Kristy Geslain: We are fresh from the performance of Golem as part of Lincoln Center Festival 2016. So let’s just hear your first impressions right off the bat. What did you think of the show?
Jarett Kobek: I thought it was really excellently done and the staging is astonishing. Yeah, I mean, I'm still trying to absorb what I just saw, but I really thought it was wonderfully done.
KG: Can you set the scene? Tell us a little bit about the show and the premise.
JK: It's an adaptation of the Golem myth into what is clearly an allegory for the moment in which we live, the hyper-saturated smart phone app environment and its interaction with people’s psyches and people’s desires and how that manifests in late period capitalism. In terms of the show—lots of things get called multimedia and usually they’re not, it’s usually just someone with something small projected next to them. I think you could say that this was purely multimedia and truly multimedia to the point where I’m not even sure what I just saw.
KG: This story, Golem, about the monsters that have taken over in this new digital world—you know a little something about that. You wrote a book called I Hate the Internet.
JK: It is a book about—well, first I should say that the “I” in the title, the titular “I” isn’t necessarily me. It was intended to be more like the sneer of a 15-year-old on Twitter. It is a book that is set in San Francisco in 2013 and is about that particular moment, which I think, in the intervening years from 2013 has only increased and expanded where you could be in the city and see the city being destroyed almost block by block by block while there was a rhetoric layered on top of what was happening of “we’re achieving greatness, we’re achieving freedom.” I happened to be in San Francisco at the time, I was living there for a few years and it was a truly nerve-racking experience to have happen. So when I left the city I just felt so overwhelmed with the falsity of that narrative. And it came out in a book that could charitably be described as bile and is a really foul-mouthed attack on the people who run Silicon Valley, the people who benefit monetarily from Silicon Valley and all of the underlying ideologies that animate what these people think they’re doing versus what they actually are doing.
One of the frustrations which fed into I Hate the Internet was this sense that people kept publishing books and kept publishing novels that sort of tried to deal with it—the Internet—but the techniques that they were using were so old and had such a small relationship to what they were trying to describe that—yeah, to write about it, to interact with it, to try to comment on it is a very hard thing to do. My solution was to be really obscene and to really embrace my inner jerk and I think it seems to have worked out. But I think when you’re trying to interact with whatever information technology is or whatever the culture is around it, it’s mutating so quickly that it’s really quite difficult to contain in any way that is recognizable.
"Technology, when it is created, embeds both the spoken and unspoken ideologies of its creators. "
KG: Let’s talk about the inner jerk. I love that idea as it relates to the Internet because so many people are now given license to behave so poorly and to abuse people left and right on the Internet. Obviously I’m assuming that was in your mind when you were writing it, too?
JK: If there is any original thought I’ve had in my life, it’s this idea I had just prior to doing the book, which is that technology, when it is created, embeds both the spoken and unspoken ideologies of its creators. When I was much younger, I was on the Internet in the beginning, and I was horrible. I mean, I was a terrible person. But when that was happening, and this is going back to the early ‘90s, the mid ‘90s, there was a certain self-containedness to it where the people who were fighting with each other where the people who were abusing each other were all early adopters so there was sort of a shared mentality and it was like, "Well, we’re all into technology, we’re all sort of nerdy." There was a moment around 2000 or 2001 where that started to shift really dramatically and then as it gained speed, as the decade went on, suddenly everyone had to live like nerds were living in 1994. And I’m one of those people, I can assure you it’s an appalling way to live. But that is where we are as a society and I think it’s because the technologies inherently define the behavior and they’re built to respond to behaviors that maybe the creators didn’t know they were building them to respond to.
KG: It’s interesting and notable that you chose a woman to be a lead character in your book. Can you talk a little bit about that?
