When a new thing enters our lives there is a tendency to describe it in its most positive terms. As the internet has become a central part of daily life, we’ve gazed on it with optimism, deciphering its essence from outward effects. Political fundraising has accelerated, search engine algorithms deliver us our daily facts, and our web of friendships have mushroomed. In our grandest moments it seems like a step forward, making us smarter, better informed, and more socially connected. In reality, the great aggregation project has shown us a vision of our world that is increasingly non-sensical. If there is an enduring truth revealed by the internet, it is that the world only seems to make sense when you filter most of it out. Without that filter, our histories, assumptions, and beliefs drift apart in an unordered soup of digital equivalencies.
David Thorne’s The Internet is a Playground: Irreverent Correspondences of an Evil Online Genius is a celebration of the non-sequitur, proof that all things can be simultaneously true when given the cover of the internet. Thorne is the author of the website 27bslash6.com and Playground is an edited assembly of the site’s most noteworthy entries. The pieces are either email exchanges between Thorne and various unsuspecting correspondents (e.g. a bossy colleague, the police department, someone inquiring about his for-sale car) or absurdist essays about someone irritating in Thorne’s daily life.
Thorne’s most famous piece concerns an exchange with Shannon, the receptionist at the branding firm where he works as a designer. She emails him for help making a “Missing” poster for her cat Missy. The subsequent exchange exploits all of the intangible elements of communication that are absent in online interaction. Shannon’s only instructions are to make a poster using an attached picture of Missy. Though the subtext will immediately connect to a model of a “Missing” poster we have all seen in numberless variation, Thorne takes advantage of the lack of more specific instruction to indulge himself.
The resulting image is a dramatic poster styled after a movie one-sheet, the title “Missing Missy” posed in block letters against a white background while Missy’s image has been shrunken and set cryptically into the lower right corner. “It’s a design thing,” Thorne wrote when Shannon replied in confusion. “The cat is lost in the negative space.” The poster goes through several ludicrous iterations before finally arriving at a workable compromise, the formulaic contact information and wording in place while leaving Missy in a red top hat.
Later, Thorne imagines a week-long diary for Thomas, the firm’s creative director. “Have just ordered a new MacBook Pro because my current one is almost six months old and I cannot be expected play Solitaire at these speeds.” In another passage Thorne imagines the romantic needs of an obese, flat-topped man called Barry. “I am available and looking for that special woman. She has to enjoy never leaving the house, cleaning me with a damp cloth, and experiencing the beauty of a baby’s smile,” Thorne writes. “I placed an ad in the singles’ columns that simply read: ‘Woman wanted.’ I felt it would be superficial to include that she must be athletic and named Candy. I will screen them when they call.”
In these sections there is a cruelty to Thorne’s writing, which, taken in context of his playground metaphor, is adolescent. Or rather, his merciless wit comes wrapped in a satirical padding that points to a resigned adult somewhere inside, piloting a ship of adolescent foolishness. Thorne is at his sharpest when addressing angry readers of his site who’ve written to him in outrage over an earlier post. “I have read your website and it is obviously[sic] that your a foggot[sic],” writes one George Lewis in a terse bit of reader feedback.
“Thank you for your email,” Thorne replies. “While I have no idea what a ‘foggot’ is I will assume it is a term of endearment and appreciate your taking time out from calculating launch trajectories or removing temporal lobe tumors to contact me with such. I have attached a signed photo as per your request.” Thorne uses politesse to mock his correspondent’s intelligence while drawing them deeper into the exchange by making assumptions on an issue the correspondent has been vague about. It’s a standard comic setup of two people operating under completely different understandings, but it also exploits how much of our meaning is subtextual. Moreover, we have adapted our behaviors to suit the text-only nature of internet communication and now have automated responses to figurative language.
“Foggot” is, of course, a misspelled slur, but its etymology reveals a murky history that makes its modern sense as a pejorative absurd. The root word meant sticks for kindling. In pre-enlightenment Europe older women who were often given the task of tending to fires on the hearth were colloquially called “faggots” after the sticks they collected. This tradition survived well into the 20th century, most notably in Ulysses when Joyce refers to Mrs. Riordan as “that old faggot.”
