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.
The repurposing of his New Yorker work at times gives the book a kludgy feel. But the book goes beyond the individual magazine pieces by providing valuable connective tissue that Marantz uses to weave these stories together with history and context. The effect is to inspire a larger contemplation of what the collapse of civil discourse means about our society ... Marantz is above all a storyteller, so his narratives are crucial. He has a keen eye for detail and a deft ability to let readers discover and then ponder the movement’s ironies — and there are many — without hitting them over the head ... The author’s liberal use of asterisks to indicate asides at the bottom of pages can seem distracting at first. But they ultimately form a kind of meta-metaphor: a book about the Internet lets the reader decide whether to navigate away from the text, as in a hyperlink, to get to an ancillary point or return to it later ... Marantz chronicles the outrageous behavior but then, mercifully, elevates the conversation ... Our words, after all, do matter, and Marantz makes a compelling argument that they matter more than we think.