Hybrid Interview: Roisin Kiberd
In our hybrid interview series, we pair an author Q&A with a critical essay about one or more of their books. We’re happy to share this conversation between Roisin Kiberd and Tyler Barton, who also essays about Kiberd’s memoir-in-essays, The Disconnect: A Personal Journey Through the Internet. —CRAFT
Essay by Tyler Barton •
Someone recently asked me why I set many short stories in the aughts. It’s true that I have a fascination with those years because they were my formative ones, ones in which I was not yet gaining a majority of my social interaction from the internet, was not yet who the advertisers and algorithms of the late 2010’s internet let me become. The truer truth is that sometimes I just want to write a story where I don’t have to include smartphones, don’t have to worry about major plot problems being solved by technology (why wouldn’t they just use GPS?), and therefore I don’t have to force characters to lose or let their phones die (I can’t remember the last time my phone died). I’ve been writing for ten years, and I don’t know how to write about the internet.
But I know who does. The Disconnect: A Personal Journey Through the Internet (Serpent’s Tail, 2021) is a dark, hilarious, and moving memoir-in-essays by Roisin Kiberd, who’s been very online for the last decade. From writing in the voice of a cheese brand’s Twitter account to penning web deep-dives for VICE to reflecting on the doomed fashion of Mark Zuckerberg in a lit journal edited by Sally Rooney, Kiberd captures the internet like it’s her hometown.
This Disconnect interrogates, criticizes, and eventually disempowers that hometown. While immersing herself in subcultures from Vaporwave to Monster Energy and battling her insomnia with nap pods and podcasts, Kiberd details the before and after of a mental breakdown that forced her to find the parts of herself which were separate from a wifi connection and stable without one. I found her journey not only alarming but uplifting—and, I’ll admit, lots of fun.
“I think I only find darkness amusing,” she said in our interview, conducted on a Sunday morning over Google Docs, the promise of surveillance only making the conversation feel more relevant. During the hour we typed to each other, I received an email from Facebook offering me a discount for “boosting” my posts into ads, and a string of texts came in from my mom who was, horrifyingly, en route to the Apple store to get a new smartphone, and did I have any advice?
I think I originally turned to The Disconnect for advice. I didn’t get it. What I got was a dot-connecting of the evidence I always assumed was there but had never looked at directly, evidence that the surveillance capitalism, commercialism, and atomization of the technology I use every day marks a broken present and forecasts a damned future. What I love about Kiberd’s book is that she does not lead the reader to conclude that they, too, are broken—well, not yet, or at least, not beyond repair. In the book’s penultimate chapter, “Tamagotchi Girls,” Kiberd writes, “I’m starting to believe that life is a process of reconciliation; the world and its distractions contrive to fracture us, and our mission is to reassemble ourselves before we die.”
Tyler Barton: Is there a difference between how you learned to write and how you learned to write about the internet?
Roisin Kiberd: The internet is a written culture. It’s like the Renaissance poetry scene on steroids—everyone is writing themselves into being. So, in a sense, there’s a confluence. But I wrote, and wanted to be a writer, long before I was online. I think the issue of identity has always been a big one for me, and that feels core to the internet and online experience. I was already obsessed with unstable (and unnamed) narrators, and went from writing in college about Flann O’Brien to working in advertising online. I found all this overlap. It makes a lot of sense that I was later diagnosed as having an unstable identity myself (dark lols, but still). But that really drew me to the internet; I saw all these other people there, working their identities.
TB: You write about your life with technology in the opening of the book through this brilliant, brief chronology, but what is your earliest memory of being online?
RK: I remember going on Comic Chat, being warned about it, about talking to strangers. Then again, my parents openly knew I was using it (this probably speaks to them not knowing much about the internet themselves). Also, I was the one who installed our internet-connection software. It was this level playing field, the adults only knew as much as the children did. We were all just working out how to use it together. Everything definitely had this frisson of darkness and adultness and danger to it, and I must have been around eleven or so, that age when you think you know better, but in fact know very little at all.
I’m not sure if this is the effect of writing the book, or if these are genuinely the only memories which stand out to me from that time, but almost all of my early online experiences have a darkness to them. Everything felt like intruding on someone else’s space. I think that’s what fascinates me about everything I’ve read about the web before my time. It was a collection of niches, all specialised, and trolling meant essentially stumbling into someone else’s ‘room’ and wasting their time. Today, everyone is meant to feel welcome everywhere online. I’m not sure they do, though.
