From a The New Yorker columnist comes a chronicle of how the optimistic entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley set out to create a free and democratic internet--and how the cynical propagandists of the alt-right exploited that freedom to propel the extreme into the mainstream.
The book weaves together profiles of online extremists that first appeared in The New Yorker with Marantz’s memorable and often surreal reporting experiences ... The narrative is trenchant and intelligent; wry but not glib; humane but never indulgent. Most of Marantz’s subjects are enraged, resentful and — when it comes to the non-internet parts of their lives — profoundly mediocre. Their appetite for attention is so desperate that it’s both repugnant and poignant ... As disturbing as these specific stories are, what filled me with a creeping sense of dread were the parts of Antisocial that incisively describe how a Darwinian information environment has degraded to the point where it now selects for people who can command the most attention with the fewest scruples.
Forget the decline of gatekeepers. Imagine a world bereft of gates and uncrossable lines, with no discernible rules. That’s the Hadean landscape that has been painted expertly, in dark hues, by Andrew Marantz in his book ... Better him than me, I thought as I read about his encounters with the celebrities of this awful antisocial universe ... All this is what Marantz calls 'American Berserk,' and the damage has been severe on a worldwide scale. Marantz is right to worry ... Unfortunately, he has no real answers, except that all things eventually fall apart ... Still, after his long time hanging with the worst of digital humanity, Marantz appears to believe that the arc of history does bend. To get it to point back to justice, he notes, we will have to do the heavy lifting ourselves. Heave ho.
Antisocial is on its face an attempt to document how the cynics and demagogues of the contemporary far-right exploited the myopia and self-absorbed utopianism of tech entrepreneurs to marshal political influence ... But the book is perhaps best read as an accidental memoir—a revealing glimpse into how staff writers at The New Yorker understand what’s happening in the world, rather than an especially insightful account of what’s actually happening in the world. This is not to impugn Marantz’s reporting: he is clearly a talented journalist, one able to win the trust of people he finds distasteful or absurd and to write about them in a way that reveals their anxieties, their contradictions, and their picayune spats and resentments. But the conceptual framework Marantz uses to interpret all of this undermines the good reporting that Antisocial contains ... Despite the fact that these ideas—a national vocabulary and national character—are central to Antisocial, Marantz never really bothers to explain what he means by them ... you can admire Marantz for being honest about his subjectivity and position—indeed, this is what is most interesting (and paradoxical) about the book ... Antisocial's focus on how the national discourse has been distorted or corrupted by reactionary grifters and the digital platforms on which they have thrived comes at the expense of an analysis of the material conditions that gave rise to such platforms or made reactionary politics attractive to a certain subset of Americans in the first place ... For a book ostensibly concerned with change, Antisocial lacks a serious theory of how and why it happens.