OCTOBER 26, 2019
ON JULY 13, 2019, 42 years to the day after the infamous 1977 blackout that left nine million people in and around New York without power, Times Square went dark. An explosion at a power substation on West 49th Street cut electricity to most Broadway theaters, traffic lights up and down the West Side, and a number of subway stations, in turn causing rippling transit shutdowns across the five boroughs. I watched the blackout from afar, on Twitter, where I watch most things that happen these days. I don’t live in New York City, but social media’s network effects, which both distribute and centralize attention, make it impossible not to know what’s happening there. A fancy duck takes up residence in Central Park; the sun aligns across the east-west grid in Manhattan; Times Square’s massive screens, blaring down advertisements 24 hours a day, ensure that no one, not even the rats, gets any sleep: Twitter is always there to tell me. New York City is a media object, sliced and refracted into #content for our delectation. Seeing the beating heart of Disneyland capitalism go dark was eerie, terrifying, and oddly hopeful in equal measure.
Published five months before Manhattan went dark in real life, Tim Maughan’s excellent debut speculative fiction novel, Infinite Detail, stages a Times Square blackout of its own. The novel is set a decade or so into our own future, when Big Tech’s hold on our cities and daily lives has grown even more pervasive. Rush, a British hacker fashioned in the Occupy mold, attends an anti-police brutality protest in Times Square. It’s grown even more nightmarish in the decade hence, with screens “the size of apartment blocks” and “augmented-reality adverts” blanketing the gaze, courtesy of Rush’s “spex,” a Google Glass–style wearable as ubiquitous in Infinite Detail as smartphones are now. Suddenly, at the protest’s peak, the power cuts, sending everyone and everything into the dark. A moment of euphoria fills the crowd at that “ultimate, simplest act of resistance”: turning the system off. The Times Square blackout, we discover, is only the beginning of a series of rolling blackouts that take the entire internet down for good. This is Infinite Detail’s deceptively simple, high-concept premise: if the internet isn’t an unmitigated good — as it so clearly isn’t — what would happen if we just turned it off? And what if it happened without any warning?
In less capable hands, these questions might serve as an excuse for Hunger Games–style apocalypse porn. Perhaps even worse, they might prompt an uncritical fantasy of a post-technological turn to a prelapsarian ideal. Maughan isn’t satisfied with those answers. As horrifying as the world-with-the-internet is, full of smart trashcans, venal finance bros, and pervasive, unblinking surveillance, the world-without-it might be even worse.
Infinite Detail oscillates between two settings: New York City just before “the crash,” and Bristol, United Kingdom, in its eventual aftermath. Maughan understands how interpenetrated with the internet all our infrastructural systems are now: in its absence, Bristol has little power, less communication, and chafes against martial law. But Maughan is interested less in the bleakness of the pre- or post-apocalypse and more in a deep exploration of both the unwitting consequences of our contemporary regimes of datafication and surveillance and the conditions of possibility for life, art, and culture in their wake. The New York scenes follow Rush as he attempts to navigate the technological excesses of a fully datafied New York City and its eventual collapse. In the Bristol scenes, denizens of Stokes Croft, Bristol’s longtime countercultural-heart-turned-anarchist-refuge-from-digital-culture, navigate life after the internet. For Maughan, culture is resolutely material, bound up in the media of everyday life. What, then, happens to cultural production when the dominant medium of our moment, the cloud, evaporates?
Before I knew him as a fiction writer, I read Maughan’s journalistic work for outlets like the BBC and Vice. In both his fiction and nonfiction, his beat has been investigating the consequences of yoking culture, social systems, and daily life to the massive borg that is the internet. He has a keen eye for those moments in real life that shade ineluctably into science fiction. I frequently return to one essay he wrote for the BBC on Baotou, a rare earth mining town in Inner Mongolia, China. Rare earth minerals such as neodymium and lanthanum are integral to microprocessor and battery production; unless you printed this article off, there is almost certainly a rare earth mineral under these words on your screen. In Baotou, toxic runoff from mining operations has agglomerated into a massive lake of thick, black sludge that sits on the outskirts of town. Rare earth minerals, Maughan writes, aren’t any more or less rare than other minerals in the earth’s crust. They’re “rare” because extracting them takes an enormous physical and environmental cost. Technology operates within the same ecosystems of resource extraction as any other good produced under capitalism. For Maughan, what’s strange, otherworldly, or unsettling about digital cultures is less devices themselves and more how devices logically extend the systems of exploitation and control that make technology possible in the first place.
