By Rachel Signer
i. As Hurricane Sandy stormed the shores of New York City and New Jersey, I monitored its destruction from my perch in (elevated) Central Brooklyn, where the lights—and the Internet—remained on. And by far, the best and most entertaining source of information for storm updates was Twitter.
There are writers who frown upon technology. Don’t “like” your Facebook friends or your phone; like yourself! So says Jonathan Franzen, a writer who largely avoids experimenting with technology and laments how it has mutated our perceptions of relationships and time.
Along these lines, the summer 2012 issue of n+1 spent many words editorializing about the evils, or at least the shallowness, of Twitter:
Furthermore, write the n+1 editors, Twitter is an accomplice alongside blogs in the ongoing destruction of language—the replacement of proper grammar by the “blogorrheic style.”
Shortly after this article appeared, a young writer named Jacob Silverman published a much-discussed article in Slate (the first online magazine) called “Against Enthusiasm.” The piece argued that Twitter and other forms of social media hindered writers’ critical capacities—made them want to be too friendly and likeable, and fearful of seeming uncool and unkind to each other. The debut novelist Emma Straub, known for her quips on Twitter and for asking people to “like” her on Facebook, was chosen as an example in Silverman’s piece; how are we to know, he asked, whether we really like her novel or if we just like her as a person, or even as a Twitter account to follow?
ii. What are writers to think—shall we be social online, or not? Twitter can be a useful, quick source of information; it can also be a time-sucker and, as n+1 has perhaps correctly dubbed it, a “digital circle jerk.” Is technology our demise, a curse on the literary world and literature, or can we find a way to be writerly and still care about the latest apps?
Who knows how many of the hours spent by the average person on Twitter or Gawker might have been given to a nourishing novel?
It is understandable that a writer of literature might despair over technology’s ascent in the culture. Who knows how many of the hours spent by the average person on Twitter or Gawker might have been given to a nourishing novel? Nevertheless, there are writers who have, rather than disdain technology, welcomed it into their creative repertoire and written it into their imagined worlds.
This can be seen clearly in the recent works of Jennifer Egan and Gary Shteyngart. Both succeed in using technology within their fiction in order to manipulate time and construct futuristic worlds. Incidentally, both writers are based in New York City, and their recently penned novels both take place there. Perhaps New York City is a suitable object of literature focused on technology and temporal distortions—New Yorkers live in a kind of hyper-technological vortex, surrounded by screens, connected through Twitter networks, fawning over our iPhones.
Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad is as much a response to the digital age as it is an usurpation of that age’s techniques—short stories engineered to delight our postmodern attention spans, wedded to make one entire novel; an entire chapter written in Power Point; characters grappling with the socioeconomic repercussions of the digitization of the music industry.
The technological motif in Egan’s novel assures the reader that, whatever point in time the novel leads to next—past, present, future—there will be enough consistency and depth so as to never make one feel lost or lacking in narrative. We are delighted and comforted by technology’s presence while sympathizing with the havoc it has wreaked on Egan’s characters’ worlds, and on our own.
Egan shows us a new Utopia: one where technology makes us better writers; it is the 140-character constraint that creates room for poetics.
Of course, these days Power Point technology is not exactly cutting-edge, but Egan took the act further. Following the success of Goon Squad, The New Yorker commissioned a “Twitter short story” by the author, where Egan strung together 140-character phrases into a complete short story (for their “Science-Fiction” issue). Despite the medium, there is no lack of character depth or engaging narrative in Egan’s Twitter fiction. Written in the second-person, the story, “Black Box,” is a chain of riveting, artful sentences such as these:
Egan shows us a new Utopia: one where technology makes us better writers; it is the 140-character constraint that creates room for poetics. This is not the destruction of language; it is a way to play with it.
iii. Other writers remind us that, bad as things are—the bookstore chain Borders’ recent closure, and the fixation on our phones so dire that New York City has painted “LOOK” on sidewalks throughout the metropolis—they could be worse. There remains the possibility that we could be completely reduced to, and dependent on, technology. It is principally the “äppärät” in Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story that captures the reader’s heart and renders the dystopian world of that novel palpable and believable. With the äppärät, all of the functions of technology—communication, consumption, data storage—are condensed into one, individualized device that hangs around your neck and constantly receives and emits information.
At first glance this äppärät looks suspiciously like an advanced version of an iPhone; yet, the additional RateMe Plus feature allows for the human being, and all its emotions and thoughts, to be reduced to data points, and then shared (most hilariously, the fuckability rating, which also has real world counter parts, such as the website “Hot or Not” and sites where people rate ex girl- and boyfriends).
Writers cannot afford to stand by and watch with a smug face—or to hide.
Science fiction has always involved imagined, future technologies, but in Super Sad the technology is far from hypothetical or preposterous: the believability of the äppärät and its added features make this dystopian future so scarily real and proximate. Looking down at our iPhones, we wonder: are we not headed in such a direction, where print is extinct and we use technology to find mates and to do . . . everything else? What will happen to running into friends spontaneously at a favorite hang-out, to meeting your future spouse on campus or at the gym, to perusing through book store shelves and finding a beautiful old copy of Edgar Allen Poe stories—to these kinds of simple, unpredictable pleasures in life? It is clear that technology can deliver many of the things it promises (we’ve all met or heard of married couples who met through OkCupid, and as I mentioned earlier, Twitter is very useful in situations of crisis), yet it is far from clear that it is socially or psychologically healthy for humans to become increasingly reliant on data to determine how we live. The äppärät points out how close we are to already doing that.
As for the tweet itself, what it does is compress time; it allows the present, past, and future to become immediate and accessible. For writers, members of the idle class, this can be worrisome; we want time to proceed smoothly and carefully, because writing should not be rushed and reading must be leisurely, contemplative. But society refuses to sit still; it seems that most people have learned to love (or at least engage with) the constant flow of data, the streaming “updates,” the escapism of Facebook, and the virtual “sharing” community provided by social media. And we writers, what can we do but live in the times?
It is not uncommon for writers to keep themselves apart from the mainstream culture. Thoreau’s transcendentalism emerged in retreat in the woods; much of Salinger’s dark prose was penned from a hide-out. But in a world where literature is threatened by shortened attention spans, app-laden handheld devices, and digital readers (as well as the fact that a movie ticket costs less than most books), writers cannot afford to stand by and watch with a smug face—or to hide. Nor should we let ourselves get too swept away in the game of “who said what on Twitter”; it is simply not possible to observe and understand society and the world through online interaction alone. But writers would do well to learn from the recent successes of Egan and Shteyngart’s books, and ask ourselves how to do more with our hyper-technological world. The tweet, and other forms of social media and Internet sharing, are not to be cast aside or feared; the tweet is something to be taken under control, made an object and medium of fiction, and made prosaic and lasting.
Rachel Signer is a Brooklyn-based writer. Her nonfiction and fiction have appeared in The Nation, n+1, The Brooklyn Rail, and elsewhere.