Jarett Kobek: ‘The internet has been enormously detrimental to society’

When the novel I Hate the Internet came out in the US earlier this year, it had every likelihood of sinking without trace. It was self-published, it was by a young unknown – Jarett Kobek – and its main selling point was naked, gleeful contempt for the devices and technology platforms that are an essential part of all our daily lives. “Nothing says individuality like 500 million consumer electronics built by slaves,” he says at one point. “Welcome to hell.” Hell, for Kobek, a 38-year-old American of Turkish heritage, became daily life in San Francisco, where the novel is set. Along with many of the city’s artists and writers, he found himself driven out by the forces of gentrification, moved to Los Angeles, where he’s now based, set up his own small press, and wrote this book – a scorching satire of how a few hypercapitalist companies in Silicon Valley have come to dominate everything. I Hate the Internet didn’t sink without trace. It found a readership thirsty for its funny, acerbic edge, got a rave review in the New York Times, went to the top of the bestseller charts in Germany and has now been published here by Serpent’s Tail.

So, do you actually hate the internet, Jarett?
Not particularly. There’s part of it that I find really contemptible. The title is offered like the sneer of a 15-year-old into Twitter, after they’ve just seen a meme of someone having sex with a chicken or something. I hate parts of it. I certainly think it’s been enormously detrimental to society.

If there’s going to be an opposition, a response, it’s not going to come in the form of tweets

You seem particularly down on Twitter.
It’s not Twitter per se. It’s the undue amount of importance that very serious people put on Twitter. That, to me, is what’s infuriating. It’s a social network that makes everyone sound like a 15-year-old and then very serious people take it way too seriously. And that’s not how to run a society. That’s not how to effect change.

You say: “One of the curious aspects of the 21st century was the great delusion… that freedom of speech and freedom of expression were best exercised on technological platforms owned by corporations dedicated to making as much money as possible.” And yet you’re not exempt from that: your novel is available as an ebook…
Ah, yes. Ultimately, we live in a very dark moment where if you want to be part of any extended conversation beyond a handful of people, you do have to sign on to some things that, ultimately, are very unpalatable. Every era has its unanswerable questions, so maybe the thing to do, which is what I did in the book, is to just acknowledge the inherent hypocrisy of all of it. Though maybe that’s an easy dodge.

One of the things that comes up time and again is the undercurrents of misogyny and racism that seem to have been enabled or unleashed by technology. Do you think there’s something fundamental about that?
I do think it has to be acknowledged that this technology which seems to be really good at enabling misogyny and abuse of women was created in rooms where there were no women. The people who seem to be the recipients of the most abuse online look like the people who were simply not in the room when all of this stuff was being created. If the book does anything, it acknowledges that.

It seems like a particularly interesting moment to think about that in terms of where we’re at now. Would Trump have been possible without the internet?
Of course not. Look who benefits from all the endless newspaper inches about how the oppressed peoples of the world are going to be liberated by technology. I’ve just been on book tour to a lot of battleground states where I spent a lot of time 10 years ago. And if you want to look what hypercapitalism looks like, do a before and after of the Midwest, with a 10-year-break in between. It’s so devastated. Was it always a wonderful place to live? Probably not, but was it sort of like a road of ruination and emptiness? No. And I think the internet has been really good at aiding that process, certainly in destroying jobs.

Reading your book made me think that we simply haven’t even had the language to criticise the internet until now. That there’s been no outside to the internet. No place to oppose it from…
I think the outside is publishing, actually. I mean publishing in the most Platonic sense of the word, rather than the squalid industry that we have. I think that books actually can be anything. Publishing’s response to the internet has been completely pathetic, but God, if there’s going to be an opposition, a response, it’s not going to come in the form of tweets.

You claim writers have chosen to ignore the dominant story of the 21st century and have instead rolled over and embraced Twitter as a marketing device. Do you think there’s just been a complete dereliction of duty?
Not from everyone, but yes, if you see the literary novels that have been coming out even in the last two or three years, very few of them have much of a connection to anything now. How many of the literary novels published by the four major companies in the US have much to do with a world after which Trump wins the presidency? Have they published even a single working-class writer? I can’t think of one.

You’re pretty scathing about some of the technology companies. You say that the idea that Google and Twitter contributed to the Arab spring is like saying the Russian revolution was sponsored by Ford…
I went to Egypt in 2011, about four weeks after Mubarak fell and no one mentioned Facebook or Twitter. What they were talking about was money, and how they didn’t have any. At the same time, I was living in San Francisco, where there were Facebook employees who seemed to believe they were bringing enlightenment and freedom to the oppressed masses of the world, evicting Latino families who’d lived in the same place for 60 years. It’s just absurdIt’s absurd to think that a complex, social thing, like a revolution, happening 7,000 or 8,000 miles away was being fuelled and generated by some stuff some nerds put out on a cellphone.

You had to make legal changes to the UK edition, which you’ve done with the device of writing [JIM’LL FIX IT] where you’ve redacted passages such as those about Google’s Larry Page and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. How did that come about?
I didn’t want to delete the text per se, and I’d just read Dan Davies’s biography of Jimmy Savile and it really fascinated me, because in the US you’re constantly being told everything is a conspiracy and actually nothing ever is. Rich people tell you what they’re going to do and then they do it. Whereas here, there really was a conspiracy. It really did happen.

I Hate the Internet is published by Serpent’s Tail (£12.99). Click here to order a copy for £10.65

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