The internet is chaotic. Is it also boring?

A new essay collection asks not only what the internet has done to our minds—but also how it has affected our souls

March 23, 2021
That the future digital technology has ushered in is not only hell, but also an extremely mediocre hell, animates Roisin Kiberd’s The Disconnect, a new essay collection exploring internet subcultures and intimacy in digital life. Image: Evolution by Danie
That the future digital technology has ushered in is not only hell, but also an extremely mediocre hell, animates Roisin Kiberd’s The Disconnect, a new essay collection exploring internet subcultures and intimacy in digital life. Image: Evolution by Danie

With the short but effective biography “the future is NO,” the cult Twitter account @shittyfuture has shared news of a robot, targeted to men, that simulates the feeling of holding a woman’s hand; another business aims to “future proof” your social media accounts after your death by using an “AI based Forever Engine.” The account takes inventions that take all the grand ideals of the tech industry—its love of innovation without end and bright-eyed optimism that technology will finally usher in a future we deserve—and grounds them to dust, revealing instead a wasteland of boring rubbish that takes human nature at its most tender and mines it for dubious profit. I adore it. A video game offers players the delightful opportunity to not only change the facial characteristics of their avatar, but also the length of its phallus—a video shared on @shittyfuture shows a cursor toggling the size back and forth. Technology can be a mixed bag: one day you might get a car magisterially shot into space; the next, a magically expanding appendage. Or perhaps the latter literalises what is suggested in the former. Whatever the truth, we know that the optimism of the early 2000s about all the beautiful things the tech industry could deliver has been—except perhaps in the most fundamentalist wings of Silicon Valley—roundly disproven.  

That the future digital technology has ushered in is not only hell, but also an extremely mediocre hell, animates Roisin Kiberd’s The Disconnect: A Personal Journey Through the Internet, a new essay collection exploring internet subcultures and intimacy in digital life. Part personal narrative about Kiberd’s journey from a child of the internet to first a vaguely ambitious online writer, then a disillusioned luddite shot of all ambition, part meditation on the dregs of virtual civilisation she has spent the past decade covering for little money, The Disconnect is freighted in a tone that now feels baked into the internet—flat, weary, ensconced in a post-sincerity that is also so tired of irony it may have just rounded the horseshoe to look like the initial thing. Only a writer with their brain broken by the internet could write, as Kiberd does, an essay on a unifying theory of Monster Energy drinks; only a person disillusioned by it could round out said theory with a consideration on what it means for our world to be filled with so many energy boosters, caffeine pills and efficiency-trackers, things that sharpen our bodies and minds for battle while skirting around the question of what all this is actually for.

A self-proclaimed “internet weirdo,” Kiberd traces the web’s development alongside her own. She is born in Dublin, March 1989. That month, Tim Berners-Lee proposes a system of “information management” to his employers at CERN. As a child, Kiberd has a proclivity to find haven in a screen—at eleven, she becomes mesmerised by her first mobile phone, a blocky Nokia decorated with Hello Kitty stickers, and later graduates to frequenting social media websites like Bebo, Blogspot, and Livejournal. Throughout the early 2010s she covers internet subcultures as a journalist. She interviews Twitter trolls, YouTube trolls, Reddit trolls, the nascent alt-right; she gets torrents of abuse on Twitter. She grows paranoid and fearful. She thinks about how to impress avatars she will never meet, then wonders if they hate her. When an ex-boyfriend tweets a joke about Monster Energy drinks, graded in the glorious digital vernacular in which capitalism is the indeterminate and ever-present phantasm looming over a universe careening into nothing, it goes viral, and she gets envious. It ruins their date night. By 2016, as she sees online conversations reach a fever pitch with anger and polarisation, she has a mental breakdown.

