The title of Lydia Kiesling’s latest essay for The Millions is a little misleading. Go into it with a certain frame of mind, and you might expect her argument to be that the algorithmic arrangement of our lives into data leaves little scope for art. You might, in turn, be confused by the first four or five sections, which eschew structured argument in order to evoke West Coast professional tech culture is terms reminiscent of the Jazz Age.
She is, you see, attempting to redress an imbalance in the media we use to understand our circumstances. “There is plenty to read,” she writes,
but very little of it fiction. As my collection of anecdotes grew, I began to to wonder: where is The Bonfire of the Vanities for this new Gilded Age, this data mining, this excess, these Teach-Ups?
To which a dyed-in-the-wool technophile might respond, “Do we need our own Bonfire?” After all, communication is ostensibly the overriding aim of most of these technologies. Maybe the methods the digital cognoscenti are sufficient for telling their story. Maybe the nature of the story demands a new kind of telling.
An underlying theme of Kiesling’s essay, then, is the capacity of the novel to tell the sort of story that our modern tech- and data-obsessions generally won’t—or can’t—but in any case, don’t. Those opening paragraphs, laden as they are with detail and comment and perspective, are themselves an eloquent argument for the power of sustained prose.
For what it’s worth, they’re coming, those novels Kiesling is asking about. They haven’t yet found their Fitzgerald or Wolfe or Flaubert, but we’re already beginning to see tentative steps in that direction: modern novels with characters who run digital start-ups. Soon, they’ll go full-blown, and then the question becomes: Where is the great novel of the Big Data Age?
And when it arrives, who will read it? Kiesling, sure; and me—probably some of you as well. But what about the people they describe? Kiesling recounts a telling anecdote that suggests that digital cognoscenti may have their attention directed elsewhere:
Yes, they were Tech People. They worked at Glass Door, the online aggregator of salary information. Who were the chroniclers of their ilk, I asked, trying not to sound like a loon and sounding like one. There was TechCrunch, they said, or Gizmodo. ”What about novels?” I asked, and they drew a blank. I asked if they liked novels, and they did. One of them told me his favorite novel was The Life of Pi.
Go read “Paucity of Art in the Age of Big Data: A Dispatch from San Francisco” at The Millions.