What Do You Do If You’re a Useless Man? An Interview with Jarett Kobek




LET’S PRETEND this needs to be mentioned first: Jarett Kobek is not a big fan of the internet. Over the course of a two-hour conversation in a coffee shop in Los Feliz, Kobek will deconstruct nearly everything that crosses his hyperactive mind. Whether he’s speaking about stand-up comedy or Edward Snowden, Zadie Smith or BuzzFeed, Google or the Arab Spring — anything that Kobek descends upon is pressed between microscope slides so firmly that the sample is nearly destroyed for any future use. His hatred might just be a kind of jealousy. The internet is faster than he is, barely.

In his latest book, I Hate the Internet: A Useful Novel Against Men, Money, and the Filth of Instagram, Kobek tears down everyone in his path, including himself. If he’s hard on Walt Disney (“America’s most beloved Anti-Semite and racist”) and Star Wars (“a total piece of shit”), he’s equally unimpressed by Ayn Rand (“the author of two shitty novels”) and Steve Jobs (“a total unyielding dick”). But Kobek — moonlighting within the story, semi-autobiographically, as J. Karacehennem — also declares (or someone does, it’s not entirely clear): “This is a bad novel.”

Which brings us to the story. I Hate the Internet would not be interesting if it were a rant without an endgame. In it we come to know a group of San Franciscans maneuvering their way through a city at the cusp of its besiegement in 2013 by the forces of Google, Facebook, and the legions of copycat entrepreneurs with half-baked ideas to sell. If Kobek’s novel is not a love story, well, then it’s a hate story written with a deep compassion for intellect.

Intellect is the hero of this novel. As Kobek sees it, the internet is the enemy of intellect. With his novel, Kobek does everything in a writer’s power to destroy the enemy. He will lose, of course, but something about reading I Hate the Internet feels like we might finally be entering a welcome era of pushback against the forces of silly men like Mark Zuckerberg and their boyish ideas for the future. In this condensed version of our 120-minute conversation, Kobek makes his case for the future, and much like his novel, the digressions are often more enlightening than the straight answers.

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GREGG LAGAMBINA: Are you — Jarett Kobek — the “I” in I Hate the Internet?

JARETT KOBEK: That’s a really good question. Kind of and kind of not. I would say that when I actually was doing the book, probably, yes, because that was when I was at the height of my internet hatred. I had just escaped San Francisco and it was an unbelievable clusterfuck. Being there was just the worst. Then, I just didn’t really have a title. I was like, “Well, I guess I could call it I Hate the Internet.” But it’s not exactly me. Definitely, a part of it is, but another part of it was just, what else am I going to call this book? What else is going to be the appropriate title for this book? Because, if you give it a more literary title, good luck selling a copy. If you’re trying to be more serious, it’s not really a serious book. I mean, it’s serious, but it’s an attempt at being a funny book.

It’s a super-serious book that’s also hilarious.

Right. Exactly. So, how do you convey that? When I started writing it, the thing I was thinking about the most was this British stand-up comedian Stewart Lee. He’s brilliant. I have a very strange relationship to stand-up. I’m sort of in admiration of stand-up, while simultaneously hating all of their material.

How exactly do you simultaneously admire stand-up and also hate all of it?

When it’s good, it’s really good. But it also feels like when it’s bad — not even when it’s bad, when it’s just okay — it’s extraordinarily painful. Stewart Lee is entirely good. He did this one DVD called If You Prefer a Milder Comedian, Please Ask for One. It’s fucking brilliant. And, to a certain extent, it’s the template for this book, in terms of how you can have a mental breakdown in this format and see how it will work out. Anyway, long story short, I was watching the third season of his TV show, which just aired last year. It’s never been released in the US so you can only get it pirated. There’s an entire episode about the internet where he’s just chanting, “I hate the internet.” I had also reread Kurt Vonnegut. Slaughterhouse-Five is probably the best book from the American midcentury. I can’t think of a better book. I read that again and I was like, “Oh my God. I ripped so much off from this.” There’s a lot in I Hate the Internet that’s adopted from Slaughterhouse-Five.

