The Deepest of Webs
Why would Thomas Pynchon waste his time on writing a novel about the world of dotcom entrepreneurs, hackers, and venture capitalists? Pynchon has always preyed for the eerie, the uncanny, and the conspiratorial but, once on the digital terrain, he’s up against a motley crew of real-world characters who have long turned their own weirdness into a marketable asset. And what an asset it is: Just look at all the odd items – from mugs to tote bags – on sale at the online store run by WikiLeaks!
Could Pynchon outdo someone as odd as Peter Thiel? Here is a self-made billionaire who a) hopes that one day we would live on permanent dwellings, out at sea, away from any state jurisdiction b) bankrolls a foundation that promotes the ideas of the French philosopher René Girard c) pays talented students to quit college while teaching at Stanford Law School d) chairs the board of Palantir, a company deeply embedded with the military-industrial complex, which claims to support tools „for users who require ... carefully crafted safeguards that protect privacy and civil liberties“ through its philanthropic division? Or think of John Perry Barlow, who wrote the „Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace“ in the mid-1990s. This is a man, who, in the 1970s, worked on Dick Cheney’s first run for Congress while writing lyrics for The Grateful Dead. Or consider Elon Musk’s recent plan – the loopy project known as HyperLoop – of connecting San Francisco to Los Angeles. These people don’t need a novelist – they need a documentary film-maker and, perhaps, a psychoanalyst or two.
Furby gets hacked
Somehow, Pynchon still manages to do these guys one better. „Bleeding Edge“ is Pynchon at his best: paranoid, terrifyingly erudite, completely at home in the cultural milieu of his characters – and as prescient as a novelist could be. Anyone feeling traumatized by the ongoing Snowden affair would be well-advised to seek catharsis in this novel. „Catharsis,“ for Pynchon, is achieved with an overdose of nihilism, peppered with cynicism and excellent jokes. Should we laugh or cry when one of Pynchon’s characters blurts out that the unofficial motto of the National Security Agency is „no keystroke left behind“? And, let’s face it, „Louche and De Toilet“ does sound like a much better name for „Deloitte and Touche“ (Pynchon is a master of such corporate wordplay: „Gravity’s Rainbow,“ his 1973 masterpiece, featured a law firm called Salitieri, Poore, Nash, De Brutus, and Short.)
Set in New York – the novel kicks off a few months after the dotcom bust of 2001 but before 9/11 and ends a few months after the tragedy – „Bleeding Edge“ brims with references to real-world characters. That notorious financial innovator Bernie Madoff appears right next to Detsl, the Russian hip-hop star, while innocent technologies like the Furby – yes, the toy – get hacked, modified with a voice-recognition chip, and used for spying.
He makes the tech world look poetic
The novel follows one Maxine Tarnow, a snarky fraud investigator, as she navigates the murky and extremely status-conscious world of New York. Tarnow takes on a mysterious case or two that might or might not be connected to 9/11, has an affair with that rarest of creatures – an NSA employee who might have a heart – and never misses a chance to bemoan the revolting transformation of New York into a giant shopping mall. Eventually, she gets on the trail of one Gabriel Ice – a Peter Thiel-like „boy billionaire“ who runs hashslingrz, a shady technology company with deep connections to the military-industrial complex (Ice looks the part – „he makes Bill Gates look charismatic,“ remarks Maxine). Ice is the kind of „big idea“ entrepreneur that keep the TED empire alive; he wants to cut his expenses by „going north“ and „setting up server farms where heat dissipation won’t be a problem.“ Befitting his name, Ice wants to erect data centers – housed in domes, Buckminster Fuller style – in the Arctic tundra. „The future,“ we are told, „is out there on the permafrost.“
