The Disposable Internet
Watch an author livestream himself writing a novel, then forget about it forever.
Image: Useless Press
Every day this week, author Joshua Cohen has sat down in front of his computer, flicked a webcam on, and stared at a blank page. Well, not totally blank. On the right side of his screen, users with screen names like "ZeldaRat15," "Andy Warhole," and, of course, "Anonymous" are actively critiquing the words he's putting on the page. Or talking about rats, or something. Cohen, for some reason, is live streaming himself writing a novel.
What seems like an utterly frivolous, maybe vain project actually has quite a lot of layers, Cohen told me earlier this week after his first five-hour writing session. PCKWCK is a modern take on Charles Dickens's The Pickwick Papers. It is a comment on modern media content farming. It's a comment on our livestream-anything culture (remember, there are hundreds of people who watch people code computer programs; there are millions who watch others play video games). It's a challenge in discipline. It's a voyeuristic exercise. It's a chance for Cohen to face his fears. It's a chance to create something disposable.
It's kind of dumb, because it's art.
"More people will read this prose I write than read the book that's my distillation of all my thoughts on the internet"
"It's antithetical to the entire process of writing to do it in front of people," Cohen said. "It's a comment on all of the obvious things: The rate of communication, the focus on increased productivity of writing, the insatiable maw of content."
The Pickwick Papers was Dickens's first serialized novel, making it an obvious choice to try to do under a ridiculously tight deadline.
"Dickens only wrote the Pickwick Papers because he was asked to and he needed the money," Cohen said. "He's trying to spit out a few thousand words a week. Forget being one of the great novelists of the English language—he's one of the great deadline writers of the English language."
PCKWCK grew out of a conversation between the founders of Useless Press, an online publishing collective that does internet stunts like this from time to time. Previous projects include a database of New York City's decapitated animals and a phone line that puts people on hold for seven years.
"We wanted to do something that addresses the tendency of broadcasting these events that are nonevents," Sam Lavigne, who coded PCKWCK's interface, told me. "It should be in theory really boring but we turn it into a bit of a spectacle."
"You want people to see it, but you also hope the article disappears from history because you can't write as well with that frequency"
It's worked, more or less. On Monday, PCKWCK got more than 200,000 page views. This being the internet, many of them must have stopped in for a few seconds and left, but it's still 200,000 people who could potentially make a snap judgment about Cohen's writing talent.
"More people will read this prose I write than read [Book of Numbers] the book that's my distillation of all my thoughts on the internet," he said.
The real invasion of privacy, he argues, isn't watching him stare at the screen or sip water or get up to go to the bathroom. It's watching his cursor struggle through a sentence. To him, the internet's constant deadlines, the thoughtless oversharing that comes with social media, and always-on mentality is damaging us in a way that's more destructive than mass government or corporate surveillance.
"Privacy suddenly becomes a question of whether someone can see your dick and not whether someone can see your best thought," Cohen said. "I would rather show everyone my dick than show everyone my mediocre thought. It's a problem, and it's not a problem the culture necessarily respects."
"Friday will come and Friday will go and it'll be over. Did it go well in the sense of writing? It doesn't matter. It's beside the point."
As a writer at an online media company, I tell him I can commiserate with him. When you write two or three articles a day, it's impossible for every single piece to be your best work. The churn is worse at other places I've worked, I tell him. Cohen asks me not to hang him on his dick comment, not to make it the headline and lede it so obviously could be.
"I don't think this is going to light up the internet either way, and it's not really in my interest to be a jackass just for the sake of a few page views," I told him.
"Right, but there's this balance and compromise," he said. "You want people to see it, but you also hope the article disappears from history because you can't write as well with that frequency."
He's right. In the best version of this article, I'd read the Pickwick Papers. I'd read PCKWCK a few more times. I'd read critical analyses of both. I'd read Book of Numbers. I'd talk to a sociologist or psychologist about what livestreaming means. It'd be edited several times over the course of a few days. It'd be much longer than this, or maybe much shorter, with each word carefully chosen so as to be more impactful. But there's no time, not for this particular article. This will have to do.
And so PCKWCK is a momentary event, one that we'll talk about this week, maybe mention sometime in the future. Will the finished novel be any good? Who cares?"It's not good but it's also not bad," he said. "I didn't produce it as something I think of as work. Friday will come and Friday will go and it'll be over. Did it go well in the sense of writing? It doesn't matter. It's beside the point."