Isn’t “unintentionally ripped off” called “influence”?

Yeah, but I had been thinking about that book a lot. I finally ended up rereading Breakfast of Champions, which I had avoided because I remembered it being quite bad. It’s horrible. It’s really bad. But, it’s the book where he comes closest to stand-up, to just doing a stand-up routine. Some of the formal devices, like defining everything, are really good. That was a conscious ripping off. And, like I said, I had been thinking a lot about actual stand-up. I was like, “Oh, you can write a book like this? You can write a book that’s like a stand-up routine?” When you make the next leap, when you’re doing stand-up, you can talk about anything. One of the things about stand-up — in contrast to literary fiction right now — that’s fascinating, is you can go see the worst stand-up in the world at the Comedy Store or the Laugh Shack or whatever the fuck they’re called, and in that five minutes that some guy has his set, he will address more complex issues than most of the literary novels that will be published this year. It’s because that format is so discursive and there’s such a willingness to let stuff penetrate it, whereas the traditional literary form — especially if you’re getting workshopped [in a graduate writing program] — good luck getting stuff penetrating into it that’s not almost purely experiential.

Why start a small press (We Heard You Like Books) in Los Angeles in 2016 to release a book called I Hate the Internet? That’s beyond counterintuitive.

At first, I had a lot of concerns about whether or not self-publishing would bring with it an inherent stigma. But, then, I was like, “I know how to do this. It won’t be that bad.” Then I also had this thought, which I think is really true, when you think about California writers who have had staying power, a lot of them have controlled their own presses.

Like who?

Dave Eggers. Chris Kraus and Semiotext(e). Lawrence Ferlinghetti and City Lights. There are probably other examples, but those are three that popped to mind. Eggers could have gotten published anywhere. But if you think about Chris, or if you think about Ferlinghetti, it really allowed them a certain luxury to do really strange work while also figuring out how to disseminate it in such a way where it wasn’t just, “Well, I’m writing for 30 people.” The idea of that started to seem better and better and better. Then, as the process went on, it just became clear that this was the right decision. It’s a huge amount of work. Most of the work is not very fun. But, just in terms of the reception this book has had, it never would have had that if it had been published by anyone else.

It might add credibility to the subject matter of I Hate the Internet. You’re doing it on your own and taking on giant corporations. It might seem strange to have a giant corporation then go ahead and publish it.

If by some bizarre miracle it had ended up at a major press, I certainly couldn’t have shit all over other writers in it [laughs]. I mean, most of that is affectionate. There’s very little in the book that is particularly nasty about individual writers.

Most of them are dead.

A lot of them are dead, but there are some nasty things about Cory Doctorow in there. It’s not even him, though, it’s about his readership. It’s a really weird thing to watch Citizenfour and Edward Snowden, who is, inarguably, responsible for the most significant public disclosure of government workings since at least the Pentagon Papers. And he’s got a novel on his bed that Cory Doctorow wrote for teenagers.

The whole connection you make between techies, Ayn Rand and all these science fiction books written for teens, and the apps and toys we are using as adults that were conceived by overgrown children. In the book, you write: “Most apps were developed on the principle of the lowest common denominator, working off the general assumption that stupidity was the baseline of the human experience.”

I think the internet is, if nothing else, a giant communications network which has come to define what it means to be human in the present moment and it was created by people who have no relationship to the human experience. If there’s one idea in the book, it’s this idea that technology is embedded with the ideologies — spoken and unspoken — of its creators. And the analogue that the book uses to try and drive this home is the idea of the camera. People often compare television to the internet. That doesn’t seem right to me. The camera seems right to me, because the camera was a device that was fairly unheralded in terms of what it could do. Then, almost immediately, it became the definer of truth. The thing that’s weird about the camera — if you look at what the camera is really good at and what it’s really bad at — it kind of looks like the prejudices of mid-19th-century Frenchmen. You can’t think of a technology that has been more dehumanizing to anyone who isn’t of European extraction than the camera. The camera is really good at taking pictures of people of color — which is terminology I don’t like — and making them look terrible. It’s a quasi-mystical argument, but there’s really something there. Think about who made the camera. Think about where this emerges from. What did those guys really want to do? They wanted to take pictures of women and they also really thought anyone who wasn’t European, or possibly an American, was a savage. So then you have this device which goes forward which continues to dehumanize people that they didn’t think were human. Now, that’s some heavy shit [Laughs]. But, the internet is sort of the same thing. All of the things which we receive as given in the technology were the results of choices that were both conscious and unconscious of the people who made it. Or the people who are designing individual parts of the internet. A culture grew up around that. I think a lot of the problems that have emerged from the internet are actually the result of these ideologies.

