“Reflective and moving” – The Disconnect by Roisin Kiberd

IMG_10Apr2021at153419What’s actually the deal with Zuckerberg? Ever sat up super-late listening to Vaporwave (if not, you probably will now)? Who buys those mattresses advertised on all the podcasts? What’s it like to date a tech-bro? Have you ever really stopped to think about how much of your life is run online (by you, for you, with/without your consent); is there any escape? Why do we all feel so shitty so much of the time?

Kiberd is, or has been, a tech journalist; The Disconnect is her first book, an essay collection, and though it’s possible you have read iterations of these pieces before, their sequential arrangement here amounts to more than simply a fascinating investigative look at techno-culture; it reads also as a series of personal essays, life-writings articulating the experience of depression, insomnia and eating-disorders in relation to a culture that devalues privacy, that profits from sleeplessness, that thrives on our very human insecurities. I didn’t grow up online: I’m from the same city as Kiberd, but I’m seven or eight years older than her, and while the tech she describes is familiar, is as invasive in my life as it is and has been in hers, that slight mid-nineties slippage (Kiberd hitting her teen years with the internet already thriving; me attending university when online access on campus was a boon granted only to the science and tech students) describes a seismic experiential shift. What’s it like to have dated only in an internet era? What if Facebook had gone mainstream when I was in my late teens rather than my late twenties? The Disconnect is a trippy, terrifying account of how constant connectivity, omnipresent screens, capitalist surveillance, the gamification of, well, everything, and the commodification and marketisation of, well, also everything, has impacted on our lives – most directly in these essays on Kiberd’s own life, but by extension, on yours, mine, everyone’s. There is no disconnect, not really: when even sleep is codified as a technologised marketplace (and a competitive one at that), when our selves are constructed for us, rather than by us, by the commercial entities to which we blithely gift our data at a catastrophic and ever-increasing rate, the way forward is perhaps – Kiberd suggests – a case of acknowledgement and realistic recalibration, of awareness being yoked to online engagement, of a conscious moderation of our habits and our disclosures, rather than a case of opting out. Of course, having read her essays, the longing to disconnect is a nagging, almost nauseating, one, much stronger than before – and yet here I am, surrounded by screens and devices, though the mere four open tabs on my laptop browser feels (ridiculously) like a radically moderate situation (pause while I check Instagram on my phone).

The last several years has seen a surge in highly successful and deeply articulate essay collections, and many of my particular favourites have come from Ireland (Emilie Pine’s Notes to Self, anyone?). If I were to recommend a companion volume to Kiberd’s, then, it would have to be Mark O’Connell’s To Be A Machine; if O’Connell’s collection charts the high-level shenanigans of the tech-utopians (your Elon Musks), then Kiberd offers us a sobering account of the effect these folks are having on the rest of us. If a utopia is an impossible dream, here we see the human cost of its failure – quite literally, too, as we dreamily buy into our own commodification (and watch our rents dizzyingly soar).

Any Cop?:  A reflective and moving collections, likely to be one of my non-fiction picks of the year.

Valerie O’Riordan

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