Listen to Jake Hurley’s conversation with The Disconnect author Roisin Kiberd above – read on for Jake Hurley’s thoughts on the book.
When French philosopher Guy Debord presented his idea of the spectacle as a “social relation among people, mediated by images” in 1967, he was speaking mainly of how the technologies of the day, such as the automobile and the television, sever our connection to real experiences and ultimately diminish our quality of life.
It’s both tragic and darkly amusing how literally the spectacle came to present itself in the form of social media following the web 2.0 revolution; and in The Disconnect: A Personal Journey Through the Internet, Irish writer Roisin Kiberd lays bare the emotional and spiritual consequences of a life lived through mediated online profiles.
Describing herself as a “techno dystopian”, Kiberd’s debut is comprised of a series of revelatory vignettes drawn from personal experience which serve to illustrate how surveillance capitalism has changed the way we think and interact with the world around us.
The effects of digital dystopia on Kiberd’s life have perhaps been accelerated by the weekly column she wrote on internet subcultures throughout 2016, as well as the immediate environment she found herself living in – the Silicon Docks, home to both Dublin’s booming tech sector and some of the starkest examples of social inequality the city has to offer.
A pervasive theme running throughout The Disconnect is the idea of realness, a concept Kiberd first encountered in Jennie Livingston’s enduringly influential exploration of New York City ball culture, Paris is Burning.
One of the book’s most compelling essays, Bland God, focuses on Mark Zuckerberg and his attempts to serve everyman realness through his muted, normcore wardrobe – a modern day An Béal Bocht, to borrow a phrase from Flann O’Brien whom Kiberd studied for her undergraduate thesis.
Kiberd also approaches the internet microgenre of vaporwave through this lens of realness. The genre boasts a sonic aesthetic deeply rooted in irony and a hauntological sense of yearning for a future promised but ultimately lost.
“Be real, it doesn’t matter anyway” croons a pitched down looped vocal in a seminal vaporwave track Eccojams A3 by Chuck Persons – a pseudonym of online producer Daniel Lopatin that seems to allude to the genre’s preoccupation with what it means to be human under late-stage capitalism.
If Mark Fisher explored Burial’s Untrue as an ode to the abandoned optimism of the UK Garage era –Rosin Kiberd shows vaporwave’s obsession with mall culture and Windows 95 graphics to be borne out of a deep longing for a cancelled future heralded before the cracks in techno-capitalism began to show.
For Kiberd, the unattainability of realness in the digital age has amounted to an experience of derealisation and depersonalisation that began to overwhelm her in 2016 and lead to an emotional breakdown.
One of the most valuable assets of The Disconnect is the ease with which Kiberd connects the dots to attribute this period of mental duress to the ways in which the internet was warping her perceptions of reality.
In an era where mental health discourse is by and large depoloticised and positioned as an individual experience solely stemming from one’s brain chemistry, it feels refreshing and affirming to read Kiberd’s articulation of the ways in which filter bubbles, algorithmic timelines and soulless online dating can engender feelings of hopeless and isolation.
The Disconnect further explores how supposed solutions to our tech induced malaise are sold back to us – everything can be recuperated and packaged in the interests of capital as Debord suggested.
Kiberd uses Monster Energy as a case study for a business trading on a simulated version of the enthusiasm and wakefulness millennials are expected to have as young disruptors in the exciting gig economy.
And when our energy drink high inevitably crashes, neoliberalism has found a way to put even our increasingly elusive hours of sleep on the market – The Disconnect devotes a section to the burgeoning industry built around the idea of the perfect night’s sleep.
In capturing the disconnect between surveillance capital’s stated aim of creating a global online community and its end result of driving us further apart – Kiberd’s crowning achievement is ironically her ability to make the reader feel less alone.
We’re all united by that ambient sense of isolation that The Disconnect argues is a feature, not a bug of platform capitalism.