The Worst of All Possible Worlds

The internet is ruining us, discovers Niall Anderson. Also, Jonathan Franzen.

Jonathan Franzen is thinking, so you don't have to.
Jonathan Franzen is thinking, so you don’t have to.

Last Saturday, The Guardian published a lengthy essay by Jonathan Franzen, which it inaccurately decided to headline ‘What’s Wrong With The Modern World’. The headline was inaccurate in two regards: first, because Franzen was trying to introduce the work of German satirist Karl Kraus to a new audience, and therefore merely suggesting parallels between Kraus’s time (the interwar period) and ours. Second, because the essay told you glancingly little about the modern world, but a great deal about the anxieties of Jonathan Franzen. In particular, Franzen seems to have a bug up his bum about the internet. To wit: ‘I confess to feeling some … disappointment when a novelist who I believe ought to have known better, Salman Rushdie, succumbs to Twitter.’

Succumbs, eh? Leaving aside the principal metaphorical dubiousness (does one ever deliberately succumb to anything?), the language of disease is always surprisingly close at hand whenever contrarians and conservatives decide to take a look at the apparent social effects of the internet. Franzen’s specific complaints – that the internet distracts people from really important issues; that it induces a kind of phenomenological panic about needing to have an opinion on every subject; that it effectively closes off real communication, even as it claims to open it up – are fairly standard. Indeed, so standard that Saul Bellow was able to write a very similar essay (‘There Is Simply Too Much To Think About’) in 1991, without ever having heard of the internet. Imagine.

To be fair to Franzen, there’s little in his essay that hasn’t occurred to even the most web-savvy and web-friendly individual. Slouched in front of an iridescent screen, pursuing a pointlessly vindictive web-spat with somebody you’ll never meet, who among us has not thought we might be wasting our lives? But there’s a difference between this feeling and the attitude of outright rejection that Franzen seems to be suggesting. And there’s a massive difference between momentary anxieties about online behaviour and a panoptic fear about what it might be doing to us as a species. (Maybe this is why we still have novelists: to worry about the global effects of every email sent in haste.)

In any case, Franzen is not alone. A new documentary released this week by Beeban Kidron, InRealLife, is Franzen’s thesis made flesh. Comprising extensive interviews with six teenagers along with fly-on-the-wall footage of their lives outside the internet, InRealLife is serious, well-intentioned and occasionally genuinely shocking. It also goes beyond mere human interest into genuine ethical quandaries of how the internet turns us all into consumers at a younger and younger age. But for all that, it is wrongheaded, hasty, shortsighted and more than a little bit sensationalist – all phenomena that Jonathan Franzen would like to blame the internet for. Well, Jonathan, I hate to tell you …

The problem is, perhaps, that Kidron sincerely thinks that ‘We Have Abandoned Our Children To The Internet’: ‘Many of our children have smartphones in the hands that we should be holding.’ This is a view of childhood, and, moreover, a view of parenting, that is historically very new: one that suggests a simultaneous horror of the adult world along with an insistence that children partake in it. We don’t want them to know what we know, but we also don’t want them to know things we don’t know, so we must hold their hands and make sure everybody’s okay.

A lot of InRealLife is therefore about sex. It opens with teenage boys being asked about ejaculation. Where is it best to ejaculate? ‘On her face’, ‘over her tits’, ‘up her bum’. It’s a fair while before anybody suggests something so prosaic as ‘in a vagina, after an act of sensitive lovemaking’. But what, I wonder, was Kidron expecting? If you will ask a group of male teenage virgins how they’d like to come, the leader of the pack is going to set the tone, and that tone is not going to be very elevated. The question is whether this means anything. I’m not sure it does, but Kidron’s ear for a soundbite gets in the way of her editorial control again and again.

A case in point is 15-year-old Ryan, a bright guy from a ‘good’ family who watches a lot of porn in his bedroom. Ryan is one of a number of teen interviewees here who says he feels the adults in his life don’t pay enough attention; hence, the film implies, his burgeoning addiction to porn. Ryan is only too happy to agree to this thesis, at which point my head hit my fist violently for several minutes. Yes, Ryan wants attention, and he will mould himself around what he thinks other people want as long as he gets to talk about himself. This is called being a teenager. It is not a new phenomenon, or even very interesting.

But Ryan’s story does end up being interesting; not because he’s being neglected by his folks, but because his world is actually a little too well-policed. He has been ceded his room as an oasis of privacy simply because the outside world is too scary and random for those who look after him. Ryan could actually do with a bit more randomness in his life. Even when he’s off the leash (by which I mean, outdoors), he’s never quite off the leash; he’s always looking to do the appropriate thing. That he’s learned what’s appropriate from the internet isn’t the internet’s fault: it’s that he’s never quite been trusted to work out what’s appropriate for himself. ‘Porn ruins love for us all,’ he says at one point. Kidron swallows this as gospel, without noticing that Ryan, once again, is merely saying the thing he feels is appropriate.

In contrast to Ryan’s story is that of an anonymous girl who is given a choice of violations by a gang of boys: hand over your Blackberry or fuck us. She didn’t want to hand over her Blackberry. This testimony is very difficult to hear, but one wonders whether Kidron was right to include it. It has a perfect tabloid logic: porn-obsessed scumbags rape a girl who can’t bear to give up her one definite symbol of independence. But powerful as the section is, it’s too extreme an occurrence to support any particular thesis. As a result, a suggestion of exploitation hangs over the whole thing.

"All right, start sexting ... now!" Beeban Kidron
“All right, start sexting … now!” Beeban Kidron

If InRealLife were just a collection of vignettes, one might forgive this sort of overbalancing, but unfortunately it shares the pessimistic futurism of someone like Adam Curtis. This has the unintended effect of making everything equally significant, from the kid who’s addicted to online gambling to the kid who updates her Facebook status at every stage of getting ready to go out. These are undeniably facets of the online world, but are they equally damaging? The film would prefer not to judge its contributors (which is fair enough), but it would like to place them all within a similar economic space where they’re being exploited by money-mad corporations in Silicon Valley.

What InRealLife lacks is any sense of what real life might be. Even its token uplifting story (an internet couple who finally travel to meet each other) is only accomplished because Kidron nudges the participants’ arms. To those of us who have been knocking around the internet long enough to make real friendships out of people who first manifested themselves to us as handfuls of pixels, it all feels a bit too worried and worrisome. In this respect, Jonathan Franzen calling on Karl Kraus isn’t too far off-beam: like Kraus, we are in a sort of interwar period, struggling with an inherited language that doesn’t reflect how a lot of us now live and interact. The language will catch up with us. It’s just a shame that those most interested don’t seem interested in helping us create that language.

InRealLife is on limited release in the UK from September 20.

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