What reality lies behind the virtual medium of the Internet, and what would our world be without the ‘www’? Swiss writer Aude Seigne (32) tackles these questions in her novel Une toile large comme le monde.
Aude Seigne’s novel begins 3,000 metres above sea level. “It’s poetic in this place, organic (…), you get the impression that it’s snowing like a distorted picture on old television sets. Crumbling fish cadavers and pulverized global trash fall to the ground” and cover a cable stretching 7,000 km from the Breton coast to the USA.
FLIN is the writer’s name for this cable. Basically, it looks no different to the cable in our living rooms, but it transports 145 million emails per second. Just like the many others, countless thousands of cables that are under our pavements and on the sea bed. Aude Seigne makes it abundantly clear to us how the Internet is submerged deep below the earth – this embodiment of virtual reality, yet something quite concrete. The same also goes for the shocking statistics behind this: one hour of email traffic uses up as much energy as 4,000 return flights from Paris to New York.
But what do you do with this information? Ignore it? Accept it as giving no alternative? On behalf of everyone else, these questions must be confronted by Penelope, Matteo, Ervan, Olivier, Birgit and Lu Pan. They are in their mid-thirties; they live in a variety of locations around the world. Their common status is being dependent on the Internet; they are part of a system that they increasingly mistrust.
Birgit is a successful professional from Denmark. She works for the association Green Web that campaigns for energy-efficient use of the Internet. But she also needs the web for her love life that she conducts exclusively on social media networks. Lu Pan, a nerd from Singapore, develops e-sports video games from his kid’s playroom and is a superstar on YouTube. Penelope, a native Korean, works during the day as a programmer. At night-time, she is a hacker – without the Internet she would no longer have a job, exactly like Ervan, who works as a Community Manager for an insurance company in Portland. Finally, Matteo from Italy is a deep-sea diver. He lays the Internet cables deep beneath the sea and comes into closest contact with the web. But even Olivier, who has opted out to open a coffee shop and book store cannot avoid the Internet to place his orders.
The extent to which they are all victims of the world-wide web only gradually becomes clear to them – and the reader. For example, when Ervan’s social security number is stolen after his company’s details are hacked into – last year, this actually happened to 143 million US citizens. At the time, many people experienced this damage as ‘identity theft’. Birgit realizes how the Internet can make you ill when she experiences ‘digital burn-out’ after she overdoes things by multi-tasking; while Lu Pan’s father despairs that he has lost his game-addict son to the Internet.
Along with these risks, Aude Seigne’s novel also observes other side effects of the Internet. For instance, environmental destruction in China that is caused by the exploitation of essential natural resources to power Internet technology. Or the vast data centres, which are scattered across the world, and consume huge quantities of energy for air-conditioning systems for the data processing centres. Or the numerous toxic cables protruding from the sand in England on Porthcurno Beach … In the end, the protagonists realize that the Internet must be abolished. With the help of the hashtag #cut the cable, they plan to cause ‘the crash’ and stumble upon a group of highly motivated hackers …
Aude Seigne’s novel offers countless fascinating facts and a multi-faceted discussion of the subject. However, she has not achieved an exciting thriller which the material could have suggested. Too many roughly sketched characters appear in the narrative with its many sub-sections – mainly, they serve the purpose of conveying information. Their encounters also seem artificially constructed and are not always linguistically convincing. Nevertheless, this is an intriguing read. Aude Seigne’s novel Une toile large comme le monde was published in 2017 by Éditions Zoé.
By Katja Petrovic
Translated by Suzanne Kirkbright