Escape by Marie Le Conte. what did the internet do to us
We tend to divide time into neat, discrete chunks. pre- and post-classical; pre-war and post-war. We feel the same way about the internet.
Viewed through the lens of history, there are two great eras. First, the pre-internet era, when teenagers had long conversations on the phone attached to the kitchen wall by an umbilical cord. There were library loans and reference books; there was boredom.
Then comes the post-internet age, when our eyelids pucker and content hits us at a rate that ruins our childhoods, disrupts our attention spans, and turns us all into mobile, ultra-violent monsters who live solely on Instagram, TikTok or for YouTube. .
Those who were fully aware of the pre-internet era, generally those in their 40s and older, look back with nostalgia at the innocence of life. Those who live in the post-internet age—teenagers and Gen Zers—live in ignorance of what life used to be like.
But dividing time into two parts is a reductive way of presenting things. There is a confused middle generation, typically in their 30s, who remember the pre-internet era and yet consider themselves digital natives.
Marie Le Conte is one of them. In Escape, he tells the story of his upbringing and exposure to the Internet, and how it shaped him. Through that personal story, he tries to address the larger notion of how being online in the Internet’s formative years changed not only subsequent generations, but the Internet itself.
Divided into four sections: Who am I? Who are you? Where are we? and “Where are we going?” — the book develops individual anecdotes into a larger account of gender, identity, friendship, and fame.
Le Conte is two and a half years younger than me, but we share the same formative memories of first getting online, talking to strangers with reckless abandon and hiding behind online personas.
His story, and the story of his friends, some of whom he appears to have interviewed by email. As Le Conte writes: “The Internet is good at tricking you into believing that every experience you have with it is both completely unique and completely universal.”
Escape is a book that will hit that middle generation. But it also has its drawbacks. Le Conte claims to Google anyone she ever meets, digging into the internet’s elephantine memory for details. However, he rarely uses that same power to contextualize his insights into online life. He summarizes the wild, rule-free early days of the Internet and how its sharper edges were blunted by the moderation and monolithic power of Big Tech, but doesn’t fully explain how or why that happened.
Le Conte is at his strongest when he emphasizes how our generation is lucky, compared to those of us younger, to avoid fatal missteps that can haunt our lives and careers. There are likely to be millennial MPs sitting in Parliament who have said dumber things in public than Scottish National Party MP and 27-year-old Mhairi Black, whose nasty teenage tweets were exposed after arriving at Westminster but avoided public shaming because they grew up anonymous or pseudonymous on the early Internet. These lucky few are the children of the anarchic internet, but here they are disguised and generalized.
At one point the author suggests that there is a deep problem with how we live digitally; we can never escape each other, which means we’re stuck presenting the same identity to everyone. That’s an amazing thought. It’s also one that the academic field of internet studies has studied for years, but doesn’t mention, even when his academically minded friends interview him and try to take him there.
It’s not just academics studying the Internet who are shunned. Le Conte begins a section of the book by saying that he believes most children and teenagers are “little sociopaths” emboldened by the early Internet. “I have no idea whether the field of psychology will support me on this, and I’m not interested in finding out,” he says. “If they don’t agree with me, they must be wrong. I was young once, I remember it well.”
It’s a shame, because this is a nice book that touches on an interesting question. how today’s politicians, bankers, and business leaders shaped the Internet, and how they shaped sites like GeoCities, eBaum’s World, MySpace, and Goatse (don’t Google that last one, whatever you do).
But it only ever gets 90 percent of the way to answering that question, just like a creeping MP3 download progress bar on a temperamental Internet connection that wobbles all the way to the end, then disappears.
EscapeHow a Generation Was Formed, Destroyed, and Survived by the Internet by Marie Le Conte, Flash £16.99, 304 pages
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