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

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from The Paris Review

The Paris Review4 min read
Something Always Remains
Some people collect rocks. Others collect stamps. Peter Merlin, a former NASA archivist who’s become a leading expert on military aircraft and Area 51, collects the physical remnants of government secrets. As he explains in the artist Trevor Paglen’s
The Paris Review8 min read
Children with Mothers Don’t Eat Houses
Sabrina Orah Mark’s monthly column, Happily, focuses on fairy tales and motherhood.  Turns out, for three months, Eli, my five year old, had a small black pebble in his ear. Don’t ask me why it never bothered him or why I never noticed. I am only hi
The Paris Review4 min read
More Obscene than De Sade
In his biweekly column, Pinakothek, Luc Sante excavates and examines miscellaneous visual strata of the past. “Maybe it would be better if we stopped seeing one another. Maybe there is no remedy to our solitude because … we don’t love each other enou