Escape by Marie Le Conte — what the internet did to us

We tend to divide time into neat, discrete packages: pre- and post-pandemic; pre- and post-decimalisation; pre- and postwar. We treat the internet the same way.

Seen through the lens of history, there are two grand epochs. First, the pre-internet age, where teenagers gossiped over long phone conversations, umbilically attached to a kitchen wall. There were library loans and reference books; there was boredom.

Then there’s the post-internet age, where our eyelids are pinned back and content comes hurtling at us at a rate that ruins our childhood, stunts our attention span, and turns us all into masturbating, ultraviolent monsters living solely for Instagram, TikTok or YouTube.

Those who were fully conscious of the pre-internet era — generally, people aged 40 or older — look back longingly at the innocence of life. Those who live in the post-internet age — teenagers and Gen Zers — live in ignorance of what life once was.

But cleaving time into two is a reductive way to present things. There’s a messy middle generation, usually in their early 30s, who remember the pre-internet era and yet would still consider themselves digital natives.

Marie Le Conte is one of them. In Escape, she tells the story of her upbringing and introduction to the internet, and how it shaped her. Through that personal story, she tries to tackle the broader account of how being online in the internet’s formative years changed not only subsequent generations but the internet itself.

Divided into four sections — “Who Am I?”, “Who Are You?”, “Where Are We?” and “Where Are We Going?” — the book develops individual anecdotes into a broader rumination on gender, identity, friendship and fame.

Le Conte is two-and-a-half years younger than I am but we share many of the same formative memories of first getting online, speaking to strangers with reckless abandon and hiding behind online personas.

Her story — and those of her friends, some of whom she appears to have interviewed via email, pasting their responses into the book — is recognisable to many. As Le Conte writes: “The internet is good at tricking you into believing that every experience you have on it is both entirely unique and entirely universal.”

Escape is a book that will hit home to that middle generation. But it also has its flaws. Le Conte claims to Google anyone she ever meets, dredging the elephantine memory of the internet for details. However, she rarely uses that same power to contextualise her insights into life online. She summarises the rampant, rule-free early days of the internet and how its spikier edges were shorn off by Big Tech’s moderation and monolithic power but doesn’t explain fully how and why this happened.

Le Conte is at her strongest when highlighting how our generation was lucky — compared with those just younger than us — to avoid fatal missteps that could haunt our lives and careers. There are likely to be millennial MPs sitting in parliament who said stupider things in public than Scottish National party representative and 27-year-old Mhairi Black, whose foul-mouthed teenage tweets were exposed after she arrived in Westminster, but avoided public shaming because they grew up in the anonymous or pseudonymous early internet. These lucky few are the children of the anarchic internet, yet here they’re glossed over and generalised.

At one point, the author suggests there is a profound problem with how we live digitally: we can’t ever escape each other, meaning we’re stuck presenting the same identity to everyone. It’s a striking thought. It’s also one the academic field of internet studies has spent years investigating, but this isn’t referenced, even when some of the academically minded friends she interviews try to lead her there.

It’s not just internet studies academics who are shunned. Le Conte starts one section of the book by saying she believes most children and teenagers are “little sociopaths”, emboldened by the early internet. “I have no idea if the field of psychology would back me up on this and I have no interest in finding out,” she declares. “If they do not agree with me, they must be wrong — I was young once, I remember it well.”

It’s a shame, because this is an enjoyable book that hits on an interesting question: how did today’s politicians, bankers and business leaders shape the internet, and how did sites such as GeoCities, eBaum’s World, MySpace and Goatse shape them (don’t Google the latter, whatever you do)?

But it only ever gets 90 per cent of the way to answering that question — just like the crawling progress bar of an MP3 download on a temperamental internet connection that judders to a halt, then disappears.

Escape: How a Generation Shaped, Destroyed and Survived the Internet by Marie Le Conte, Blink £16.99, 304 pages

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