The United States has spawned many millenarian sects, but what makes the internet religion emanating from Silicon Valley – complete with its own prophets, salvific narrative and eschatology – different from all of them is the way it has insinuated itself in our lives. Michael Saler reviews two new books about the internet as force for (mostly) evil, exposing cyber-culture’s totalitarian tendencies, messianic pretensions, technological amnesia, “complete indifference to history” and contribution to the growing disparity in wealth and power in Western populations. Even more (so far) than the internet, “the car and truck reshaped everything” – people’s lives, the environments in which they lived. Somewhat akin to developments in the virtual realm, though, “many of the changes wrought by cars were embodiments of one fantasy or another”. Paul Barker reviews a “richly informative” exploration of the internal combustion engine’s impact on England. Coventry was “the Metropolis of Motordom” in the 1930s, and Dagenham became “the Detroit of Europe”. Now, Barker writes, “the most flourishing parts of the British economy are huge sheds in truck-filled acres of parking space near a motorway junction, all serviced by online ordering”.
This world had its proleptic poet in J. G. Ballard; and it haunts the imaginations of his most talented admirers, such as Will Self and Martin Amis. The latter has “a walk-on part” in Greg Bellow’s memoir of his famous father, Saul (above) – but he played a slightly more important one in the great American novelist’s dreams, according to our reviewer Clive Sinclair. “A Lady, tall, dark, strongly built, wishes to meet a gentleman going to Socialist colony, with a view to union”: this and other personal ads like it graced the radical periodicals of the fin de siècle, a study of which is reviewed by Leah Price. They generated “what theorists of online media call a long tail: niche monthlies or weeklies addressed to a small but loyal following whose subscriptions defined their identities”. Sound familiar?