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How technology colonized our bodies, minds and souls

In ‘The Disconnect’, the Irish journalist and writer Roisin Kiberd dissects the drift of relationships, work and personal identity in the internet age

Irish writer Roisin Kiberd.
Irish writer Roisin Kiberd.tessy ehiguese

Sooner or later, everything ends up getting old. But if something decays with dizzying speed, at a rate that is difficult to grasp, it’s technological journalism. One day we are reading about the spurious role of Facebook in the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States, and the next, nobody remembers the website that once seemed to govern the planet. Today Twitter belongs to a billionaire with verbiage; tomorrow, who knows if it will be possible to continue speaking on the platform. In an environment of accelerated obsolescence, Irish writer and journalist Roisin Kiberd’s book The Disconnect offers a haven of calm under blue light. It’s not that its content isn’t disturbing —on the contrary, we are talking about networks, lies and surveillance— but it is written with the intention of leaving a trace. And it works.

The key? “The book is about 50% personal, 50% cultural criticism. I thought that that was the most honest and accurate way to tell the story of life with the Internet in our lifetimes,” explains Kiberd from the other side of the screen, seated at a table in a white-furnished kitchen. Her texts, full of personal details, speak of a way of life. And, above all, they avoid “making predictions about the future”: “That’s where tech writing ages really badly,” says the author.

The dozen essays that make up The Disconnect deconstruct the tribulations of a young woman trying to earn a living as a technology journalist in London and Dublin, a European- Silicon Valley home to the headquarters of all the big technology companies, from Google to Amazon. Kiberd can’t sleep, she has problems with eating disorders and, given the precariousness of her job, she spends periods living at her parents’ house. She goes to the gym every night at ever more ungodly hours. She downs industrial amounts of a caffeinated energy drink and tries her luck with men on one date after another, while dragging her finger through apps. “I think good writing is always a little bit in dialogue with its era, but it will also access something universal,” argues the author. “I want to access a level of truth which is accessible in literature that isn’t available to us in real life. That comes from taking a personal view and a macro view, and reaching out and asking the reader, did you feel this, too?”

The narration of The Disconnect starts at the point of rupture that we have all suffered at some point in front of our phone or the computer. In Kiberd’s case, the anguish and emptiness caused by the days (and nights) of endless scrolls, and staring into the distorted mirror that is the screen, led her to try to end her life with pills. She retells all this seriously, but also with a pinch of salt. The entire book is tinged with irony and a sense of humor, perhaps the only healthy way to address these issues.

“When I got my diagnosis of emotional instability, the sheet that the doctor gave me included things like addiction to Twitter and the rise of the alt-right and 4Chan. All these horrible things were all really getting in on me, maybe to an irrational degree, frankly,” she recalls. “Since then, I have done so much work and gained so much great perspective, and I think my relationship to the internet is one of maybe ongoing first. But also it has nowhere near the grip on me that it used to. My personal life, my relationships, my career…I’ve moved away from it.”

Encapsulated in the author’s experiences, the book suggests that our bodies, minds and souls are today conditioned —if not colonized— by technology. “The more I thought about what Shoshana Zuboff calls ‘surveillance capitalism,’ the more I realized two things: One, this is laying claim to every aspect of our humanity, like even our past, our future, the time before we ever joined a platform,” explains Kiberd, who gives as an example the ability of Amazon to predict pregnancies even before the women themselves know. “And another is that, as Zuboff also says, technology is like the Catholic Church: a sprawling empire that instills such control and fear and also hope in the people who follow it, that even if it’s not inside your brain, you let it inside your brain.

We relate and love through platforms, we push our mental health to the limit in a constant comparison with others and we come to modify our physical appearance based on unrealistic expectations. “During the pandemic, when we all lived online, people had more surgeries and began to alter their bodies,” Kiberd exemplifies, who also documents in her texts the gender imbalance that prevails in some corners of the network, such as dating applications, populated by 95% men and countless chatbots pretending to be women. “The Internet can be more sexist than real life because the human element, the fact of looking someone in the eyes, is gone,” she says. " I don’t think it reveals our true selves necessarily. I think it incentivizes extreme opinions.”

Along with the writing of Leslie Jamison and titles like I Hate the Internet by Jarett Kobek, Kiberd cites the theories of the late British philosopher Mark Fisher as one of the major influences in concocting The Disconnect. “I interviewed him a year before his death for the Facebook group he had a hand in starting, Boring Dystopia, the whole premise was that life under this stage of capitalism is a boring dystopia. Britain especially is a boring dystopia. And I think that has only become more true with time.”

Hand in hand with the ghost of boredom, the book reflects on the notion of the döppelganger, the unfolded self that acquires a life of its own in the parallel dimension of the screen, and that the writer considers translating into a fictional story. “Probably all writers have this to a degree, but I’m very driven by not having done something, wanting to prove that I can do the thing I haven’t done yet. So the next thing I’m working on is a kind of experimental novel. It has an essay stuck in the middle of it,” she says. “I’ve been really fascinated by similar things as in The Disconnect: identity in the Internet age, work in the Internet age, relationships and the self.”

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