How the digital revolution has changed every aspect of our lives, private and business

Home life people work How the digital revolution has changed every aspect of our lives, private and business

In 1895, in an essay entitled ‘The Book, Spiritual Instrument', the French symbolist poet Stephane Mallarmé first unleashed his most famous claim: ‘Everything that exists,' he wrote, ‘does so in order to end up in a book.' Mallarmé was not just thinking of some book or other, but (as he would put it in a letter to his friend Verlaine) ‘the book, convinced as I am that in the final analysis there's only one… architectural and premeditated… the Orphic explanation of the earth.' For the remainder of his life, he dedicated himself to this project: since the book in its present form was not up to the task, he set out to create a new, expanded and cross-media über-book that would take in theatre, dance and music, even ritual, consume and reconfigure all these forms within a total ‘system of relationships' that he would simply call (using a capital L) le Livre.

Three decades later, the father of modern anthropology, Bronislaw Malinowski, laid out a similar ambition for the ethnographic field. His First Commandment to all would-be anthropologists was simply: Write Everything Down. Since every detail, from the minutiae of a tea-ritual to the the shape of a ceremonial belt-buckle, might turn out to unlock the entire logic of a given tribe, he reasoned, it should all be notated, analysed, every last detail correlated with every last other one until — presto! — the entire social fabric renders up the secret of its pattern.

Skip forward ninety years, and it might seem that both men's aspirations have been realised. Mallarmé's ‘system of relationships' in which all objects and phenomena are held finds its embodiment in the World Wide Web. Malinowski's Commandment, too, has been executed — not on distant tribes but on the citizens of hyper-developed countries. Now, it is all written down. There's hardly a moment of our lives that isn't documented; walking down a stretch of street, we're filmed by cameras, GPS-marked, data-tracked by phones we carry in our pockets. Every website that we visit, every keystroke that we make is archived. Networks of kinship are now mapped by software that tabulates and cross-indexes what we buy with who we know, and what they buy, or like, and with the other objects that are bought or liked by others we don't know but with whom we share buying and liking patterns. 

Where does this leave the anthropologist, or writer? For that matter, where does this leave the citizen? Perhaps these questions are in fact the same one. What fascinates me, as a novelist, about the ascent of digital culture and the regimes of super-surveillance it brings with it, is not so much the old adage that all literature is political, but rather the inverse: that politics itself becomes a literary question. Literary in the sense that public — and private — life finds itself governed by inscription: when everything gets notated in some data-ledger, then experience itself, and with it the question of agency (are we free subjects? or are all our gestures and decisions ruled and determined by the algorithms), boil down to moments and acts of writing.

Kafka saw this coming. In his short story In the Penal Colony he envisages a giant machine into which prisoners are strapped, whose furrows carve into their flesh, in a grotesquely self-reflective loop, the law's own words: ‘Be just.' For the philosopher Michel de Certeau, we all live in this machine: under capitalism, he claims, all bodies ‘are thus transformed into texts in conformity with the Western desire to read its products.' If you want to see the machine's latest manifestation, look at Trevor Paglen's famous photo of the NSA's Maryland headquarters. A colossal black box, it contains records of… well, everything really. This is the late-modern Book — but who can read it? Even the NSA are at a loss to parse and sift and correlate the billions of data-points contained within their black book's covers, to ‘interpret' it.

This, perhaps, is where the question starts to shift: perhaps it is no longer writing that's the core issue, but reading. The task, for the citizen as for the artist, is no longer to find new forms of expression; but to find new ways of mapping, navigating, reading our way out of, or at least through, the writing-machine.

Tom McCarthy