As with many other Pynchon novels, the plot is somewhat secondary to so many other things that are going on. By all means, it’s engrossing enough to keep you reading, but it’s Pynchon’s idiosyncratic take on the world of digital start-ups and entrepreneurs, their twisted language, and their inevitably lucrative utopianism that makes „Bleeding Edge“ such a brilliant and a necessary book. For one, Pynchon makes the tech world look poetic. Here people don’t just stare at each other – the characters „scan“ each other for „spiritual malware“; a geek bar is described as „the murky bummersphere.“
Why it would still be read twenty years from now
Pynchon’s fascination with the many ambiguities of science, media and technology has never been a secret; it’s this techno-fetish that has won him the love and attention of media theorists like Friedrich Kittler. And while Kittler and his acolytes were busy researching Pynchon, it seems that the latter was busy researching them and their own world. Thus, „Bleeding Edge“ sparkles with references to „hacker ethic,“ the Defcon conference „where geeks of all persuasions“ and „on all sides of the law“ meet „cops at various levels who think they’re working undercover“ and „the css vs tables debate“ (an arcane but high-pitched debate in Web design). Perhaps, in a farewell node to the late Kittler who once famously proclaimed that „there is no software“, there is even a joke about „unreadable legacy software.“
The reason why „Bleeding Edge“ would still be read twenty years from now, when Pynchon’s obscure jokes will require a dedicated app to decipher, has little to do with its plot, its linguistic charm, or its discussion of individual technologies. „Bleeding Edge“ also offers us a deeply poetic meditation on the digital modernity – an eccentric prolegomenon to a future that never was but that could have been. (An alternative title might as well be „A Portrait of the Internet as a Young Hipster.“) The Internet that we know is here but it plays a marginal role next to the „Deep Web“ – its weirder, unrulier, poorly understood sibling.
The almost-forgotten narrative of cyberflanerie
„The Deep Web“ a technical term in digital circles – the expression refers to sites that search engines like Google can’t access but for Pynchon it acquires another, figurative meaning. While for most techies, the opposite of „the Deep Web“ is „the surface web“ – the stuff that is easily accessible for indexing by search engines – for Pynchon, the opposite of the „Deep Web“ is „the shallows“ (a term he borrows from Nicholas Carr but uses it very differently). Thus, there’s a clear aesthetic dimension to his use of the „Deep Web“; it’s no longer just a bunch of web pages that have not yet been indexed by a crawler. It’s a space of otherness and deviance – it’s what Michel Foucault once described as „heteroutopia.“
For Pynchon, „the Deep Web,“ in its early years at least, is what Baudelairean Paris was for Walter Benjamin: a nostalgic celebration of what once was, set against the painful realization of what it has become and the still lingering (but rapidly fading away) utopian vision of what it might still be. It’s an idea that helps Pynchon retrieve the almost-forgotten narrative of cyberflanerie that briefly registered in digital discourse in the late 1990s, only to disappear into the world of apps, the semantic Web and other perverse attempts – to quote from Google’s mission statement – to „organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.“ Alas, this aesthetic dimension of the „digital debate“ quickly gave way to the legalistic and commercial one.
Invaded with outsiders and drowned in commercialism
Both Benjamin and Baudelaire set their analysis of the many transformations afflicting Paris at a historical juncture marked by the onset of modernity and an intensification of modern capitalism. Initially, their flaneur was in awe of both, eagerly exploring the little shops in the arcades, strolling through city streets bustling with economic activities, and writing a daily feuilleton on the side. Eventually, however, the flaneur was crushed by the heavy commercial burden, as the arcades gave way to department stores, the cars made the streets unsafe for sauteing, and the feuilleton became just a way to earn one’s living and stenograph the trends that would appeal to advertisers.