TB: I find often that even talking about the internet can feel like being on the internet—things become quickly fragmented, hyperlinked, shifting, messy, unfocused. I imagine that this makes it difficult to organize and structure essays about being online. So much contemporary nonfiction writing is fragmented, associative, almost disparate, and that feels like the style of the day, one that reflects a non-narrative view of contemporary life.
However, your book felt incredibly focused, organized, sequential, and seamless. I really want to know what your process looks like.
RK: The whole popular dialogue around fragmented writing fascinates me. I know a lot of people credit it to women and to autofiction, and then it gets linked somehow to what the internet is doing to our brains. I’d actually argue it has more to do with popular psychology.
Did you read that piece ‘[The Case] Against the Trauma Plot’? I agreed with a lot of what she was saying, especially in regards to blockbuster films, where [trauma] is getting out of hand as this lazy plot device. But, on the other hand, it’s truer to lived experience. None of us remember the past as this perfect line from birth up till now.
TB: The part I found compelling was how the trauma plot seems to flatten history, or to mold all of history to this one relic, the one thing that defines a person, which I think relates to what we are talking about here because you talk a lot in the book about how social media discourse flattens and decontextualizes history, tries to make it seem so simple to understand.
RK: It’s funny—I went back to therapy last year and, of course, everything apparently goes back to my childhood. I’m starting to feel like that character in The Haunting of Hill House who is haunted by herself. I don’t know, the flashback technique is possibly just the result of all these writers and filmmakers going to therapy and applying what might have worked for them to their characters.
Sometimes I feel like writing in fragments is called for and does justice to the subject. Other times something more linear and traditional works better. Form is this big obsession of mine, but I sometimes wonder if it obscures or comes at a cost to other elements. Like, a writer can have this identity as ‘a stylist’ and part of me wonders: shouldn’t everyone care about style? Not style as this visible thing, more as something you don’t even notice—you just notice the smoothness and cohesion and convincing arguments or plot in a text.
All that said, I think it’s entirely normal and appropriate to preference form in writing essays. One thing I’ll say is this is not something I can do in one draft. It seems to take an agonizing, mind-breaking number of drafts. This is probably why I got so into energy drinks.
TB: The millennial generation is incredibly unique, I think—how from birth to preteenhood, life was fairly low-tech and web-free. Then, right at the onset of puberty, we were given the internet. Like you said, at eleven, many of us knew the technology better than our parents. Many were let free to swim. Generations before us were able to reach adulthood, possibly establish a more stable identity of self before meeting this technology, and generations after have had it from the time they were babies.
RK: It’s strange, isn’t it? When I think of Gen X, I think of a characteristic skepticism of everything, romanticized apathy, atheism, all that stuff. Then, I think of one generation below us as deeply politicized and sincere. Where the hell do we fit? If we got to experience internet-less life for a while, surely we should have a deep suspicion of it. However, we also got to be the pioneers and teach our parents how to use their phones. We experienced firsthand that brief and heady phase of young men in hoodies being held up as gods.
In his most recent book, Grafton Tanner was really good on millennial nostalgia. He talked about the indie blog era and lumbersexuals and all this stuff (which does make me wonder: will we be remembered only as the generation who made coffee really expensive?). I’m not sure I can even draw solid conclusions other than that we are deeply conflicted and seem to want to at once retreat away from technology and dive headlong into it. I think this gives rise, also, to a kind of internet adoxography, if that’s not too pretentious. I’m thinking Hipster Runoff’s breakdown over Lana Del Rey, The New Inquiry, Tao Lin, all this paralyzing self-awareness. A lot of fun was being had by people who had read their Marxists and had given up on ever having a well-paid jobs.
TB: Your book seems to do what a lot of television and film are doing with darkness. It’s deadly serious stuff, but we’re amused by it, and we’re not laughing out of surrender, but laughing as a way to cope. You write extensively about the planned loneliness of dating apps, the upsidedown of twenty-four-hour gyms, the paradoxes of insomnia and how tech always claims to be able to solve the very problems it creates. Is it fair to say you find darkness amusing?
RK: I think I might only find darkness amusing.
Also, I think that grudging acceptance is the predominant mood of the times.
A friend of mine is weirdly fixated, in this hilarious way, on a single Trump tweet from years ago: “The Coca Cola company is not happy with me—that’s okay, I’ll still keep drinking that garbage.”