The word was also sometimes used to describe soldiers as something disposable, and it was also occasionally applied to women who were burned at the stake, equating their very bodies with kindling–and it’s worth noting this cruelest sense of the word probably isn’t applicable to homosexuals as, even in countries where their sexual orientation was a capital offense, the prescribed method of execution was hanging and not immolation. In the 20th century, it came to be used more broadly to describe menial jobs and, later, a sort of patronage system that existed in British schools wherein an upperclassmen would appropriate an underclassmen to run errands. Yet somehow the word came to be among the most offensive things you might say to a stranger, both a slur against his identity and a derogation of the sexual preferences of a long-abused minority. This is not what the word means, but it’s what we take it to mean. In this way the most irrational of our suspicions can eventually be made true, conjured into existence by the masses.
Thorne, of course, knows exactly what George Lewis intends by the word “foggot.” And yet he builds an elaborate interpretation that is non-sequitur because of the gulf between the word’s meaning and the cruel intention of the person using it. Because so many of the non-verbal indicators of intentionality are unavailable online, this bizarrely aggressive yet incoherent language has become the standard. In another entry, Thorne imagines the experiences of an older man who thinks “the internet is rubbish.” After dismissing Google, eBay, and email as wastes of time, Thorne’s curmudgeon ends with a recounting of his experience on /b/, the random subject area of internet message board 4Chan.
I spent a good hour on this site and still have no idea what it is for. All I could work out is that I am apparently a ‘newfag’ and cannot ‘triforce’ but am unsure as to why I would need to triforce in the first place. I asked some of the people on there for their advice regarding triforcing, but the only answer I seemed to get was ‘nigger.’
Thorne’s responses when confronted with this sort of internet belligerence are no less coherent but they do offer a counterbalance of optimism and goodwill. In every exchange, Thorne matches his correspondent’s worst case assumptions with surprising generosity and openness. He responds to insults with thanks and by sharing personal anecdotes and curiosities. In so doing, Thorne exhausts the internet fury of his counterparts. Whereas they have taken the initiative to contact him for the only purpose of belittlement and scorn, his persistent replies lead to the other person running out of energy and ability to participate in the exchange. Thus the refrain of Thorne’s correspondences involves the aggressor asking his presumed victim “Please don’t email me again,” to which Thorne always answers “OK.”
These types of surreal exchanges are perfectly suited for consumption on the internet, each one requiring only a few minutes of investment to run its comically distracting course. In book form, the pieces have a permanence that amplifies the absurdity, making it feel like evidence of the internet’s effect on the human personality. For centuries our recorded documents have striven to present a serious face which, even in moments of satiric exaggeration, evoked a social or emotional condition of some poignance. Either by self-discipline or editorial rigor, people cleansed their recorded thoughts of the irrationality that must surely have been a part of the human intellect then as it is now. The internet has eradicated self-discipline and editorial rigor and the result is the ordered expressions of generations past have become tiny rhetorical islands flooded by an ocean human absurdity.
The last century has been one obsessed with productivity and social progress. Since the Industrial Revolution there has been strong evidence to argue that life is getting better. Infant mortality rates, life expectancy, relative poverty, and economic efficiency have all grown at an accelerating pace. This points to an irresistible narrative view of history, that record of our existence on earth can be be viewed in terms of linear progress made possible by new technologies.
In its own way, Thorne’s Playground offers an absurd counter to this narrative, showing that for all of the improvements technology can bring in one area there are many other areas that it impoverishes us relative to what came before. A more productive life is not necessarily a more meaningful life. Between the lines of Thorne’s jabs is a recurring interest in space, time travel, the Large Hadron Collider, and the limits of our understanding of the material universe. We live in an era of amazement, when science and cosmology has so tantalizingly opened the door onto a new set of questions about our perceptions of the world and the rules that govern it.
This era is likewise an era of remarkable stupidity, with bureaucracies built to enforce late fees on DVD’s that exceed the value of the original several times over and school boards that conspire with churches to show children religious theater during school hours. The benefits of progress come with the price of being repeatedly confronted with our own essential absurdity. For Thorne, the only appropriate response to these intrusions on whatever order we might imagine ourselves in isolation is encapsulated with his book’s final words, ironically supplied by one of his unbidden correspondents. “Fuck off.”