There are a number of imprints which turn up regularly on the Ramblings, and NYRB is one of those; as a rule, I tend to read their Classics range, although their poetry is sneaking in now and again; and today I want to share some thoughts about a recent release from their main imprint. The book is “Fragments of an Infinite Memory” by Maël Renouard – and the subtitle of “My Life with the Internet” gives some idea of what it’s about.

Renouard is a novelist, essayist and translator who’s taught philosophy at the Sorbonne; and as he reveals, is old enough to remember the time before the Internet, but young enough to have embraced it and absorbed it into his life. Here he gathers together a wonderful and thought-provoking series of writings which range far and wide whilst exploring the effect the Internet has had on human beings – and it really is a fascinating read.

Today, images come one after another, devour each other, replace each other pitilessly, as if to outmatch the boundlessness of our desire.

“Fragments…” is split into eleven numbered sections, which I would hesitate to designate as chapters, or even essays, as each branches off in many different directions. There are memoirs of the early days of the Internet; quotes from friends reflecting on their feelings about it; spoof historical sections referencing the ‘Book of Face’; projections of how we might adapt to technology in the future; and so much more. Because of the author’s memories of pre-technology times, he’s able to take a long view on how humans have been changed by their increasing interactions with the digital, and I found some fascinating resonances in these sections. Renouard’s musings on memory chimed in very much with my reading of “In Memory of Memory” by Maria Stepanova, with both authors exploring how humanity’s constant recording of the present is turning into a giant respository of information which will be accessible to all in the future.

Who hasn’t gone on the Internet looking for past loves and friends not seen for years? Time lost in search of lost time.

Renouard also explores the more potentially problematic nature of the Internet; how it’s hard to remain invisible nowadays, how we can track old friends and colleagues; and how we now seem to feel the need to share so much of ourselves online. Conversely, it’s also possible to create an online presence of someone who doesn’t actually exist… There is a whole section on photography which again ties in with Stepanova’s discussion of this, and Renouard is aware of how we lose the immediacy of the moment we’re in by constantly recording it on our phones. Whether lamenting the loss of non-digital processes, considering the possibilities of AI or discussing the concepts of immortality, Renouard is never less than fascinating.

In the Internet there is a fountain of youth into which at first you drunkenly plunge your face, and then in the dawn light you see your reflection, battered by the years.

Although the author initially seems to treat the internet as some kind of stand-alone external global memory, exploration reveals that is not the case. Mr. Kaggsy, who has a long memory, is fond of pointing out that the Internet is only a load of massive servers; despite Renouard’s occasional assertions that you can find anything you want on it, it’s not a mass repository of all knowledge and all history because it is a human creation and only reflects what is uploaded to those servers. Mr. K and I will often recall a song or a TV programme from the past, and find no mention of it online; the Internet is as fragmentary as our human, grasshopper minds, full of scraps of often random or pointless knowledge retained heaven knows why, but certainly by no means complete…

In Stalin’s time, you got rid of a person by erasing every last trace of him. Today this task is accomplished by exhibiting every last inch of him to public view.

“Fragments…”, here translated by Peter Behrman de Sinéty, was originally published in 2015 in French and so of course the Internet Renouard discusses has obviously changed markedly in those years; technology certainly never stands still nowadays. This is not a work that I feel intends to draw one overall conclusion; however, its series of observations, musing and explorations delves quite deeply, setting you off on all manner of trains of thought, and you can see by the number of places I marked how fascinated I was by the book! 😀

Map of the Internet – Matt Britt, CC BY 2.5 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons

The Internet and how it affects us is a huge topic, and Renouard’s exploration of the subject is multi-faceted and really would repay re-reading; it’s a book I’d like to return to and spend time dipping back into. It can’t be disputed that we humans have been irrevocably changed by the advent of the online experience, and a quick glance at any group of people in the streets glued to their phones only serves to reinforce this. What reading a book like this encourages you to do is at least *think* about how you’re interacting with the Internet and maybe take back a little more control. We live in a digital age, and that isn’t going to change; but maybe at least we can try and keep control in our hands, and not with the machines!

Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks! 😀