There’s something similar happening with the „Deep Web“ and the many „cyberflaneurs“ that it spawned. At the outset, the „Deep Web“ is presented as a space that is not yet colonized by money. No one does search engine optimization, blogs for cash or chases eyeballs with provocative headlines. Even advertising is „in its infancy.“ Things turn sour after 9/11. Thus, due to some mysterious code malfunction – someone installs a backdoor into „DeepArcher“ – the most exciting project of the „Deep Web“ which sounds very much like the virtual world of Second Life. As a result, it becomes invaded with outsiders and drowns in commercialism. Thus, during one of her post 9/11 visits, Maxine „can’t help noticing ... how different the place is ... Yuppified duty-free shops, some for offshore brands she doesn’t recognize even the font they’re written in. Advertising everywhere. On walls, on the clothing and skins of crowd extras, as pop-ups out of the Invisible and into your face.“
Why so many in the digital culture feel betrayed
Not all is lost yet – „lurking around the entrance to a Starbucks“ is „a pair of cyberflaneurs“ – but, rest assured, that the fate of these „cyberflaneurs“ won’t be any better than those celebrated by Benjamin. As one character puts it, „you like to think it goes on forever, but the colonizers are coming... There’s already a half dozen well-funded projects for designing software to crawl the Deep Web...“ Summer will end all too soon, one they get down here, everything’ll be suburbanized faster than you can say ,late capitalism’ (Pynchon’s narrative of how the interests of capital and national security are ruining the weird and wild heterotoipa of the Deep Web runs parallel to a similar narrative of cultural decline – that of New York that is being desanitized with money while Giuiliani’s mayorship stands for everything corrupt and security obsessed.) The demise of the „Deep Web“ explains why so many in the digital culture feel betrayed – a feeling well-known to many in 2013.
Eric, a radical hacker who helps Maxine with some hacking errands, puts it best: „every day more lusers than users, keyboards and screens turning into nothin but portals to Web sites for what the Management wants everybody addicted to, shopping, gaming jerking off, streaming endless garbage... Meantime hashlingrz and them are all screaming louder and louder about ,Internet freedom,’ while they go on handling more and more of it over to the bad guys... They get us, all right we’re all lonely, needy, disrespected, desperate to believe in any sorry imitation of belonging they want to sell us... We’re being played... and the game is fixed, and it won’t end till the Internet – the real one, the dream, the promise – is destroyed.“
What does it say about the world we live in?
It’s hardly surprising, then, that Pynchon – famous for shunning publicity and not allowing himself to be photographed – makes a decisive case for anonymity and invisibility – to hell with both Google and NSA! – as a key enabling factor of this alternative, pleasantly weird and heterotopic postmodernity – a postmodernity that has unravelled under the pressure of informational capitalism and the global war on terror. It’s no treatise about the future, so all we can do is, well, get cynical and snarky. Pynchon himself feels uneasy with any moralizing and theorizing; his constant jibes at „late capitalism“ – a term that appears many times throughout the book – are as much a critique of „late capitalism“ as they are of the many theories and academic buzzwords about this most peculiar historical condition (the best academic joke – which wouldn’t sound as a joke at most academic conferences – involves Maxine’s colleague Heidi who, in addition to being „Margaret Mead“ on Halloween, has also been working on „an article for the Journal of Memespace Cartography she’s calling Heteronormative Rising Star, Homobophobic Dark companion, which argues that irony, assumed to be a key element of urban gay humor and popular through the nineties, has now become another collateral casualty of 11 September because somehow it did not keep the tragedy from happening.“)
What does it say about the world we live in that actual events of the last few months make this unabashedly paranoid novel look not imaginative enough? Who today would be impressed by Pynchon’s otherwise excellent aside about „a piece of software called Promise, originally designed for federal prosecutors, to share data among the district courts,“ which has a secret backdoor that allows Mossad – with the help of the Russian mob – to siphon any secrets from the US computers it might be installed on? Late capitalism – a condition when a Thomas Pynchon joke might be the front page story of tomorrow’s „Guardian“ or the „Washington Post“ – is a strange thing, indeed.
Thomas Pynchon: „Bleeding Edge“. A novel. The Penguin Press HC, New York 2013. 496 p., HC, 28,95 $.