A new memoir traces the decline of the internet through one man’s eyes

A new memoir traces the decline of the internet through one man’s eyes

Image: New York Review Books

Image: New York Review Books
Graphic: Natalie Peeples

What did the internet used to be like? I’m not sure I remember. The conventional wisdom is that, even six or seven years ago, it was more fun and less serious. The dismissive claim that “the internet is not real life” seemed more true than not. Social media platforms were black holes for people’s free time, and that was the major knock. This all seems inconceivably naïve now that things have so severely deteriorated, now that the rapidity with which misinformation and society-altering conspiracy theories spread is so clear, and people spend more time logged on than ever.

Fragments Of An Infinite Memory: My Life With The Internet by Maël Renouard—a French writer who, among other things, served as a speechwriter for François Fillon when he was prime minister—was published in France in March 2016, as the online experience was rapidly worsening via algorithmic timelines, unmoderated harassment, and growing alienation. The book is, as the title suggests, written in a series of discursive segments exploring the ins and outs of Renouard’s time on the internet. Now, nearly five years later, it has been translated by Peter Behrman de Sinéty into a very different world, which logs on to a very different internet. The delay in publication situates the book oddly. Not new enough, with the speed at which the internet changes, to feel quite like it represents now and not old enough to seem prescient, as with 1981’s Within The Context Of No Context by George W.S. Trow or 1985’s Amusing Ourselves To Death by Neil Postman.

The difficulty in reading this book as a work that is neither new nor old appears early on, when Renouard describes the internet this way:

[A] space in which to explore everything that crosses our minds—curiosity, worry, fantasy. Hence the ethical questions that were born along with it. Plato condemned the tyrant as someone who has the possibility of enacting his darkest passions—of actually living his dream which should have remained the only theater of those passions, in the secret recesses of sleep. Morality is what stands in opposition to the dream of exposing others absolutely to our passions.

One imagines the tyrant was supposed to be metaphorical when he wrote this passage. Still, it’s emblematic of what is so good about Renouard’s project. He understands both the unprecedented nature of the internet and that history is nonetheless full of useful and clarifying frameworks for what’s happening. Some of the joy in reading the book is not that Renouard is unique in what he notices, but in seeing the connections he makes and the details he holds onto.

He describes searching for the translation for the German word “fensterpult,” which he encountered in an essay written by Walter Benjamin and translates literally to “window desk.”

Whether in French or in German, Google Images yielded no depiction of this bizarre piece of furniture, nor anything even close, not a hint that might point me in the right direction. The German word strangely called up photographs of the World Trade Center in flames. Out of curiosity, I clicked on one of them, which carried me to an endless forum bristling with conspiracy theories.

This appears almost like the killer flashing for a split second in the background of a horror movie, the protagonist unaware of the peril they are truly in. The thin wall between an innocuous query and a bottomless conspiracy pit no longer seems like only an alarming coincidence, but instead an engineering oversight in the structure of all major platforms. The people who built it are unable or unwilling to do much to reverse their errors, if they see them as errors at all.

There are other such occurrences where Renouard details in a fleeting moment the type of phenomenon that has come to define life for many people in this homebound, extremely online time of the pandemic. In one instance he describes the memory-destroying nature of a flood of posts, which often makes it impossible to find or even remember topics of discussion from a week or day prior. In another passage he remarks at how strange it was to see his own image on Skype the first time he used it and “the vague presentiment I had of witnessing, in this splitting of perception, something that would one-day become a permanent and, as it were, commonplace element of existence.”

His sense, not unreasonable at the time, was that this future would be further off and brought on by a Google Glass sort of gadget and not a pandemic forcing people to rely on only somewhat improved versions of these technologies. This is reflective of the way a lot of technological changes appear to happen: faster and worse than predicted.

The feeling the reader is left with, as Renouard’s recollections build on one another, is the deterioration of something that was once useful and fun and engaging into something that was primarily not meant to work for the people using it. Fragments Of An Infinite Memory is experientially driven, which leads Renouard to mostly ignore the mechanisms that have created the obliterative and shallow environment he finds himself navigating, the companies that have profited off making their products less functional and more addicting. A lot has been written about this, how the algorithms that control what one sees on Facebook and YouTube and everywhere else pave an insidious path, and that work is vital. Renouard demonstrates that the documentary work of keeping track of how those tools and platforms were and are used, and what people feel, and what they see is vital, too.

Author photo: JF Paga/Grasse

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