Jonathan Lethem: “My Internet”

06/16/2012 § Leave a comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, June 4 & 11, 2012 (Science-Fiction Issue).

In the Beginning, or at least, at the start of this whimsical and ultimately slight tale, Two Internets, of a hundred people each, were created by a “leader” who foresaw the “lemminglike migratory waves of popular hatred that have come to define the Internet. (I mean the larger, non-exclusive one, the large general one, on which, it now occurs to me, you are likely to be reading these words.)” Fearing the worst, he managed to convince one group to separate (thereby “excluding” themselves): “He suggested that the two Internets be thought of as two playfully competitive teams, conducting a playfully Darwinian experiment to see which would flourish.” But whatever his actual reasons, the experiment worked: the elite group remained locked to their hundred core members (with the occasional replacement), relying upon two simple rules (“No money, and no animals) to guide them, whereas the other group became, well, our Internet, the one we know and love and love to hate. With barely more than a single page, though, Lethem doesn’t get to say much about the differences between these two, save that the smaller one is slower, like a bonsai, and links pages in a unique way, through “linkfeel” and a differentiated “infrastructure.” Instead, he goes a level deeper: one of these elite hundred, paranoid that their leader is actually some, if not all, of the other hundred avatars, creates his own Internet within the Internet adjacent to the Internet, “hidden like a grain of sand on the shore of the larger Internet, which washes over it like surf and yet alters it not in the least.” Is Lethem talking about the lack of true privacy and freedom? Is his “character” nothing more than an avatar himself, created as an Darwinian AI experiment? Or is he talking about the way in which information corrupts, absolutely, inevitably altering us to such an extent that we no longer exist as individuals?

However, it hardly matters which, if any, the author intended, because the story is little more than a thought experiment: “How can I make a person paranoid with the least amount of effort?” A story must be more than the merest mention of individuality: if you liken it to a stone skipping across the water, creating ripples in our reflected perception of the world, “My Internet” is basically a stone that hasn’t yet been flung. Instead, it’s a brief observation that there exists an object — the stone — that could be thrown, which could have effects . . . and sadly, nothing more.

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