» Book Review
The Funhouse Mirror of Humanity
The Internet Is for Real
C&R Press, 2019
534 pages, Paper, $25.90
Imagine the internet told your life story and fucked it up. That is the unspoken thesis behind Chris Campanioni’s The Internet Is for Real. Although it becomes clear early on that, while Chris will spend time discussing his family history and other autobiographical details, the life story he is really telling is that of the modern world, as filtered via internet culture. His work views the internet as humanity’s id: sometimes charming, sometimes profound, but mostly idiotic, vain, and vapid. While large portions of the book are dedicated to celebrity worship and the distracted nature of internet communication, he also turns his attention to the way our political past and present has been affected by this new technology. A winding discussion with his father about his relationship to his native Cuba after fifty years melds into a meditation on dreams versus reality versus nostalgia, the distance between his father’s recollection of his youth becoming a cipher for Campanioni’s own distance from his father’s homeland.
My father dreams in Spanish. I am writing this down in English.
Where are the gaps and slips, I wonder, as I hold the tape recorder with
my left hand, and with my right, scrawl the notes that will eventually
re-constitute this story.
Where are the gaps and how can I make them wider, instead of trying to
fill them; how can I make them wider so I can breathe within them, in
and out, out and in, and make song from all those unknowable breaths?
He recognizes that the memories and dreams he uses to feel a connection to his ethnic heritage are for a place that no longer exists, that may have never existed, but one which he cannot escape. This could very well describe social media, where we hold on to, document, and obsess over memories and the image of ourselves those memories conjure. The way people communicate with us on social media is through a manipulated, nostalgic view of ourselves that polishes the rough edges of our personalities. In turn, complete strangers come to relate to us in the same way the child of an immigrant relates to the memories of their parents’ homeland—we know it is a myth, but we can’t bring ourselves to ask the tougher questions that arise from that myth.
Another instance where Campanioni uses the internet to make larger statements about world affairs is his chapter on ISIS as an online creation. The piece is a tour de force that demonstrates the way that terrorist groups can promote themselves using the same sort of branding and merchandising as a clothing line or television show. A new video of a beheading, for instance, is treated the way the new trailer for a Marvel movie might be. The violence is a show, and, for people seeking meaning, a global conflict is incredibly appealing, as is the hierarchical society offered by ISIS. This impulse for meaning and fighting for a cause is as old as humanity itself, but because of the internet a cause can reach an unprecedented scale by utilizing the tools of consumerism.
Senior media operatives are treated as if they’re emirs.
More important than soldiers. Their monthly income is higher. They have better cars. They preside over hundreds of videographers, producers, and editors … they form a privileged, professional class with salaries and living arrangements that are the envy of every soldier.
Isn’t ISIS concerned about the fall-out? A drop in the soldiers actually willing to fight its war?
The overriding goal of the Islamic State is not only to inflict terror on an adversary.
Now it wants to command a global audience.
The ISIS section may seem like Campanioni’s most damning statement about the world, but it is really just the most explicit and sensational example of a theme that runs throughout the book—the internet is, above all else, a tool that compounds loneliness and despair by promising to eradicate those very things. The desire to connect with a celebrity, with one’s father, with a cause, all arise from a sense of missing something in one’s life (again, this is not new behavior, but the reach and scope is). Making friends with stranger’s online image instead of in person is a symptom of a greater disease—humanity is retreating into its id, disconnecting from interaction and empathy with others, creating entire lives in a fictional platform—and we are miserable. That misery manifests in a number of ways, from extremism across the political spectrum, to blocking people and ideas we don’t agree with, to outrage culture, to an increasing lack of complexity in the way we approach problems, ideas, and policies. The internet is the most powerful technology in history, and it is winning by holding up an ever-uglier mirror at humanity.
If the internet is the antagonist of Campanioni’s book, it is still a charming one. One with endless diversions, humor, and charm. It is the abusive boyfriend made digital, and our world has yet to find a way to either take the relationship to therapy or cut all ties. Campanioni’s book is wise enough to not try to answer those questions, and is instead interested in asking questions that grow increasingly profound. The book offers a visceral thrill that feels more like a great song or movie than a written text. It is a bold statement in the age of Tweets to release an almost 600-page novel that is in large part about Twitter and the culture it has cultivated, and Campanioni uses every page to excite the mind, cleanse the palate, and ignite your imagination. The next time you find yourself wanting a break from the internet, I highly recommend you pick up The Internet Is for Real. You get the same addictive experience, minus the dirty aftertaste, and you’ll feel better about yourself in the morning.
Editor’s note: We have slightly altered the formatting of the second quoted passage due to readability of the web page on the internet. A little irony there.