This is the argument people use against Mark Zuckerberg. He’s an awkward, antisocial person who created the biggest “social” network on the planet that is likely alienating people instead of bringing them together.

Exactly. Zadie Smith wrote a really great article about Facebook, where the best thing she points out is that all of the questions that Facebook asks you seems like they were written by a 12-year-old. That’s it in a nutshell. No one thinks about those questions because they’re just there as part of the technology. But, simultaneously, her argument from there is, “What does that mean that we’re all now trapped in the amber of high school? And what does that do?” I think what you just said is quite right. It seems to have a really deleterious effect on people’s social lives. How many marriages have broken up because of Facebook? All of these technologies really do reduce people to behaving like children. But during the genesis moment [of the internet], which would be about 1965 to 1995, something like that, all of those guys were reading Ayn Rand and science fiction and they were taking it really seriously. The extent to which something like Stranger in a Strange Land [by Robert A. Heinlein] has had a huge influence over Bay Area culture is kind of appalling and frightening. I do really think that a lot of those ideologies — this idea of unfettered free expression and the citizen against everything, or the lone man against oppressive bureaucracies — which is not to say that those things don’t actually exist — but all of that stuff really shaped how the technology was developed. It is kind of frightening because they’re mostly bad books. They’re really bad books. I mean, fucking Peter Thiel [billionaire entrepreneur and co-founder of PayPal] has a company called Palantír, named after the orb in The Lord of the Rings. It’s war technology for the government to spy on people. That’s fucking insane! This is a fairly powerful guy. He wants to build platforms in the sea where entire societies will be ordered around objectivist principles [Laughs].

Overgrown teenagers, fans of bad science fiction — the internet we have now is what happens when they get to play with billions of dollars in the real world?

Right. And that’s Google X. All of their research projects are clearly just [Google co-founder] Larry Page being like, “Oh, what did I like when I was 12? Oh, I liked robots!” I think Google in particular is really painful because I genuinely believe that Page and [Google co-founder] Sergey Brin think of themselves as good people. Whereas Peter Thiel, who knows? Steve Jobs clearly didn’t think of himself as a good person, but Page and Brin clearly do. And then they just do this insanely disruptive shit and it’s like, “Of course you would!” What would happen if you were allowed to live out your 12-year-old fantasies? What would you get? You’d get Google Glass [Laughs].

Why not make I Hate the Internet a work of nonfiction?

Fiction lets you lie. Fiction lets you be irrational. Fiction lets you cut corners. I think when people are reading fiction or nonfiction, there’s a covenant between the writer and the reader that — unless you’re a complete maniac like Alex Jones or Bill O’Reilly — this is going to be the truth as you know it. And I think what fiction is particularly good at is getting to psychological truths which are impossible to prove. Also, I don’t know how you would write it [as nonfiction]. This would be a 30-page book if it was just like, “I think you should think about cameras when you’re thinking about the internet. And William Gibson has a lot to answer for!”

What do you like about the internet? How do you start a publishing company in the 21st century, and let people know about it, without embracing at least part of the internet culture you lambast in the novel?

Well, it’s an active, monumental hypocrisy. It really is. There’s no way around it. I think it’s crazy to expect someone, who ultimately is a writer, to have a solution to this problem. I’m trapped in the same shit as everyone else. I don’t think any writing whatsoever is going to change this problem. I also don’t think starving in the street is going address it either. But I’m quite cognizant it’s a weird thing that the book is succeeding on the strength of word-of-mouth on the internet. But, what can you do? You can not write, I guess. But I don’t really want to do that. You can totally ignore the internet and then sell three books. That doesn’t seem good either. One of the reasons why I wanted to do this book is because I feel like the response of publishing and literary people to the internet has been appallingly bad. It’s amazing how bad it’s been.

