Singapore Writers Festival

Writers should step back from 'collective mania', says Zadie Smith

The author warns against the language of algorithms and online platforms

Author Zadie Smith (above) kicked off the 23rd Singapore Writers Festival with a virtual dialogue about language and intimacy.
Author Zadie Smith (above) kicked off the 23rd Singapore Writers Festival with a virtual dialogue about language and intimacy.PHOTO: SCREENGRAB/SINGAPORE WRITERS FESTIVAL

"This is going to be really hard to explain," said British writer Zadie Smith.

"Soon it will seem almost like a mass insanity that, for example, a month before the election, during an incredibly important vice-presidential debate, the (online) platforms were lit up by the idea of a fly on a man's head."

She was referring to last month's debate between United States vice-presidential candidates Mike Pence and Kamala Harris, during which a fly rested on Mr Pence's head and spawned a flood of Internet memes.

"In 2050, your children will be saying to you - wait, the planet was dying, there was a massive social justice apocalypse going on racially, there was a madman in the White House... and there was a fly?"

Smith, 45, kicked off the 23rd Singapore Writers Festival last Friday night with a dialogue about language and intimacy, held virtually with moderator Joel Tan.

The festival, organised by the National Arts Council, runs until Sunday in its first fully digital edition with more than 200 programmes.

Smith said it is hard for individual citizens to remove themselves from what she terms the "collective mania" of Internet platforms, but it should be the responsibility of writers to take a step back. "They should know a little better. Their job is observation."

The best-selling writer of novels such as White Teeth (2000), Orange Prize for Fiction winner On Beauty (2005) and Swing Time (2016) published a book of six essays, Intimations, during the pandemic and donated her royalties to charity.

She is troubled, she said, by the way people have become "embedded in algorithms" and the vortex of social-media addiction.

"I'm doing it myself," she observed. "I waste hours of my life on my laptop. And when I see myself hunched over looking at nonsense, I try and remind myself: 'You're a human being. You're worth more than this, whatever this is that you've done for the past 41/2 hours. Humans like you have done extraordinary things.

"'What are you doing right now? What will be gained? Who's the person who's earning money from it?' It's someone very far away whom I will never see. And I'm being degraded by this experience."

She decried how people have been allowing secondary media to supply them with the language of thought - for example, how Gmail offers to complete users' sentences in the "most banal form possible".

  • ZADIE SMITH: INTIMATIONS

    WHERE: Sistic Live (www.sistic.com.sg)

    WHEN: Available on video-on-demand until Sunday 

    ADMISSION: Festival pass, $20 from Sistic

Language, she cautioned, is not an essential form and can be manipulated. "You're given a phrase - 'cultural appropriation', for example - and you take that phrase as if it's a fact in the world, the same thing as a rock or a tree.

"I think sometimes we're a little innocent in front of language and we need to have a slightly more analytical understanding that what you are able to think comes out from what you were able to say."

People's concepts are made out of language, she said.

"One role writers have had historically is to alert people to ideology disguised as nature, or to the dream disguised as truth.

"The biggest responsibility of any writer, in my view, is just to say that things could be otherwise. That is the job. You are being told that something is as natural as breathing. That is not true. That's all that needs to be said.

"It is for the people collectively to imagine this great narrative that is something other than what we have."

• Books by Zadie Smith and other speakers are available at the online festival bookstore at swfbooks.com. For more details, go to www.singaporewritersfestival.com

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 02, 2020, with the headline 'Writers should step back from 'collective mania', says Zadie Smith'. Subscribe