Broken Links, by Hari Kunzru

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A young woman is waiting in her New York apartment for her fiancé to arrive and take her to city hall to get married. When he doesn’t turn up, she goes to his address, only to find that he never lived there. She has no way of getting in touch with him, and is reduced to asking people at a nearby newsstand and flower shop whether they have seen him. He has vanished without a trace.

The transitive verb “to ghost” is a product of the internet era, but as this scenario from Shirley Jackson’s story “The Daemon Lover” reminds us, the phenomenon is much older. When Jackson published the story in the late Forties, people left no digital trails of surveillance images and credit card transactions. There were no phones pinging cell towers, no multibillion-dollar companies aggregating personal data and selling it on. In most ways it must have been much easier to physically disappear. Now emotional ties can be severed asymmetrically, abruptly, and without friction. You don’t have to leave town—you can just stop responding. A digital profile is something less than a person, something easier to block, to forget about, to archive or delete.

I’ve now spent more of my life online than off. My generation came to adulthood before the internet arrived, but we were young enough when it did to be formed by it. No one will ever go through that transition again. I got my first home internet connection in 1993 and soon became what is now known as “extremely online,” spending hours every day perusing bulletin board systems, Usenet newsgroups, and the austere gray pages of the World Wide Web. I feel I ought to be able to say something about what that change was like, to reveal some truth about the global experiment of linking ourselves together. Instead I find I’m starting to forget how I used to do things in that other country, what made it different from where I live now.

I remember that though we didn’t usually disappear, we often got lost. We left the house not knowing what the weather would do, and waited for one another outside cinemas and subway stations, at café tables in foreign cities, wondering if we’d made some mistake of place or time. I did a lot of backpacking, the kind of travel that used to take you completely off the grid. I walked or cycled or hitched rides in the backs of trucks simply to make a phone call. I stood in line to post letters, handwritten letters full of news. I pored over smudged maps and illegible directions. There were so many ways to get lost. It was frustrating. It was a waste of time. Sometimes it was dangerous. I am rarely lost these days, but occasionally I miss the exhilaration of loneliness, the sense of being unknown, unfindable, a single floating point in the great world, only responsible to and for myself.

One thing I don’t miss is the lack of basic information. Today, if I want to rewire a lamp or remove a stain, I watch a video tutorial. The disputes about trivia that used to last indefinitely, causing arguments, even breaking up friendships, are now resolved in the seconds it takes to thumb-type a phrase or call out to a virtual assistant. I lived for years with various misapprehensions—about names, lines in movies—that became part of my world, part of me, and it was disorienting when they were corrected. Then there were the things that I heard about but remained tantalizingly out of reach. As a suburban teen, I would read descriptions of new bands and try to imagine what they sounded like:

The Young Gods open up space along the vertical—trapdoors open up between the beat; suddenly, the ceiling rises vertiginously; corridors branch out, down which sounds recede and loom. If this is architecture, then it’s designed in the spirit of Escher—trompe l’oeil effects, nightmare perspectives, echo and shadow.

In 1987, on the basis of that review, which appeared in Melody Maker, an inky music weekly, I spent at least two Saturdays trying to find a copy of the Young Gods album, taking the train to London’s West End and looking first in big record shops, then in smaller places that you could enter only if you were prepared to endure the clerks’ withering stares. When I finally found it months later, I took it home and put the needle down on what turned out to be a Swiss industrial record full of martial drums and chiming bells, with a singer throatily intoning in French. I thought it was okay, but not earth-shattering. In my dreams of vertically expanded architectural music, I had built it out of all proportion.

Now I can write these words while streaming the album, and discover, simply by typing into a search box, that the prose that sent me on my Swiss industrial quest was written by the excellent critic Simon Reynolds, who was only a few years older than me, and whose recommendations I have often followed since. These days, I rarely have to delay the gratification of my cultural desires. I expect them to be met, if not instantly, then with all reasonable speed. I am grumpy to find that some obscure documentary is only available on a streaming service I don’t subscribe to yet. If I want to know the source of a lyric or a line of poetry, I type the words and am annoyed if the answer doesn’t appear right away. My hungry young self would consider me incredibly spoiled.

In most ways I prefer this to how things were, but with the enormous gain in access, something has been lost. Scarcity produced a particularly intense relationship with culture, and gave deep significance to subcultural signals. When you found something you loved, something that had taken time and work to unearth, you clung to it. Often you felt as if it was your secret, your talisman. If you met someone else who liked it, it was both exciting and threatening. I remember talking to an older British man who’d been a rock and roll fan in the Fifties. He swore that blue jeans were so unusual then that if you saw another person wearing them, you would cross the street to talk.

