I just read these two, very different books, and found myself fascinated at how similar they are in their ways. One is a genre-defying satirical thriller about the disappearance of the internet, the other an understated diary comic about one woman's attempt to define herself in a world saturated with technology. Each of them, however, question and attempt to come to grips with our contemporary world and its reliance on information technology.
As I read recently online somewhere, and can't for the life of me recall where, because I've lost any ability to differentiate one source from another in the stew of ideas, opinions, and information available, technology has completely changed reading habits. I know that is true for me; before such things as Goodreads, or BookLikes, I just read things that interested me and thought about them. Now, it's like I haven't actually read it at all unless I rate it, review, and share it on social networking.
I've been reading more than ever before, my reading lists are only growing, and sometimes, I feel like I'm being overwhelmed.
Both of these books look at how our society has been transformed, for better or for worse, by the explosion of the internet and other telecommunications technologies. After all, these books each deal with the generations who, like me, have experienced this transition first hand- we didn't have cell phones, or smart phones, or desktops in childhood, but by our teen years they'd become indispensable. However, both Wayne Gladstone and Julie Delporte take quite different attitudes towards this shift.
The sequel to Notes from the Internet Apocalypse, which I wrote about on BookLikes last summer, Agents of the Internet Apocalypse begins where Notes ended, climbing over the fourth wall and continue to wander, aimlessly but with a determination that can’t be broken, towards some very dark and interesting territory. Sharing with its predecessor its quick pace, thoughtfulness, emotion, and dick jokes, things start to really get real in Agents. While still a satire, much of the more strongly satirical elements from Notes have been downplayed as Gladstone finds himself in a world much closer to reality.
With his journal having become "paper viral," Gladstone finds himself in the position of leading a new Internet Reclamation Movement, against his better judgement. At the same time, he rekindles his quixotic quest to return the internet to the masses. In spite of all indications to the contrary, Gladstone still seems important; he is hounded by government agents, wealthy assholes, Anonymous, and a psychic librarian, all convinced he holds the key in away he is clueless to discover. As he reflects upon the connections he found online when the "real" world was so cruel, he evokes a certain sentimentality towards the lost net.
What are the real costs of being so connected? What have we lost to technology? Is it worth what we’ve gained? I find it intriguing that Jeeves, the “psychic” who set Gladstone on his path as the Internet Messiah in the first place is a librarian- in spite of what stereotypes , librarians are often on the cusp of information technology and are the first to grapple with what its implications mean, for good or ill. At the same time the internet is dead, print media is resurging- could that be a coincidence? Ending with such a gut shot, I'm looking forward to see how all of this is resolved.
Julie Delporte's beautifully drawn graphic novel, with its spare language (coming through even through the English translation) takes an entirely different approach. The nameless narrator of the comic (Delporte herself?) finds herself completely cut adrift in this modern world of technology, connections and convenience bringing her no pleasure.
Finding herself unable to read at all anymore, she grows increasing depressed, despondent, and ill, she finds out about (online, of course) the contemporary malady of "electromagnetic hypersensitivity," in which sufferers blame their migraine headaches, aches, and general feeling of unease on the ever present microwave radiation from radio waves, cell phones, satellites, and wifi. Nowhere in France can she escape, either from these technologies and from the stress and buzz of contemporary life. Whether or not this disease is real (must admit I'm skeptical), the physiological cost of this is crippling on the narrator and she escapes to the isolation of a comfortable Quebec farm, where freed from this stimulation and responsibility, she begins to recover. By forcing her own "internet apocalypse," going off the grid, and living a simple, relaxed life on an isolated communal farm, she gets back her ability to concentrate and to read.
Is our reliance on technology making us depressed? Does too much information overwhelm us? I know the phenomena of feeling like you're the only one not doing great on Facebook, for instance, or feeling like you can never catch up with all of your social media feeds, and those are just the tips of the iceberg. Would society truly benefit from an "internet apocalypse," one in which we can concentrate on the "real?" Each of these works seems to have a different answer. All I can say is I'm already committed!
*Theme music for entry: "Utilities," The Weakerthans, Reunion Tour, 2007