Sunday, June 18, 2017
Social Media , the Novel and the End of Private Life:......The Private Life of the Diary: From Pepys to Tweets: A History of the Diary as an Art Form Hardcover – July 1, 2016 by Sally Bayley ( Random House);The Private Life of Edward IV Hardcover – May 1, 2017 by John Ashdown-Hill (Amberley Publishing);The Private Lives of the Tudors: Uncovering the Secrets of Britain’s Greatest Dynasty Hardcover – December 13, 2016 by Tracy Borman (Grove Press);Spaces of Surveillance: States and Selves 1st ed. 2017 Edition by Antonia Mackay (Editor), Susan Flynn (Editor)(Palgrave MacMillan);Spectacular Disappearances: Celebrity and Privacy, 1696-1801 Hardcover – March 4, 2016 by Julia H. Fawcett(University of Michigan Press);The Public Life of Privacy in Nineteenth-Century American Literature (New Americanists)May 13, 2005 by Stacey Margolis Paperback(Dule University Press) ;Privacy, Domesticity, and Women in Early Modern England New edition Edition by Corinne S. Abate (Routledge);Privacy in the Age of ShakespeareMar 24, 2016 by Ronald Huebert Hardcover (University of Toronto Press)
Will social media kill the novel? Andrew O'Hagan on the end of private life
Writers thrive on privacy, not on Twitter. What does a world in which our interior lives are played out online mean for the novel? It is a call to action, argues the novelist
The day was always coming when science fiction would seem like nostalgia. It wasn’t that everything became true but that everything became fake. Who knew, when reading William Gibson in the simple 1980s, or old paperbacks of Frank Herbert, that these writers were common realists, no less faithful than Charles Dickens to life’s essential changes. I still remember the ritual of turning off the TV at the end of the night when I was a child. There was always a scramble to do it, because the Queen was on and everybody hated the Queen. No remote control, so you had to go over and press the button – and there it was, the final exhalation of static as the mounted Queen hyperspaced into a single white dot. It meant the world was now at a distance, a veil of finality descended over Britain, unless you could read novels under the covers with a torch. I grew up that way, between the TV and the library book, and it described a perfect circle of private experience. Robert Louis Stevenson might have been spying on us in a moral sense, and so might our Catholic God – “only He knows what’s inside your heart,” Father McLaughlin told me – but we persisted in feeling that privacy was a personal possession and a first principle.
The other day I taped over the camera on my computer. Then I went upstairs and disabled the data collection capability on the TV. Because of several stories of mine, I’d suffered a few cyber-attacks recently, and, though a paragon of dullness, I decided to greet the future by making it harder to find me. One of the great fights of the 21st century will be the fight for privacy and self-ownership, which is also, to my mind, the struggle for literature as distinct from the dark babble of social media. Writers thrive on privacy, not on Twitter, and so do readers when the lights are low. Giving your sentences thoughtlessly away, and for nothing, seems a small death to contemplation, and does harm to the profession of writing, where you’re paid because you’re good at it. We are all entertainers now, politicians are theatrical in their every move, but even merely passable writers have something large at stake when it comes to opposing the global stupidity contest. Literature, which includes great journalism, might enhance the public sphere but it more precisely enriches the private one, and we are now at the point where privacy, the whole secret history of a people, might be the only corrective we have to the political forces embezzling our times.
I taped over the camera on my computer. Then I went upstairs and disabled the data collection capability on the TV
In the interests of “national security”, in the service of “global harmony”, you are now obliged to become your own Winston Smith, both watched and self-watching. The TV downstairs may not be “off” at all – it may be “fake-off”, a condition defined in a joint programme of June 2014 between the CIA and MI5 called “Weeping Angel”. (Certain models of televisions are programmed to stay on, with their cameras operative, and the “data” they collect can be harvested by agencies.) The principle, as with Britain’s Prevent campaign, is to assume that everyone with a private life might have something to hide, which means that nobody, in the future, unless they have sinister motives, should expect the luxury of privacy. Some TVs and all phones operate “as a bug, recording conversations in the room and sending them over the internet to a covert CIA server”, reported WikiLeaks as it released the “Weeping Angel” documents. Being bugged at home or stopped and searched in the street and having your “information” handed to security agencies are now understood to be security measures, and questioning it will make you an enemy of the Daily Mail’s “common sense”. One doesn’t have to be much of a freedom fighter nowadays to be branded a member of the “liberalocracy”: all you have to do is believe in free speech and freedom of movement, and stand up for basic rights of sovereignty over your own thinking. Only recently have these sanctities been taken for the demands of a potential terrorist.
