographers, and even
when I leave it home, which is never,
the towers that have replaced phone
booths contain cameras and motion
sensors that track my hurried pace.
(Crain himself, speaking to Interview
last year, notes that while he has hung
onto a dumbphone to the bitter end,
“I’m reaching the outer limits of being
able to keep functioning.”) Any suc-
cessful resistance to this doleful new
technological- authoritarian dispensa-
tion looks doubtful at best; it will cer-
tainly not pass through tarot cards and
seventeenth-century poetry, and the
humanist “friction” that Zuboff and, I
suspect, Crain would have me muster
can offer barely more than temporary
personal relief.
Maybe that’s why, the second time
I read Overthrow, it reminded me less
of Necessary Errors, and less still of
James, than of another recent book
about doomed, idealistic youth: Never
Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro’s gray-
steeped novel of a British boarding
school where students learn the hu-
manities before entering a monstrously
inhumane adulthood. The clones of
Never Let Me Go grow convinced that
there’s an escape clause from the tech-
nological and governmental nightmare
they have been condemned to: if they
can express authentic feelings and emo-
tions, as testified by the creation of art,
they will get clemency. These twenty-
somethings, perceptibly human but
also less than human, have had their
whole stunted lives set out for them by
systems beyond their control and must
accept the irrelevance of their feelings,
with anger but not without friendship.
Their authenticity is valid, but it is
worthless; their feelings are real, but
they are trash. Q

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thought-provoking reading.”

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“An astonishing experiment in social science,

one that defies easy comparison.”


“A book of remarkable clarity and dynamism.”

—Esther Duflo, Nobel Laureate

“Piketty’s sweeping scholarship enhances, rather

than obscures, his central argument.”


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grappling with the dilemmas of our present.”

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This epic successor is

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In print, audio, and ebook, wherever books are sold
*Adrian F. Ward, Kristen Duke, Ayelet
Gneezy, and Maarten W. Bos, “Brain
Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s
Own Smartphone Reduces Available
Cognitive Capacity,” Journal of the As-
sociation for Consumer Research, Vol.
2, No. 2 (April 2017).
We mourn the death of Al Alvarez,
a long-standing contributor and friend.

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