Do you mean fiction about technology or the publishing industry?

I mean, in the writing, in terms of the industry, in terms of every aspect of it that has been tainted, or touched in some way by the internet. I think the reality is that literary publishing could have done a much better job in terms of responding to the internet.

In what way?

Not rolling over like a dog, waiting for its stomach to be scratched? Just in terms with dealing with Amazon, the response was really quite bad. If there’s anything that we should be good at, as literate people, as people who are supposedly thinking about this stuff, maybe we can’t hold back the tides, but there should be more of a protest about what’s happened. The entire creative economy has been upended. People who could have fairly stable existences as writers, now have to write listicles for BuzzFeed? It just seems crazy that there has yet to be a true response of contempt for all of it. So this is an attempt, in this book. Whether or not it works, I don’t know. But I really was like, “Why are writers just getting on Twitter?” That’s so weird.

There is a certain holiness around the idea of the internet. You can’t hate it, you have to accept it and submit to it. A lot of the corporations that peddle technology use the language of inevitability. It’s as if we don’t have a choice in the matter. Saying you hate all of it, or any of it, is a kind of technological blasphemy. You can say, “I hate television. I hate radio. I hate live music. I hate the post office. I hate vegetables,” but when you say you hate the internet, you’ve said something outlandish. The cover of this book will draw people toward it who are likely thrilled by the sentiment. Are you preaching to the converted, or is this the start of a larger backlash?

That’s a good question. I think the answer will be more apparent in a little while. Because people have bought the book; it’s been doing really well. I don’t know how many people have read it. Some people have. How many that is, I can’t tell you. It would be great if it got into that territory of people just being appalled by it. Because I think that would be really good for sales, but I think it would also be good for having an interesting dialogue around it. Now, it may turn out that those people are not particularly different than the guy that heckled me during a reading at City Lights in San Francisco. It was like a comments section come to life. It was weird. It was a guy freaking out because I had profaned Twitter and then he acted like all of the worst people on Twitter!

But live, in person.

But live! It was kind of the greatest moment of my life as a writer, thus far. It was really intense. The most amazing thing is, we put the video up on YouTube — in an act of pure hypocrisy — and he actually commented on it.

So he went back into the virtual world to have another go at you?

Yeah! But going back to what you said, I think the internet has accrued a sort of sacredness to it. And I think that is entirely bullshit. I think it’s just that Google can afford really good publicists. And they can afford really good marketing. Like, if you think about the Arab Spring, which was actually mentioned in the book and yelled at me by the drunken beatnik, he was making an argument that the Arab Spring had been this really amazing moment where Twitter and Facebook had liberated people. I think that’s what he was saying.

People do say that, whether it was him or someone else.

Yeah, and it’s like, well, how did that turn out? Plus, I actually was in Egypt about four weeks after [former President of Egypt Hosni] Mubarak fell. No one mentioned Facebook. No one mentioned Twitter. What they fucking talked about was money and how they didn’t have any. Think about what must have gone into that, in terms of selling that story to the media. I mean, the Arab Spring, you could spend a long time deconstructing that thing, but it really was this totally unpalatable moment of covering revolutions in societies we know nothing about as advertisements for companies in and around San Francisco. It would be like the Russian Revolution sponsored by Ford. It’s so crazy.

Is the internet changing language and what effect, if any, will this have on so-called “serious” literature?

It’s a really good question. I’m not sure I know what the answer to it is. I’m not particularly bright about semantics [Laughs]. I’m just stumbling my way through, like Frankenstein’s monster. But, you do get to this weird place where the language the internet is creating — and the language that people are creating around the internet — is a language of manipulation. Some of it is just slang and that’s fine. But a lot of it is manipulated language, but then you get to this strange question, or this strange problem with it, which is, “Is there any language that’s not?” Every word is just some shit someone made up somewhere.