Dickens believed that rail travel would change the meaning of selfhood. In 1846, he got to know the “railway king” George Hudson, and he began to turn the mania for steam engines over in his mind, writing about it in the novel he was then working on, Dombey and Son. “The first shock of a great earthquake had, just at that period,” he wrote, “rent the whole neighbourhood to its centre. There were a hundred thousand shapes and substances of incompleteness, wildly mingled out of their places, upside down, burrowing in the earth, aspiring in the air, mouldering in the water, and unintelligible as any dream … The yet unfinished and unopened Railroad was in progress; and, from the very core of all this dire disorder, trailed smoothly away, upon its mighty course of civilisation and improvement.” He charted what was coming but also what was going. “There were frowzy fields, and cowhouses, and dunghills, and dustheaps, and ditches, and gardens, and summer-houses, and carpet-beating grounds, at the very door of the Railway.”
It wasn’t just progress and enlightenment – he saw it as a darkening, all that smoke, noise and overcrowding of the city streets, and, with it, an end to bucolic remoteness. With the closing of distance comes the new problem of proximity. And from the perspective of born letter writers the internet has done a similar thing. It started off as a kind of utopian promise, “we” would be connected, “we” would share information and experience in ways both instant and constant. But we didn’t know that “we” was not a stable commodity, and neither, as it turned out, was “I”. The most exciting prospect in recent years was that the old institutions of power, so reliant on secrets and lies, would be shaken down by an insightful technology that has no bias towards protecting self-interest. WikiLeaks and bitcoin were built to interrogate the central complacencies of the military-industrial complex: we will take your secrets away, the new digital editors appeared to say, and our computers will keep you honest. It seemed tied to a new vision of democracy: the computer owners of the world would underwrite, every day and in every place, a fresh digital constitution, exposing corruption and guaranteeing rights. Hackers would interrupt the flow of lies. But the freedom fighters forgot that agencies had big computers, too, and in time they would have state hackers and people protecting the old big money causes. Criminals have come to work the internet the way they used to work the highways of the world, and – an old story, this – the idealists have fallen into bad company. Donald Trump, that malignant narcissist and a poor American’s idea of what a rich guy looks like, could say “I love WikiLeaks”, and feel closer to Putin than he did to anybody in Washington, and tell 400 lies in 100 days, and laugh it all off and tweet more rubbish and look into cancelling the daily press briefings. It was all personal. He could accuse Obama of surveillance, share security information with the Russians, and we were all left wondering where the crossover began, and who was who. Was it a libertarian coup? And had the utopian idealists, the original hackers, the talented disrupters, allowed themselves to become the useful idiots of an international rightwing conspiracy?
At the time of his novel Falling Man, written in the wake of 9/11, I argued with Don DeLillo that “reality” was outpacing his vision, but really it was outpacing everyone’s vision. In the age of Fake-Off you might come to feel that fiction and non-fiction are indivisible, and that writers and readers have scarcely enjoyed a more apposite moment for exploring “truth”. Private life, in the sense that it meant something to Henry James, has ceded to the internet, and how we watch, are watched and how we self-watch are hot-wired to digital code. The interior life, let us say, used to be about who a person was inside themselves, and such alterations as could be detected were the stuff of literature. Nowadays the interior life means something else: it refers to who are you inside the web. Your every move, every thought suggested by your shopping patterns, your “likes”, and how they intersect with others, will tell on you. Future battles may simply be about who controls the code.
The life of Isabel Archer, her secret wants and repressions, are found in James’s sentences, of things said and not said
The life of a person such as James’s heroine Isabel Archer, her privacies, her secret wants and repressions, her history and her human nature, may be found in a pattern of sentences and paragraphs, of things said and not said, and in the end she is a person in a museum of vitality. But selfhood isn’t like that now. The “self” of a young woman of her sort today is more likely to be located in a neural network. When you look at the computer science patents lodged in the last three years, that is what you see: a future where privacy is not a matter of tender human comprehension, but of algorithms. This has been coming for a while. In 2010 Mark Zuckerberg told a conference in San Francisco that privacy is no longer a social norm, and Nick Denton of Gawker spoke for a whole generation when he said that “every infringement of privacy is sort of liberating”.
For any writer, that’s a call to action. When you write fiction you’re in a constant state of production, and I don’t mean you’re always writing. I mean you point yourself in the direction of the narratives you know you can write. I’m always going out of the house to find stories and always being changed by them. There is no gold medal for that, it’s just a habit some people have, but it seems reasonable to believe that such work sets up conversations that novelists might not otherwise have. When I’m reporting nowadays I feel less like a news gatherer and more like an actuality seeker, someone for whom the techniques of fiction are never foreign and seldom inappropriate. In recent years, I’ve tended to write about people who inhabit a reality they made for themselves or that in other ways consorts with fiction, and I was required to enter their ether and dance with their shades in order to find the story. When I was a young reader, I learned from the poets not to trust reality – “reality is a cliche from which we escape by metaphor,” Wallace Stevens wrote – and the internet figures I got involved with for The Secret Life: Three True Stories depend for their existence and their power in the world on a high degree of artificiality.
