Can literature tell the internet?

It is easier to imagine the future than the present. However effective it may be to repeat this phrase in mind, it is not a sapiential maxim, but only a trivial consideration, even a foregone conclusion. Imagining the future is a human activity that is easier to define than one aimed at producing images of the present. We all know what “fantasizing” means and writers and artists have always practised doing it. But then it is also true that there are people who imagine the future so well that they foresee it. The most striking example of literary predictions we have in the last thirty years is William Gibson.

In 1986 an anthology entitled Burning Chrome was published in the United States (it appeared for the first time in Italy in a “special Urania” of 1989, entitled ” The night we burned Chrome” ). It was a collection of the first stories of the Canadian writer published in science fiction magazines, released when his novels began to amaze the world ( Neuromancer is 1984, Count Zero of that same year, 1986, the so-called “Trilogy of the sprawl ”would end in 1988 with Mona Lisa Overdrive). The oldest anthology story, “Fragments of a Holographic Rose”, dates back to 1977. For those who had never read it, inside these stories, there is everything that is now stirring around us: the network, the data as an instrument of access to power, hackers, multinationals as political forces, the relationship of perennial connection between man and machine, the Japanese nicknames.
Without going into discourses on form (lyricism, fragmentation of the plots), or an analysis on the perfectly successful mixture of hard-boiled and sci-fi, or in an evaluation of how in general cyberpunk as a literary movement has been forgotten and therefore underestimated, it is impressive to browse through those pages today because it seems that they describe with minimal approximation the time achieved thirty years later: our present. Just open the book at random to confirm it. For example, in the story that gives the anthology its title, my attention fell on this paragraph: “Bobby was a cowboy. Bobby was a burglar, a thief who scoured humanity’s electronic nervous system, raided data and credits in the crowded matrix.

The question that came to my mind when reading is: who is dealing today with telling those “Bobbies” who are no longer the result of an imaginative intuition, but fantasies realized, operating in the world in which we live? In truth, it is a question that I have been asking myself in different forms for some time. In an age in which the space of literature has been reduced by the digital tsunami, the literary responses (more or less convincing) have been an escape from the contemporary: the return of nature as a trending narrative topic; the idealization of literature as an authentic value with respect to the “falsity” of social media; the revenge of microscopic literature – that of autobiography, of personal experience – compared to the macroscopic one, which attempts instead to stage social and political dynamics.
The Scottish Andrew O’Hagan, the author of The Secret Life, just released for Adelphi, is the rare example of someone who has posted this problem by finding his own way. In a piece that we publish in Studio n. 33, entitled “The Fiction Machine”, O’Hagan tells with great awareness the difficult relationship between literature and digital age, writing and social networks. “Who would have imagined,” he writes, “reading William Gibson in the 1980s or the old paperbacks of Frank Herbert, to find himself in front of very common realists, no less faithful than Charles Dickens to the essential changes in life?” And further on he continues: “Writers and readers have never enjoyed a more suitable moment to explore the” truth “. A truth that makes us “perceive fiction and non-fiction as indivisible”.

The piece is almost a preparatory essay for his book, which will be the subject of a meeting between the author and Daniele Reilly on Saturday 25 November at Studio in Triennale. In the secret life, “Bobby”, that data cowboy that “scoured the electronic nervous system of humanity” in Gibson’s story, returns from science fiction to become the object of what could be called a reportage. The volume, in fact, is made up of three stories, and two of these have to do with the “cowboys of the matrix”, to put it in the words of Gibson, namely Julian Assange and Satoshi Nakamoto, the mysterious entity that lies behind the invention of bitcoin. The starting point for these two stories is both a badly ended commission, that is the one received from O’Hagan to tell Assange’s life and the story of Satoshi Nakamoto (or of those behind him) in two different books. We then enter the rooms under the cover of the Internet Olympus. In the beautiful preface that Bruce Sterling, the other father of cyberpunk with Gibson,The night we burned Chrome , we read: “Gibson loves the most unusual and imaginative meanders of official literature: Le Carrè, Robert Stone, Pynchon, William Burroughs, Jayne Anne Phillips. And he is a lover of what Ballard acutely called “invisible literature”: that incessant flow of scientific reports, government documents, specialized advertising, which shapes our culture without our realizing it “.
They are references that could be projected quite faithfully on La Vita Segreta, whose themes have the particularity of being both “stringent” and enigmatic invisibility: the obsession for transparency, the aestheticization of data, the mystification of the ideals of freedom, the gigantic question of privacy … Then, even below, there is the millenary human question with its Shakespearean archetypes: the search for fame, power, wealth, manipulation, political conspiracy. The form, although being that of a non-fiction book, borders at times with noir or spy-story, as seen for example in the beginning of the third story “L’affaire Satoshi”: “At 13.30 on Wednesday 9 December 2015 ten men broke into a house in Gordon, a suburb on the north coast of Sydney. Some of the federal agents wore uniforms with the words “Computer forensics”; one had a search warrant issued under the Australian Crimes Act of 1914. They were looking for a man named Craig Steven Wright, who lived with his wife Ramona at 43 St. Johns Avenue. The mandate was issued at the request of the Australian Taxation Office. Wright, the computer scientist and businessman, was the head of a corporate group operating in the cryptocurrency and cyber security branch. Wright and his wife were not at home, but the agents forced entry. ”

But The secret life is not just an exciting book, it is also a reading that makes us feel relieved as if someone had finally completed a job that was waiting to be done: to exploit the enormous literary potential of the network, and prove that literature can and must deal with these stories, both true and false at the same time, which pass before our eyes every day. They are stories worthy of the best literature even if apparently they do not smell of poetry.