In Eighties London, where I was a teen, tribes proclaimed their loyalty through fashion. You were a punk “forever,” a mod “till I die.” It seems significant that hipsterdom—the first true post-internet youth culture—was not about undying loyalty to a limited repertoire or canon, but about a fetishistic relationship to the new. The hipster did or said or wore or heard or ate the thing before the normies discovered it. That was his identity. The content of the thing was always secondary to its earliness. The hipster’s temporality was both nostalgic and accelerated. He looked back on the time when the thing was cool, and forward to the next cool thing. Paradoxically, for someone with such an appetite for change, he valued all that was (or appeared) artisanal or handcrafted, objects and clothes and hair that suggested an unalienated relationship to work and living. There used to be a company that specialized in hipster axes, quasi-utilitarian objects with fancy painted handles. They seemed like a cry for help, a product for men who were desperate to get back to the land, but could only imagine doing so through acts of consumption.

The hipster eventually lost his edge, but only because hipsterdom became a kind of default, a template for the way the internet wants us all to consume. We digest and excrete cultural signifiers at a rate that was simply not possible before. Markets of all kinds have become frighteningly efficient. If you don’t act immediately, you lose. The tickets are sold out as soon as they go online. I still daydream about the charity shops I used to find in small towns, full of cheap books and records and postcards, the strange and the forgotten, available to me because I was the person who bothered to look. Now their stock is on auction sites, where it is snapped up by the bidder with the deepest pockets and the smartest sniper software.

If the internet has forced us to be more disciplined cultural consumers, it has also changed cultural production. The kind of underground activities that thrived on being semi-clandestine, the scenes and milieus that withered if exposed to the light, are now quickly found and commodified. Everyone, from writers to personal trainers, is an entrepreneur of the self, competing for the attention of the corporate cool-hunters employed to hurry us along to the next and newest. It’s all very tiring, and it’s easy to forget the sheer wonder that used to come with being online, in daily contact with people in other parts of the world.

The Balkan wars of the Nineties had ramifications outside the borders of the former Yugoslavia, but from the United Kingdom they felt distant, a story in the news, until I joined the mailing list of an activist group in a Croatian village called Pakrac. In May 1995—I know this because I printed out the email—I sat at my computer and read about the forced removal of local Serbians:

Registration of the population was done this morning, 3rd May, in the relevant town halls, by the Croatian military. During the registration the Serbian peoples houses were searched, in their absence, for hidden people and weapons. During this search things were stolen and houses were ransacked.

I now scroll past similar messages in my social-media feeds every day, messages written by people in the middle of momentous, violent events. In 1995, I was shaken. There was a sense of raw proximity, of porousness to the world. Today it is mundane. Once it was genuinely new.

Like most other knowledge workers, I’ve spent much of the past two years on Zoom, but it was only when I began writing this essay that I made the connection to a night in 1996 when I was crammed into a tiny room next to the dance floor of a psychedelic-trance club in London called Megatripolis. I was there to participate in a networking experiment. The club was a monthly event that combined mind-warping techno with speakers like Terence McKenna and Allen Ginsberg, and a “chill-out room” with various relaxing activities, from chai to neural interfaces. It attracted a lot of white hippies, guys with dreadlocks, girls with bindis—one part Goa beach party to one part Bay Area tech fest, cool if you didn’t focus too much on the cultural appropriation. Back then, live video links were the preserve of TV stations. The Megatripolis people, who had strong spiritual and political hopes for the internet, had set up a connection via satellite and ISDN (then a bleeding-edge technology) to the science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, who was at his home in Sri Lanka. Sometime deep in the night, when the dance floor was packed and everyone had come up on their pills, the music was cut and I asked him some questions, which he answered with a slight delay. You can watch the video online. I look nervous, not because I’m talking to the man who thought up communications satellites and wrote 2001, but because I’m exquisitely aware that on the other side of the door, there are hundreds, possibly thousands, of very high people, wondering whether the sound system has broken and why there is an old dude on the TV.

Looking through my box of club flyers and reading yellowing printouts of emails from Croatia, I realize that the dominant feeling at that moment, when the transition was happening but had not yet become general, was of something enormous coming over the horizon, something transformative and possibly terrifying, but about which we could say almost nothing. There was a phase when friends would ask me to show them the internet. I would tell them that it was a network of computers connected to telephone lines. As my superfast 14.4-Kbps modem began its wheezing handshake, I noticed one friend clutching the side of his chair, as if bracing for impact. As the little white telnet window opened up and a block of text welcomed us to LambdaMOO, an early online community, I could feel his disappointment. Where was the ecstatic cyberpunk rush? Where was the surfing? I had to explain that it wasn’t there yet, not quite. Soon, I said. Soon everything would change.


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