The essays in The Disconnect were written during Kiberd’s recovery from “losing her mind” from the internet—an attempt, she writes, to “convey my soul.” Throughout Kiberd’s nine essays—which cover dating apps, sleep technology, nocturnal living and Mark Zuckerberg as “bland god”—you sense the yearning for a universe that is more than it currently is, where its physics will not automatically bend to eking out more profit from more rubbish, leaving us lonelier and more afraid. Writing on sleep, Kiberd shares her proclivity to binge watch It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia into the early morning. “I’m not really watching it,” she writes; “even when I’m awake.” She attributes the habit to her loneliness; Netflix is answering her craving that she feels held in the night. She presciently wonders when Netflix will let subtext become text and develop shows that aren’t really for watching but for providing soothing, ambient relief. In an essay on vaporwave, an electronic music genre whose lowkey songs summon “feelings of numbness, futility, exhaustion, but peacefulness,” Kiberd finds twisted pleasure in how it “longs for a time when music was more important than technology” while remaining “certain we’ll never be capable of such sincerity again.”

The comments in the vaporwave music videos she listens to are inflected with such melancholia mixed with exhaustion. The internet has many iterations—The Disconnect captures a feeling among internet users, often mid to late millennials, who like Kiberd have grown from being enthusiastic adopters of the 2000s internet to becoming disappointed by what it has delivered. The screen, far from delivering transcendence, has given them more work in the guise of fun; more abuse to become overwhelmed by, more standards they cannot meet. What it has given them is self-awareness, the kind gleaned from over a decade of watching other people, watching yourself be watched, and participating in cultures where conversation must leap across many traps before sticking an effortless landing that reveals you to be good and clever—the kind of person people could fantasise about being friends with from a distance. As Kiberd writes her way back into her own mind, hyperaware of all the degraded things she participates in and institutions she validates in spite of herself, you can crave another presence to break up the flow. Then she describes her experience with dating.

She meets a man at a party, an online-left type. He, like so many men in Dublin, works for a multinational tech firm. On their date, she tells him that she watches Always Sunny to lull herself to sleep; he tells her that one of the show’s writers dated an actor and fired her from the show after they broke up. She can’t help but think that this is a judgment on her righteousness as a person. Online, they exchange messages—he sends her a GIF of a woman wrestler forcing another to eat a tampon. It is understood that he is from a generation and political persuasion to have nominally evolved beyond finding violence against women funny, so she sends a reply that doesn’t mean anything but hints that she, too, operates on a similar level of irony and is thus worthy of his attention, which he likely doesn’t even respect. “The date is hard work,” Kiberd writes; “over the past two hours we haven’t connected; we’ve done little more than exhibit polished, internet-friendly versions of ourselves, self-congratulatory and cold.” She wonders why they have spent so much time trying to convince each other they are good people.

When I read this passage, I felt an irrepressible need to renounce youth as I knew it and throw my laptop out the window. Increasing critical attention has been paid on the surfeit of self-awareness in the digital world, and its melancholic denizens for whom the future feels at best cancelled and at worse endless. An alarming number of men Kiberd goes on dates with have post-apocalyptic fantasies (it feels significant that they, too, are often employees of tech multinationals—believing the universe is already dead feels like a way to justify why they, at the apparent pinnacle of society, feel so bad all the time, and shields them from thinking about the disjuncture of working so close to the seat of power but being individually powerless.)

But reading The Disconnect made me not mourn so much for the cancelled future but rather the agonising now. What does it mean for such numbing fatigue to be espoused by so many who just years ago were told to be hungry and stay ambitious, for whom the universe is not a place of discovery and play, full of things to learn, people to grow from, and movements to build, but rather a ball of garbage that takes, and takes, and takes? There is one response to Kiberd’s problematic that looks back to ask that she transcend this; that she care, because people with her powers and privileges must; because there are so many things out there worthy of her attention, joy and love—but she can and will only stare back, tired, pained, and broken. And so, we look back further to the beginnings of this boring dystopia, to find the nodes in the system that have not only led Kiberd down her path, but also pushed the way for so many others, bending their souls in the process. A soul is a precious thing; it seems that to reclaim it, we must recognise that its destruction has been a long time coming.