I think a lot of people can relate. Isn’t everyone stuck in a permanent state of begrudgery at modernity? Don’t we all, on some level deep within us, idolise and believe in the Unabomber? (Well no, maybe not, I am not condoning murder. But still.). I do think that’s the other side of an age of convenience, and that might only stand to increase as the role of technology in our lives intensifies, culminating, I can only hope, in a real-life equivalent to that scene in Ubik where the door threatens to sue the protagonist.
TB: I love how this book is not at all a self-help book, or a how-to, or an alarmist apocalypse warning. Also, incredibly, it is not a plea for people to put down their phones. It helped me soberly confront my own relationship to the internet, yet if it were any of those other kinds of books I mentioned, I think I would have rejected it or moved quickly through it with some level of an eye roll. For me, your book was a self-help book, but without being written like one. It reminded me of how helpful Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing was for me even though it, too, was not a how-to or self-help book. Were there certain tropes you wanted to avoid when you started thinking of putting The Disconnect together?
RK: I loved Odell’s book—it helped me so much during the pandemic, I think for similar reasons because it didn’t patronise or claim to be able to ‘fix’ us as readers, it just gave me so much fuel for thinking and kind of grounded me in the world.
It’s been funny, over the last year in interviews people have had these odd responses to me and my book. One review said that I blamed capitalism too much for all my problems. Another person said that I have quite an apocalyptic view of things, verging on enjoying it in an unwholesome accelerationist-type way. I don’t think that’s true, though I do take quite a dim view of the world.
Something I hate about narratives involving mental health – and mine was always going to be about that, at least a little, if I was going to be honest with readers, and honesty is important – is that they always have to end happily. That’s impossible, the story isn’t over by the time the book ends, and anyway I’m firmly in the camp that mental illness is at least in part the result of living in an unhealthy society (some being more prone to it than others). I’ve always really revered writing which begins in the self but opens out onto the world around the writer, in both nonfiction and fiction, and I believe that kind of writing has a lot more social use. The most satisfying thing since the book has come out is that people have told me they agreed and felt like it gave words to something they’d lived with themselves, but maybe never articulated. That’s why I wrote the thing: to unravel my own subjectivities and find bridges between my experiences and other peoples’.
TB: What’s the platform or technology that causes you the most concern, the biggest influence on your dim view of the world? Are there any technologies (besides writing) that give you hope for the future?
RK: VR for both!
My first and only proper experience of VR was watching a Björk video where she begins curled up on the ground in front of you, but then she grows into this giant looming goddess, the screen is glowing gold, and she’s singing ‘safe from death, safe from death,’ over and over. I can’t remember if I put it in the book, but VR inspires me so much. It will allow us to escape. There’s a book that’s like a horrible lesson in all this that I love: The Futurological Congress, by [Stanislaw] Lem. We could live in an absolute delusion as the world crumbles around us.
VR always makes me think of my uncle, who lived in a hospital for the final years of his life. His funeral was only yesterday and he’s been on my mind a lot lately. I think by the time I’m ever in a situation like his, my whole generation really, we’ll likely be able to escape into VR and live like in Black Mirror.
But at the same time, let’s look at the reality of VR. Facebook is closing in on it before it’s even widely available. I interviewed someone a few months back working in the field who made the point that Oculus headsets are sold at a loss of around $700. They’re hoping to earn that back, quickly, in data. And they will! It’s going to be a massive source of deeply personal, individual, revealing data. We’re going to have a trade-off and I suspect it could be even bigger than with, say, WhatsApp, which to me is part of everyday life now, no one even thinks about using it.
Also obviously everything that’s distorted how we think, as a result of the internet, stands to intensify thanks to VR. I’ve been told people hope it will correct some of the social problems on the internet by reintroducing a sense of presence – like, it’s harder to troll or slander or insult someone when they’re ‘standing’ right in front of you. I suppose we’ll find out soon.
ROISIN KIBERD has written essays and features for The Stinging Fly, The Dublin Review, The White Review, The New York Times, and The Guardian, among other places. Her first book, The Disconnect: A Personal Journey Through the Internet, is published by Serpent’s Tail. Find her on Twitter @roisinkiberd.
TYLER BARTON is the author of the story collections Eternal Night at the Nature Museum (Sarabande Books, 2021) and The Quiet Part Loud (Split Lip Press, 2019). He lives year-round in the Adirondack Park, where he manages communications for the Adirondack Center for Writing and teaches writing workshops to the incarcerated elderly. Find him on Twitter @goftyler.