As its title suggests, Infinite Detail is kaleidoscopic in its attention to life and culture before, during, and after the internet. But perhaps no medium is more central to the novel’s world than music. Maughan is an avid fan and producer of electronic music. In an interview with the website Uses This, he writes, “It’s true to say I actually spend the majority of my time listening to, thinking about, or trying to make techno, even when it looks like I’m doing something else.” In a way, this extends to the work of writing Infinite Detail, which takes the old cliché that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture” as a marvelous challenge. Bristol was one of the hearts of the United Kingdom rave scene in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Black Caribbean immigrants brought the Kingston sound with them, which metastasized in the wake of Margaret Thatcher’s evisceration of the British working class into a fast, hard, bleak electronic genre called jungle. Jungle is Infinite Detail’s cerebral cortex, its medium of transmission. For Maughan, electronic music isn’t window dressing, but a model for living and thinking after the internet. Rarely is the novel’s prose more luxurious and seductive than when he writes about music:
It’s that time of night when it’s all about jungle, from now until the end of the show — it’s all about that Bristol sound, staccato vocal chop-ups, reggae pulses, ancient drums dug up from the depths of lost musical history made to sound like the future they’d already lost. A collage of past sounds, most from before he was even born, that together become atemporal, timeless.
The “he” in that passage is Tyrone, a resident of Stokes Croft in the time after the internet. He’s one of many characters for whom the internet is only a cultural memory, something in his elders’ pasts rather than his own. Maughan makes jungle’s temporal relation explicit: jungle is a “soundtrack for celebrating the urban decay of the twenty-first century, for dancing in the new ruins of industrial civilization, translated now as a soundtrack for everyday life.”
More importantly, jungle is the only genre left on physical media after the crash. We citizens of the age of streaming understand this in our core, even if we don’t always acknowledge it. If — or really when — Netflix shuts down, what happens to its original programming? Or Spotify? Or Tidal? If the internet truly shuts down, these media disappear. In Infinite Detail, no objects are guarded as closely as vinyl records, 3.5-inch floppies, VHS tapes, and DVDs. In Cabot Circus, Bristol’s massive mall, most stores have long been looted out, with the exception of one shop “filled with antique LCD televisions” and tapes, where a helpful sign announces that “thieves will be shot.” The tapes Tyrone can get his hands on are precious and fragile, “[d]ecades of history, long lost elsewhere.” Guarding the music is an ethical imperative. Just as a generation of British ravers stayed up late recording pirate radio transmissions to cassette, a bulwark against ephemerality, so too does Tyrone become an accidental archivist. In this way, Maughan shows us how the work of memory is an active one that requires attention and care. Our digital culture is more fragile than we can even begin to understand.
Rush learns these lessons the hard way. In the crash’s immediate aftermath, he loses contact with his boyfriend Scott, whom he’s traveled to New York City for — to meet for the first time. Their relationship was totally online before, pure electricity. Losing the internet means losing the matter of their relationship itself, the photographs, video chats, emails, sexts, all of the documentation that constitutes the living memory of modern love. Despite the fact that few characters in the novel know the dark back alleys and inner workings of the internet better than Rush, he can’t track Scott down in the chaos. The novel’s final pages find Rush locked away in a New Jersey data center, surrounded by “server racks, strobing with green and amber lights […] all wired together in some crazy-ass way, the box full of suspended cables, crisscrossing through the air from wall to wall, rack to rack, like a three-dimensional spiderweb.” He’s trawling through data centers trying to assemble any last memory of Scott, any final attempt at glimpsing him before it all went dark. Maybe he can find him again then. The cloud is someone else’s computer after all. If the internet goes down, those servers are still out there, unconnected, lying in wait.
Despite this grim image, Infinite Detail ends on what I’d consider a hopeful note. A decentralized alternative to the internet, built from the ground up rather than the top down, begins to proliferate in major metropolitan areas. It’s possible to begin again, to build something new. Rush might even find Scott. That is, of course, assuming that we don’t make the same mistakes again: that we don’t trade surveillance for convenience, yoke our culture and memory to a corporation’s whims, and financialize the hell out of every last human behavior. In this regard, Infinite Detail is a challenge as much as a warning. How can we remake the technological world in the name of ethics and equity? What might we gain from learning to say “no” as often as “yes” to technological progress, which is more often than not a code for further exploitation? Infinite Detail resists easy answers, preferring instead to linger in the questions themselves. I take this as proof of Maughan’s rigor as a thinker about technology and its cultures. In a growing ecosystem of vapid thought leaders, it’s refreshing to have a voice able to do the hard and necessary work of imagining what new ways of being actually look like in practice.
There’s a legend about the New York blackout of 1977: that the dark provided cover for a generation of early hip-hop artists to steal the new equipment they needed to develop their sound but could otherwise not afford. In turn, the blackout catalyzed the development and spread of a new sound and a new culture. It’s unfalsifiable, of course. But it’s a useful story nonetheless, one that traces connections between technology, culture, class, race, and the possibility to build the future on the ruins of the past. Infinite Detail plays it out on a grand scale.
Jeffrey Moro is currently seeking his PhD in English at the University of Maryland, College Park, where he researches digital technology’s relationships to questions of speculation, futurity, and ecology. His website is jeffreymoro.com.