I have a love-hate relationship with Twitter.
As I write these words, I have deliberately quit out of the app on my laptop so that I don’t have the temptation to toggle over to it, indulging an eight-second distraction between typed lines of this book review. In fact, in recent months I’ve tried to become more conscious of how and where I use Twitter.
It’s just so fun and so damned useful. Twitter mainlines breaking news for addicted journalists. It’s also freakin’ hilarious at times. (I can’t get enough of @RikerGoogling, and I have a penchant for @BodegaBot, too.) But I also know that it’s a RT-laden, hashtag-driven, self-indulgent miasma that I will certainly get sucked into if I’m not careful.
Since January 2018, the compromise that I have struck with myself is that I allow myself access to Twitter (and other social media, too) in very limited doses. I will only use it on my laptop, when TweetDeck makes it far easier to control than simply endless scrolling on my iPhone. OK, sure, I’ve cheated a few times. I’ve installed, deleted, re-installed, and deleted Twitter on my iPhone again within a single day. But, hey, in recent weeks, I’ve had better willpower than when I first began.
I bring all of this up simply to say that I grok what it means to be consumed by “the feed,” a non-corporeal character at the heart of Eliot Peper’s latest gripping novel, Bandwidth.
The new novel is a separate story set in the universe of Peper’s earlier all-too-near-future, Cumulus, which was released in 2016. Like Cumulus, I shudder as I recognize elements of present-day California in Bandwidth’s imagined version.
Peper’s latest explores a new variation on the theme of what it means to be inside someone’s mind or, more specifically, inside someone’s mind as manifest through their feed. Or put another way, how do algorithms manipulate one’s own emotional truth?
Gumshoes leave large carbon footprints
Bandwidth revolves around Dag Calhoun, a lobbyist working on behalf of a telecom giant, Commonwealth.
But Dag Calhoun is more than just a lobbyist—he’s an introspective, dark, solitary, tech-savvy, smooth operator. Said another way, he’s a heady mix of Jason Bourne and Bruce Wayne with a taste for three fingers of tequila and Korean porn stars. It’s his job to make sure that a new global carbon tax doesn’t get implemented, as it would hurt the business interests of his client.
Sure, there are a slew of other confounding people with whom Calhoun interacts: the mysterious, silver-tongued, whip-smart Emily Kim who, like a Bond villain, has an island lair from which she plots her next move.
There’s also Eddie Hsu, a corporate overlord who at, one point, literally makes Calhoun climb Taiwan’s tallest peak in order to add drama to their meeting. Rounding out the cast is Diana, who serves as Calhoun’s infosec confidante. She plays the Q to his Bond and is described as a former intelligence agent who favors sparkly nail polish.
From the jump, Calhoun is taken on an odyssey to track down a mysterious woman who seems to know him better than he knows himself. When he finally does manage to figure out who she is (Emily Kim), he confronts her at the barrel of a gun. She responds with fried chicken and waffles.
“We are, aside from these butter knives, entirely unarmed,” Kim tells Calhoun during their first encounter. “So even if you doubt the integrity of my promises regarding the incomparable quality of the waiting meal—wrong though you might be to do so—you can rest easy in the knowledge that if you do, despite my assurances, decide to in fact shoot us, we will have no convenient means to defend ourselves but sly wit and Grade A maple syrup.”
The characters in Bandwidth are mostly slippery, and there are a lot of them. Some stay with our hero throughout the length of the novel, while others make cameos.
But the two anchored places—one ethereal and one physical—really provide the rich bass notes to the story and are crucial to Bandwidth’s plot itself.
I’ll decline to summarize the story’s beats in the interest of not revealing too much, but like any awesome action film, Bandwidth gracefully ping-pongs from Mexico City to Berkeley to Taipei to Washington, DC, and back again.
Ales to cure you
In Bandwidth, “the feed” is first mentioned as a place early on. I recognized it instantly.
“[Calhoun] summoned his feed and saw exactly what he expected to see,” as the story unfolds on page 11. “The media was piling on to the afternoon’s assassination with as many crazy theories and hot takes as bandwidth would allow. The fire hose of information and opinion gushed with irrelevant detail and heedless grandstanding.”
Peper never explores at length what the interface of the feed is or what it looks like. What I conjured up is a biologically-integrated, audiovisual mix of a personal contact-lens version of Google Glass combined with the fluidity of how images that can be zoomed, pinched, and thrown across the room like on The Expanse. At one point, Emily Kim is even able to force herself, via video chat, into Calhoun’s feed.
By the very end of the novel, the narrator tells us: “The world economy depended on Commonwealth infrastructure. The feed was like air, something so essential you took it entirely for granted. Governments depended on Commonwealth just as citizens depended on governments.”
Pages later, the feed is described as being able to hit Calhoun “like a tsunami. Notifications crashed into his mind like artillery. Messages piled up in ever queue. The digital fire hose pounded him with merciless force, demanding his attention.”
Oh Dag, I’ve definitely been there, brother.
By page 27, we’re treated to my favorite physical place described in the novel: a private members-only club called “Analog.”
As Calhoun’s colleague, Sean, describes it to him, Analog provides a “psychedelic of disconnection”—the only place in the story where (presumably only those can afford it) can sit in relative anonymity, drink, chat, and be free of the feed for a time. (How this already isn’t a real place, I have no idea.)
To get in, you have to reserve online, where you’re given a password, and you’re lead inside to a dark, warm bar that has house rules, which include things like “no photographs,” and “don’t even think about ordering a cosmo.” (Also, there are secret bars inside the already-secret bar!)
This was what I imagined as Dag and Sean sip whiskey together and plot their next moves.
By the end of Bandwidth, I wanted more scenes set in these places. Peper only tantalizes us with the vaguest contours of what the feed and its antiparticle, Analog, are like.
But perhaps it’s better to not get sucked too far down that rabbit hole.
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