You say something similar about the word “gentrification” in the novel.

People just make up this stuff. But, is there something happening to language, individual words, on the internet, that’s going to have a really profound effect not just on how we communicate in general, but how we communicate in fiction? In terms of the individual words, I don’t know. In terms of the forms of communication, absolutely. If you just think about video games and the fact that every male — and lots of women — under a certain age, have spent an enormous amount of their lives playing video games and no literary novels address this in any meaningful way? I mean, you have Ready Player One, but that’s coming from more of a celebratory, rather than a probing place, which is fine. But it’s strange. This is something that we’ve been living with for 40 years and you’re not going to get it in fucking Purity by Jonathan Franzen. You’re not going to get Franzen showing up and having anything truly interesting or novel to say about Donkey Kong.

Is there anything interesting to say about Donkey Kong? Do you think the internet and technology don’t want to be written about? Are things like Twitter and Facebook just not that interesting to write or read about?

See, I disagree. I think it is interesting. I think the problem is, it’s so ephemeral that it’s really hard to write about. That’s why I stole Vonnegut’s device of defining everything, because I really had this thought, “What happens in 2021 when there’s no more Twitter and a 15-year-old comes to the book?” What is this even going to mean to them unless you concretely define everything that you need to know? You can be a dick with the definitions, but they fairly convey what these things really are. It’s really hard because when you’re writing about technology, what you’re really writing about is the reality created by neoliberal markets to sell themselves to people. And that’s a magic trick. Part of the magic trick is that no one’s supposed to see behind the curtain. It’s very hard to write about. I don’t blame anyone who tries to write about it and fails. Because it’s fucking difficult.

Writing fiction is slow work and technology is fast.

Exactly. Like, even this book. It’s a long way from 2013, when this book is set. Three years is a long way. I happened to have been very lucky I was living at the epicenter of the epicenter. That’s another reason why it’s a novel, because you can do shit like the stuff about Google buses that I have in there. But, simultaneously, Google technically doesn’t even exist anymore. It’s Alphabet. That kind of stuff makes it really difficult to write about. And, yet, it’s purely a story of the 21st century.

Did you become so consumed by these ideas that everything you write next will be related in some way to this book?

That’s a great question. It’s very hard to go from this to somewhere new, in terms of fiction. Just in terms of form, how do you go back to a normal book? J. G. Ballard did it. But I don’t know if I have it in me. It ruined Vonnegut. Slaughterhouse-Five — where do you go from there?

You can paint yourself into a corner with one book?

You can. The person I’ve been thinking about the most — which is possibly the most pretentious reference ever — is Jean-Luc Godard and Weekend. The film ends with the title card Fin du Cinema — “The End of Cinema.” And it’s true! He was never good again! There’s some interesting video work from the ’80s, but realistically it’s never been the same. And, so, I think that this book might be in a similar place. If you write a novel that’s so deconstructing what a novel is and clearly, within the novel itself, reject the novel, how do you then write another novel? I might be done with fiction. It might just be nonfiction from this point forward.

This book is as much about racism and misogyny as it is about the internet. Is the racism and misogyny that fills comments sections and Twitter feeds something new, or has the internet just amplified an underlying hatred that’s always been there?

I think it’s two different things. The misogyny, in particular, is the death throes of a certain kind of patriarchal culture. If you look at the college graduation rates, it’s all women. It’s disproportionately women. It’s clear the professional future, if there is one, because God knows, capitalism could collapse — it won’t, but it could — the future, professionally, is women. I think a lot of the misogyny is coming from, well, what do you do if you’re a useless man? And it’s clear you have no real use in a culture that also is now a service economy. That’s where a lot of the misogyny emerges from. The racism? That’s just America. I think it’s always been there. I think it’s really unfortunate because the internet seems to have become a really massive distraction about how you address those issues. It’s hard for me to understand how you can combat racism on a platform that’s also willing to host racism. It seems to me that at that point, it all just becomes product.

What is the ultimate ambition of I Hate the Internet?

[Pauses] I don’t know what the ambition is. I just want to eat.

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Gregg LaGambina is a writer living in Los Angeles.


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