Is it a novel? A manifesto? Page by page, the new book “I Hate The Internet” tracks characters through their lives in San Francisco, especially its overlapping literary and technology subcultures. But the book is also a wild, at times rambling look at what’s wrong with 21st century America. Subtitled “A Useful Novel Against Men, Money, and the Filth of Instagram,” the novel seems destined for an underground success at the very least. “Could we have an American Houellebecq?” Jonathan Lethem has asked of its Los Angeles-based author, Jarett Kobek, recommending “fireproof gloves for turning the pages.”
The book veers between funny and enraged, with tangents on libertarian heroine Ayn Rand and legendary comics artist Jack Kirby. It also introduces many of its characters by describing the amount of melanin in their skin.
The novel is the first to be released on a new small press called We Heard You Like Books, inspired in part by the inability of the New Narrative writers -- a mostly West Coast movement of the ‘70s and ’80s – to be treated fairly by the publishing establishment.
We spoke to Kobek, who was once part of the Bay Area tech world, from his home in L.A. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
What are you more fiercely upset about: Celebrity or the Internet, or do they both have a place in hell for you?
I’m much more upset about the Internet. But I think celebrity is a key mechanism by which the Internet tends to perpetuate itself and tends to make us all worse. Celebrity is part of the Internet – and contributes the part that I find really problematic, on multiple levels.
What does celebrity do to us, then?
It’s always been a distraction… But you can look back at something like Kenneth Anger’s “Hollywood Babylon,” which has all of the same components that celebrity has now – it’s really gossipy, it's really vicious – but it does not feel quite in the way celebrity feels now.
Celebrity has become a way by which we attempt to address really complex social issues while totally avoiding addressing complex social issues.
I think I know what you mean here. Keep going.
If you think about something like Obama’s executive action on gun control. Simultaneously Amy Schumer is there, and the stories that come out of it all have Amy Schumer posing with people. And it’s like, “I don’t think that story is really about Amy Schumer, regardless of the horrible shit that did happen at a screening of her film. Amy Schumer is not a policy expert.”
There’s something really strange about the way this has continued to go forward. I’m old enough – just barely -- to remember a time when there was a certain skepticism in the role of celebrity in politics. But one of the things the Internet has done is erode the barrier between those two things – so that every complex social issue now can only be discussed if there is a celebrity connection to it.
These are generally speaking people who have distanced themselves so completely from the issues being discussed… What’s worse, is when you get Twitter involved, it becomes a distraction by which a lot of energy that could be focused on personal and political change just sort of drifts into commentary on celebrity. And commentary on Facebook and Twitter is really just advertising for people who are richer than you.
Speaking of the online world, the book is about, in part, the way women are treated on the Internet. Your subtitle describes your book as “Against Men.” What’s going on with gender in the U.S. today, especially online? How did things get so bad for women?
Again, this is really a complex issue. But I have the tripped-out explanation that I think because the Internet was built almost solely by men there is some kind of bias – often an unconscious bias – as to how the technology developed. There’s something as simple as anonymity built in… I do think there’s an argument to be made that something as simple as that reveals a gender bias.
Your novel is not just about people technology – sexism shows up in your book in just about all of its subcultures. Are things getting worse for women? Are we going backward?
No, we’re not going backward. It’s an incredibly patriarchal society. It certainly seems more sexist than it was in the recent past, but that’s – hopefully – just the death throes.
Just if you look to something as simple as college graduation rates – which are [leaning toward] women at this point. It’s clear that the future of higher education is going to be more women than men. That is a really radical shift which you can sort of see paying off now. But if you look 20 years out, 30 years out, it’s a real improvement.
But as a result of all these decisions, you see the crazy mechanism that the Internet has turned into. Which we perceive as, “Well, that’s the Internet.” But all of it was the result of choices. And all of it was business decisions. And a lot of it was the result of collusion – I mean that in the most sinister way – between government and businesses.
There’s this bizarre reverse-engineering of free speech, where you can say whatever you want on a third party’s website, and as long as they don’t edit it, they’re not held liable. Which does not really have an analog anywhere else in the world. You could’t run a commercial on television calling for armed insurrection, and not have the channel that ran it have some risk.
Let’s stick with the Internet for a second. You’ve got a line in your book: “…all of the people who exercised freedom of speech and freedom of expression on Twitter were doing nothing more and nothing less than creating content they did not own for a corporation in which they had no stake.” Does that pretty much sum up creative life in the Internet age?
Yeah – I think the worst thing about the Internet is that you’ve had a true flourishing of creativity, a lot of it has been from people who would not have had the social access for that creativity to be widely received. But, the downside is that they don’t control it in any way. There’s no money in that. If you do brilliant things, the only people who make any money are the people who own the platforms that host this stuff. And Twitter is an extreme example of that… You have to be in that model of giving things away.