It is the habit of the times to organise the ironies embedded in this state of affairs and call it culture. (Just look at reality TV.) And the creative writer, given what I’ve said about metaphor, may have a head start when it comes to investigating that culture – which is why we might do well, now and then, to open the notepad and turn on the recording device. Asked which of the arts was closest to writing, Norman Mailer once told me the answer was “acting”. He talked about an essential loss of ego, a circumstance that most people wouldn’t associate with him. But the principle will be familiar to writers of fiction and non-fiction who are always on the lookout for another life, believing it must be a writer’s business to invest freely in self-transcendence. I believe that is what F Scott Fitzgerald meant when he said there can be no reliable biography of a writer, because “a writer is too many people if he’s any good”.
By hating privacy while guarding his own, Assange became to me a cautionary tale of our times
We were addicted to the ailments of the web long before we understood how the technology would change our lives. In a sense, it gave the tools of fiction-making to everybody equally, so long as they had access to a computer and
a willingness to swim into the internet’s deep well of otherness. JG Ballard predicted that the writer would no longer have a role in society. “Given that external reality is a fiction, he does not need to invent the fiction because it is already there,” he wrote. Every day on the web you see his point being made; it is a marketplace of selfhood. With email, everyone can communicate instantly and invisibly, either as themselves or someone else. There are upwards of 67m “invented” names on Facebook, many of them clearly living another life less ordinary, or at any rate less checkable. Encryption has made the average user a ghost – an alias, a simulacrum, a reflection. In this climate, only our buying power makes us real, and what self we have is open to offers of improvement – new eye colour, better insurance, slimmer body – from marketing firms and mobile phone companies who harvest our data before they hand it to governments, who aim to make us visible again in the interests of national security. Maybe Ballard was too pessimistic about the writer’s role: what if she didn’t unplug when confronted with the new fictionalities but inscribed herself into the web and re
I’m drawn to the problems of virtual reality and find that many of them are as old as the humanities themselves. It is the human thing – the magic of true feeling and the grain of lived experience – that the machines can’t know, or not yet. Looking for that thing in the face of such sweeping change feels to me like an old-fashioned job, so long as one is willing to exchange all certainties for known unknowns. For six years I more or less devoted myself to writing from the wild west of the internet, and it felt, at times, like a solo ride through the ravines and quagmires of post-industrial progress. We lived through the age of the internet before policing or a code of decency, before good manners or clear professional ethics, and the new ontological arrangements of the web are yet to become second nature. I might have swum in the ethical mire of all that, but what I found were individuals. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is not a typical figure of the internet age any more than Charles Foster Kane is a typical figure from the Age of Newspapers. To me, Assange always seemed happy to be a confection and is every bit as impractical as he is inconsistent. Like Trump, that friend he made, he is simply too narcissistic to recognise his mistakes. The six months or so I spent talking to him, or, should I say, listening to him, in a remote house in Norfolk where he was effectively under house arrest, was like spending a portion of one’s life with a man out of Trollope who is glued together with lies and denials but who is obsessed with a moral programme that makes everyone else face the truth. Visiting him at the Ecuadorian embassy, I knew he had lost his reason, and his antics since then have proved it. He always hated Hillary Clinton and I had learned enough about how his mind works to know that he would be fooled by his own resentment. Reality outpaced him, too. A brilliantly talented publisher, he has become a servant of forces he doesn’t understand, and by hating privacy while guarding his own he became to me a cautionary tale of our times.
The purported bitcoin creator Craig Wright came to me, as Assange did, out of the blue, claiming that science fiction was no longer possible. “It’s all here,” he said. Wright turned out to be a highly eccentric respondent, on the brink of digital currency, to the financial crisis of 2008, and his inner trials interested me for their own sake. Looking back, I feel that Wright saw his entire existence as something made on the internet, and when he tried to step out from it and claim his fame his selfhood fell apart. In his own mind he was unknowable, unwritable, though for me he was like the digital embodiment of a character in Theodore Dreiser. Privacy was supposed no longer to be a social norm, yet these men were haunted by theirs, and it became a task of writing to pick them apart from their digital personae. I spent a long time in pursuit of a man called Ronald Pinn, a digital person I invented based on a young man who died 30 years ago, and he pulled down the walls between fiction and non-fiction in ways that I am still getting to grips with. I did what the Metropolitan police have been doing for years, and took a name from a gravestone, building a “legend” around it. In time Ronnie became a man of the moment but also an element in experimental journalism, a person both true and not true, around whom questions of existence swirl like snow. Every man and every woman are their own Rosebud, and the web can’t hide it.
Maybe the abolition of privacy will kill the novel. But more likely, as with the invention of trains or rockets or sex, it will make it new. One of a writer’s rewards is to find himself alive in the detail of his stories, and the age of the internet provides a whole new funfair of existential provocations. In my childhood, the visiting funfair was called “The Shows”, and that is what I found when I went looking for heroes in the fiction machine, carnivalesque people who are bent of shape – by their pasts, by their ambitions or by their illusions – under the internet’s big tent. In a world where everybody can be anybody, where being real is no big deal, some of us wish to work back to the human problems, driven by a certainty that our computers are not yet ourselves. In a hall of mirrors we only seem like someone else.