About 6 years ago - back, one might say in Internet terms, in the late-Jurassic stage - Mark Edmundson, a Professor of English at a well known American university, wrote a rather beautiful essay that explored the effects ubiquitous online access might be having on his students. Quoting Emily Dickinson - "I dwell in possibility, a fairer house than prose," - he concluded that this is what the 'internet-linked laptop' does (for, Lo, in days of old there was no smartphone): it is a multiplier of the possible.
This multiplicity of possibilities requires a modern version of a rather more ancient magic: the splitting of the self to transcend the grim mundanity of having to 'be' in a particular place at any one time. Interrogating his students during a lecture Edmundson found that, rather than remaining in the lecture theatre engaging in Dickinson or Hamlet, they divided their presence into numerous fractions, part of them attending to emails, another part to messenger, yet another to a YouTube clip or to grazing websites looking at requirements for other courses:
'It wouldn't take the Dalai Lama or Thoreau to assure them that anyone who is in seven places at once is not anywhere in particular -- not present, not here now. Be everywhere now -- that's what the current technology invites, and that's what my students aspire to do.'
Why is this? Surely it would not only be possible but more wise to parcel each of these activities and give proper time to each: engaging properly in the lecture, then responding thoughtfully to messages, then later on gathering information that was of interest? No. Not because the lecture is boring, nor because these other things are particularly pressing. Edmundson's students opted for multiple presence because it was extraordinarily enticing, a mouth-watering prospect:
'The moment of maximum Internet pleasure was not the moment of closure, where you sealed the deal; it was the moment when the choices had been multiplied to the highest sum. It was the moment of maximum promise, when you touched the lip of the possible.'
Six years on, with the problem of the laptop now magnified in the pocket-sized smartphone, this delicious promise of digital possibility is beginning to smell a little fetid, and it is precisely to this noxious issue that Nikesh Shukla turns to in his new novel Meatspace, available early July. 'Meatspace' is what those at home in cyberspace call the 'real world,' and the word is instructive. Meatspace is visceral and bloody. When trouble strikes - as it does in rather hilarious form - it's far easier to log off than physically walk away.
The plot centres around Kitab Balasubramanyam, a single, failing London novelist, who avoids the pressing problem of his second book and his lack of fulfilling relationships by focusing on cranking up buzz via social networks. Trouble comes to him on a flight from India by way of his namesake, who tracks him down to a book reading and wants to be friends. For London Kitab, 'friendship' means little more than the click of button, a welcoming of another person into his online audience - and when 'Kitab 2' pushes for actual, physical interaction, the trauma of dealing with 'Meatspace' incites London Kitab to abandon him to the city, penniless and friendless.
We love interactions, notifications of interest - but once someone presents themselves physically in front of us, the possibilities we are able to dwell in shrink and fear of being tied down, of missing something better, rises. Kitab symbolically dumps this physical side of himself, the side that demands commitment and needs looking after.
But the material world isn't so easily dismissed. Desperate for connection, having disrupted his 'real' life and gotten nowhere, Kitab 2 strikes at the true heart of London Kitab by hacking his digital world in the most graphic way. Only now, only when he is humiliated in front of the anonymous masses online, does Kitab begin to feel anything at all and the beauty of Shukla's novel is the gradual way that physical interactions begin from this place of pain and shame to gather importance - especially those with his Dad and a fellow writer.
This journey away from cyberspace back to Meatspace is filthy and troubled, taking in pub toilets, spilled pints, an orgy, broken windows and bust-up faces - perhaps with a nod to to coming dangers of Google taking the flight from Meatspace to a new level, broken glass is an important motif throughout. Despite the pain though, Kitab's destination is never in doubt: he must find a way to live in the real world. He is thus something akin to an Everyman 2.0 - his struggles with loneliness, with grief, with the diminishing returns of social media's ability to confer self-worth, the temptation to escape into the digital world of fantasy from the alienation and oppression of the modern city - all so resonant and familiar to so many as technology's 'multitude of promises' begin to curdle and rot.
It's not that the problem is a new one. In his reflections on technology in the 1950s, Martin Heidegger surmised that all tools manifest through a dual act of revelation and enframing. The revelation is what Edmondson's students were intoxicated by: a new way of envisioning what the world can be about presents itself to us, its heady aroma appearing to offer almost endless possibilities. What Shukla has tapped into - and he is perhaps on the bleeding edge of writers trying to interrogate this new world for us - is the inevitable enframing that Heidegger postulated must follow. As the quip often attributed to him goes: 'to the man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail' - and for the Kitab we meet at the opening of the novel, every moment is enframed and, in the end, weighed down by the possibility that it could offer material for a tweet.
The promise that advertisements for connected technologies make us is almost a divine one: the ability to be omnipresent through virtual interaction. In its raucous plot, what Meatspace ends up telling is a profound truth - that presence is about a great deal more than information. Being truly present is a condition unavailable in binary; genuine human relationships cannot be distilled into code - however sophisticated the device or platform.
The trick, as it turns out for Kitab, is not about 'dwelling in possibility,' but dwelling in the possible, not about multiplication of options to the highest sum, but committing to pressing one's lips to one person.
Edmundson tried to tell his students that to attempt to be everywhere only meant being present nowhere - and thus ending up not at the centre of one a great party, but on the lonely outer fringe of a number of things they couldn't quite commit to.
As we mature into the digital age, what Shukla similarly advises is that we learn again to exercise choices, rather than end up being exercised by the choices our devices appear to make for us. So, read the book. Then follow Kitab and begin to make real choices: when to rest, when to create, when to communicate and when, most of all, to leave our phones on the sideboard and take a walk with someone, just them, fully present.
Meatspace, published by The Friday Project, is available for pre-order now.