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Book review: ‘The Disconnect’ by Roisin Kiberd

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Documenting a personal journey through the internet.

Before reading this book, the noun ‘disconnect’, implying a discrepancy or gap, was among my most hated internet-age neologisms, alongside ‘memes’, ‘blogs’, ‘YouTubers’ and particularly ‘IRL’ – a somewhat derogatory abbreviation for ‘in real life’ that’s shorthand for everything not online.

The publishers of Roisin Kiberd’s ‘The Disconnect: A Personal Journey Through the Internet’ (Serpent’s Tail, £12.99, ISBN 9781788165778) are unable to avoid the internet-speak, stating in an otherwise lively blurb: “We all live online now: the line between the internet and IRL has become porous to the point of being meaningless.”

Yet from now on, that horrible word ‘disconnect’ will be firmly associated in my mind with an excellent, insightful, funny and extremely well-written book.

What is it about? Or rather, between what and what is the gap that Kiberd, a young Irish journalist and writer, has put in the title, thus presenting the readers with her final verdict even before they open the book for the first time?

The discrepancy (to use another ‘disconnect’ synonym) is of course between the internet and IRL. Let’s face it, in the decades since its invention, the internet, rather than becoming a part of our daily existence, has created a new world (or life) of its own that continues to become increasingly, and unstoppably, distant from the former.

As an internet latecomer who until 2007 was a staunch mobile-phone refusenik, I keep observing that growing discrepancy with awe, but am normally reluctant to face up to it publicly for fear of being branded a backward curmudgeon. A sudden gesture of support from a young technocrat like Kiberd is hugely reassuring.

The first question I would have been tempted to ask her on finishing the book was what it feels like to be the online voice of a cheese brand. That’s one of the episodes in a career that although relatively short so far has been intense and honest (for she has always stayed faithful to her principles), incorporating studies at the ‘old-fashioned’ Magdalene College at the University of Cambridge, the last Cambridge college to admit women (in 1988), and working for a number of ultra-modern internet start-ups.

Trying to assess her predicament objectively, Kiberd has gone through doubts, depression, burnouts, Valium and eating disorders to discover that she is, above all, a writer, for it was writing that eventually granted her “freedom; space to make sense of the world in language and to speak to a reader who understands me like data never will.”

Freedom or not, one thing is certain: Kiberd’s writing is that of an angel, not a cyborg. “I am waiting for Netflix to create a category of films and TV shows especially for sleeping: predictable programming with a low volume and gently meandering plots and a cast of softly droning, unthreatening, good-looking actors,” she writes.

Despite a number of fascinating digressions on Mark Zuckerberg, YouTube, Netflix etc, ‘The Disconnect’ is in effect a witty, bittersweet autobiography, a non-chronological chronicle of Kiberd’s own internal struggles and her evolution from the voice of a cheese to the eloquent archetype of the whole post-internet generation – people in their thirties who, while embracing all those amazing, yet often dehumanising, new technologies, are starting to recoil from the loneliness they generate towards ‘real’ feelings and words, as opposed to just ‘data’.

Unlike some other recent publications by disaffected web and social-media movers and shakers, in no way does ‘The Disconnect’ slag off or denigrate the internet and other new technologies. Kiberd’s life in Berlin - where she had close encounters with specimens of truly dehumanising Communist-era engineering, like the shower “which heats precisely enough water for one person” - taught her to crave “technology that speaks to human needs” rather than one that “no longer complements its users but bends their behaviour to its shape”.

In this respect, Kiberd’s perception is not that different from mine and can be best described with just one oxymoronic term: ‘love-hate’, a classic disconnect of sorts.

It is a pity in a way that Kiberd was unable for reasons of timing to include the amazing humanistic achievements of technology during the pandemic, from remote Covid-19 testing to the rapid development of highly effective vaccines. Even Netflix, despite being intrinsically soporific from Kiberd’s point of view, has played a positive and highly commendable part in taking beleaguered viewers’ minds away from the daily horrors of the pandemic, even if just for a short while.

It is possible that her perception of the internet - and of technology as a whole - would have shifted away from ‘hate’ and closer to ‘love’, as mine already has.

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