JK: I do think that it’s just an indisputable truth that women take so much more shit on the Internet than men. You see it every single day and it’s for things that are just nonsense. There’s always the example of someone who’s doing something truly horrible and then everyone is appalled and offended by it, but there’s also the people who misspell someone’s name and then become the scourge of the poetry community for two weeks and that would never happen to a man. That would never happen to a man. I think part of it goes back to the earlier idea of ideology, I think because the Internet was built effectively for 15-year-old boys—that’s the DNA that’s just at its core, that’s the thing that runs it. And when you’re 15, what’s your interaction with women like? Not great. And so it seemed like that was the appropriate place to start and then going forward in the text, it was obviously the way to go. But I mean, it’s also just really hard to be alive in 2016 and to be saturated with media and the media is primarily about how terrible the world is and 99.9% of that horror that is the world is perpetuated by men. You know, I mean, there’s not a lot of women going on spree killings. There’s not a lot of women beheading people in the Middle East. And there’s really something about this moment because media is omnipresent just drives it home so hard in a way that it didn’t even ten years ago. There’s just this inherent unfairness at the heart of the world. How you deal with that, I don’t know, but you can describe it in a book.
KG: You were actively involved in the tech world for a while.
JK: Yes, I was on the satellite of the satellite of the tech world. I came out of this nerdy computer milieu and if you were part of that world at the end of the ‘90s and then throughout the 2000s if you needed to have a job, you could have that job, you could get a job doing something with computers and it would pay somewhere between reasonably well to outrageously well. I made the truly appalling life decision that it was a better idea to write than work in tech.
"No one believed the lies more than me. I really believed in the nerd prosperity gospel of information being power and that all of this would somehow enrich and better humanity and make humanity better. "
KG: Going from someone who was actively working in this industry to a very vocal critic of it, was it sort of a slow burn watching what was happening in San Francisco day after day or was there an "ah-ha" moment?
JK: No one believed the lies more than me. I really believed in the nerd prosperity gospel of information being power and that all of this would somehow enrich and better humanity and make humanity better. It's really hard to have to go through the last, I don't know, 15 years or 14 years, and feel like that's true at all.
KG: Where did the nerd prosperity gospel go wrong?
JK: I think there's a lot of factors in it. I don't think that there's anyone who was involved with constructing the Internet who thought to themselves, "Well, we're going to do something horrible. Let's create a social disaster and see what happens." I think part of it is money but a very funny kind of money where because capital has become so speculative and San Francisco and Silicon Valley is sort of an epicenter of that speculation you do have companies that never have to make money, that never really seem to do anything, and can survive for a very long time.
KG: Going back to Golem. If there were another act to the play, how does it end? What's the next chapter?
JK: I don’t think that you end up with a population that’s just so completely overwhelmed that they’re silent and that they’re cloaked in their digital apathy or however you would describe it. I think human nature has a way of reasserting itself time and time, and time and time again. I would imagine where it ends is where everything ends, where everything goes, which is people getting new tools and finding a way to be okay to each other with them and then also how to be truly horrible to each other with them. So my guess would be, if I were writing it, it would just be very similar to the terrible lives we lead now but with enhanced cruelty. [laughs]
KG: So other than becoming a shut-in, what’s the way forward? How do we deal with this and keep our sanity and try to make the world a more livable, decent place?
JK: I’m of two minds. On one hand I really do believe that some kind of profound shift has happened and that some kind of really psychic shock has been introduced to, at the very least, Western society. On the other hand, I wonder if we just live in a moment where because this is what’s happening to us, that’s what seems like what’s happening to us, which is a confusing way to put it. I wonder if we aren’t hardwired to always be responding to the shock of the new and to be stunned by every new development. But the species is still here. People continue to go on and people seem—give or take—to be getting a little bit better over time.
You can’t disconnect from it without more or less having to become a hermit which you can either do by being really poor or really rich, and if you’re in the middle you don’t have that option. I tend to think people will just muddle through. I think that’s the only thing you can do, try to be the least terrible as possible and just try to spend time with friends—you know, your actual friends as opposed to whatever this strange image of digital friendship is where people you went to elementary school with are horrifying you with their political opinions.
KG: Final closing thoughts on Golem?
JK: I think the thing about the play, which I really enjoyed, and which—not to bring it back to my own work, but it is true, I Hate the Internet—is that they’re both works that are not especially concerned with subtlety in the argument that they’re making. I think when you encounter a lot of critique of the digital world, it’s often shaded and there’s often sort of a going back and forth: "Well, this is good and that’s bad." I think there’s a real virtue in a work, like Golem is, that is just full-throated and unambiguous in its criticism of how we live now. And it’s also an astonishing visual spectacle. It is really quite incredible. I think that’s how I’d recommend it: If you want to hear an argument, if you want to see an argument, there it is, it’s waiting.