Writing about the internet is like writing about the weather. You finish a sentence, and the game’s changed. Laurence Scott acknowledges the risk relatively early in his new book The Four-Dimensional Human. Yo (an app that allows you to say “yo” to people) “may soon be a forgotten fad”, he concedes, in the way that MySpace now feels like some childhood toy you were once briefly fond of.
Scott, a critic and lecturer in English and creative writing, has set himself a tricky task: to write an account of the hyperactive digital age through the prism of human experience in a medium — the trusty old book — which demands, above all things, time. Luckily, his book is far more than a survey of our online landscape. Scott’s interest lies not in the technology itself but in the humans that use it, our subtle transformation from analogue to digital beings.
In service to his subject, Scott roams far beyond it, looping in discussions of bereavement, celebrity, cities and climate change. His frame of reference is formidably and energetically broad, always surprising, equally at ease with 30 Rock as with Herodotus’s Histories. It’s not all for fashionably high-low cultural effect: Scott wants to situate our online behaviour in historical context, comparing the silent marking of a death on social media with the mutes of Victorian London, paid to stand outside a house of mourning. The internet, in part, has simply given us new ways of doing old things.
He tells his own story too, in pieces, gently interspersed among his themes. Scott was a child of the 1980s, who came of age just as the internet came into being, and so perfectly recalls the now antiquated “squidge of the mousepad”, the comic drone of a dial-up connection, “squealing and whirring like a drill hitting rock” and the “descending strips” of a web page as it loaded with tantalising inefficiency. We no longer “surf” the web — oh, those innocent days — because we are the web, our selves parcelled out to a multiplicity of social-media platforms. Google reflects back our interests and activity through individually targeted adverts. We are fully, and inescapably, mediated. Anyone who has somehow withstood the temptation of the self-broadcast is now seen as exotic and pure. The rest of us are trapped in a digital universe that contains infinite possibility and zero chance of escape.
But to what end, and at what cost? Scott’s answer is not doomy, nor is that even really his question. This is not a book about it being the end of times because we share pretty pictures of restaurant food on Instagram. Scott’s project is more ambitious and philosophical than that, and is ultimately more an examination of modern life — what it is to be a citizen in a capitalist economy, on an overheating, overpopulated planet, in an ultra-mediated age — than an assessment of what happens to people who spend too long on Facebook.
He’s too good a writer to be dragged into polemic, or down the overtrodden path of “why the internet is destroying our brains”. Partly, of course, because he is clearly well-networked himself, describing the standard practice of “climbing into bed beneath some sort of wiring” of a charging laptop or phone. If his sentences seem a little overwrought at first, honed in their cadence to the point of obscurity, then stick with it. By the end of the book, his words power out from the page: “Facebook is especially haunted by watchers,” he writes with typical sharpness, “their interest in others so often propelled by tedium, which no doubt results in the ill-spirited conclusions drawn about those whom they like perfectly well in the flesh”.
In some ways, it’s a shame Scott is limited by his frame of the internet. Sometimes it feels as if he’s straining at his own leash, and his links can feel overstretched, as in a section about deserts and social media (“the simultaneous sandstorm and Twitter storm of digital late capitalism”). But that’s a small complaint to make about a book that delivers a nourishing counterpoint to the ephemerality of a digital age.
Scott offers layered and complex thought in a style that is elegant and artful. He has worked long and hard, you imagine, at these thoughts and words — and to prove that can still be done, despite the glow of distraction emanating from a smartphone inevitably sitting on a table nearby, is worth celebrating in itself.
The Four-Dimensional Human: Ways of Being in the Digital World, by Laurence Scott, Heinemann, RRP£20, 272 pages
Photograph: AFP/Getty Images
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