The Paris Review

Self-Surveillance in the Internet Age

Hilma af Klint, Birch, 1922.

Coherence is mutilation. I want disorder.
The Departure of the Train, Clarice Lispector

For those who want to escape their own subjectivity, the Internet should be a Utopian playground. But unlike in Tim Berners-Lee’s original mind-expanding conception of the World Wide Web, our experience is increasingly personalized. The “real” world narrows to fit the picture of us the Internet has, based on fragments of ourselves we’ve shed (often unknowingly) online like trails of dust, dead skin, and hair. According to the Internet’s idea of me, right now all I care about is pregnancy (avoiding or enabling) and superabsorbent period underwear.

The events of 2016 revealed that this was not quite so benign as might have been thought. Once it seemed a way to control and tailor our otherwise unpredictable environment, to make life convenient and coherent and put ourselves ever more firmly at the center of that story. But constant surveillance is both exposure and confinement, not least because online we are corralled into groups whose way of thinking and points of reference mirror our own, and we encounter fewer and fewer instances when we are forced to confront this.

This creeping feeling of being observed, followed, recorded, predicted was what inspired me to write my first novel. The protagonist lacks an identity except that which she siphons from the woman she stalks online. This becomes the picture of her the Internet has, drawn from her activity. Her own outline is fluid, more like a sparse marketing demographic than the characterization we might recognize from a nineteenth-century novel. The paranoia-inducing relationship at the book’s center is not just about what an Internet connection does to human connections, nor our relationship with our various online selves. It also explores the Internet’s addictive but invasive relationship to us, its users, whereby our life stories become content that

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