If you were asked to describe the Internet what would you say? The world of technology is something that touches all of our lives on a daily basis and yet many of us don’t stop to think about how this technology is affecting humanity. I sat down with Roisin Kiberd, journalist, essayist and author of The Disconnect, to hear about her experience of writing the book and to talk more about the world of technology.
Throughout a series of essays The Disconnect takes the reader through a whirlwind of digital-driven emotions sliced with human experience, a taste of the online world that we are so used to participating in but yet have struggled to permanently migrate to over the past year. To gain an understanding of what Kiberd was thinking while writing the book the interview opened with ‘What led you to write The Disconnect?’, a book that is so telling about the status of humanity, technology and their interconnection and at some points interdependence. “It started as a completely different book” says Roisin with a smile, “There is so much ritual around the writing of books, so many people fetishize the process but I actually tricked myself into writing the book I ended up writing”, going on to compare the experience to the Ship of Theseus as the book gained essays and lost essays to blossom and transform into the finished product. “It began as a book about internet communities, but then it slowly became something more introspective” and as the style of writing changed and the book began to look at what effect the internet had on not only communities but also the self. It was this aspect of personal writing where Kiberd confronted and challenged humanity’s ideals about technology and it allowed her to ground the stories in experience rather than keeping them in the abstract world of theory, “the last chapter raises questions on personal invasion [and I] wanted to the flirt with that while also studying the form itself. What are we gaining, what are we losing and why is it we are writing in this highly personal way now?”
An essay entitled The Night Gym welcomes you into the embrace of a familiar city from a hauntingly new perspective. Your mind’s eye travels the streets of Dublin as locations are described in detail with an unfamiliar ghostly haze draped across them, as you travel to the 24-hour low-cost supergym in the cover of the night with the narrator. The essay “chimes with the entire mission of the book itself” Roisin says “it’s talking about something that is right there in front of us and revealing how utterly strange it is.” Indeed, casting a profound entity in this wholly unfamiliar light brings a new dimension to the character of this 24-hour gym. The essay itself began as stand up comedy as Roisin recounts “it began as something I wrote to perform at a show a friend was putting on in a theatre and she just asked me to contribute something” so as a piece of literature it was written to be heard aloud. “I’m obsessed with the music and a kind of balance of sentence” Roisin smiles, “all essays in the book are designed to be read aloud”. The Night Gym was published as an audio recording by the Dublin Review Podcast and the reading proposes a new perspective on the literature piece, asking questions of the listener and allowing them to actively participate in the story.
The essay Bland God: Notes to Mark Zukerburg makes the argument “it is good and right to share your life and not only that but you should make your life more shareable and if you don’t what do you have to hide.” Frightening thoughts considering our digital online lives but the essay goes on to examine the idea of community in the digital space and can that be considered a community. Communities are seen through the lens of social media who, Roisin describes, “use this flimsy idea of community and connection, connection above all else” to justify behaviours like data-harvesting and data surveillance, in exchange for convenience and our own sense of community on the web. The Disconnect puts a new perspective on the internet and pairs the spirit of the internet with one of human isolation. It is not to say this was technology’s goal from the outset “if you go back to the ‘90s or the ‘80s and even the ‘70s and the ‘60s you have visions of technology bringing people together” Roisin says, footage from the Moon on 20th July 1969 where humanity as a whole stepped onto its surface through the foot of Neil Armstrong, showed how technology had the power to unite people from around the globe in one moment in time. Fast-forward to the present day and after an intense period of development for the internet we are seeing technology play a part in pulling people away from that spirit of union and move towards the idea of building a network of connections. Breaking it down to the concept that each person is a fragile piece of data that can be networked across the world because of a shared platform rather than a common interest, as Roisin tells me “building communities around genuine shared interests and building them from the ground up by oneself created something more useful.” This stands in stark contrast to communities like Facebook where all humans have the potential to be a member and all are welcome to join the club. This sense of community and creation through the Internet was explored in the essay Tamagotchi Girls as well, a prose where Roisin considers the “Internet as a collaborative fiction in a sense”, as the piece delves into the utilization of binary digital tools to create not only contacts but personal connections through the face of pixelated technology.
But as we skip over the surface of the internet there is something larger at play, something deeper in the entrancing spell that technology quietly performs on humanity. The concept of data and technology’s neverending promise of “there is always more internet”. That humanity, when combined with technology, is “confronting the sublime, you have this endless scroll, you have infinite data” Roisin laughs, the phrases ringing true as they echo through the technology that sits between us. “Social media is a written culture” Roisin says “you can create a persona” and similar to the poets of the past who shared their work under pseudonyms the expansive virtual landscape of technology allows some of those same opportunities. There is a high price to pay for the digitized world we occupy though, when to log off. According to Roisin that has become an issue of self-judgement “It’s up to you to decide [when you have] had enough internet. The internet is still on” connections are going nowhere but it is when we need to prioritise human values over binary choices that those multiple shades of grey within humanity win out.
The Internet as an intangible connector serves to bind us while simultaneously let us risk falling into the neverending expanse of data creation. Roisin points out “we need to learn to pick out the point where technology stops being useful and starts hurting us” and have the self-awareness to step away from the drift and move towards dry land. It is a balancing game, one that requires self analysis and scrutiny as we are constantly bombarded with ‘pings’ from our online presence. As the interview closes, Roisin refers to a quote that is commonly attributed to Marilyn Monroe, ‘I restore myself when I’m alone’. And the question on our lips as we hang up the call, in today’s digitized world, is there such a thing as being alone?
The Disconnect was launched on 4th March 2021 and is available in all good bookshops across the country