Being human in the Internet age

Book Of Numbers by Joshua Cohen explores how technology alters one's sense of self

The basic principles behind everyday devices provided the spark for Joshua Cohen's novel, Book Of Numbers.
The basic principles behind everyday devices provided the spark for Joshua Cohen's novel, Book Of Numbers.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES
Joshua Cohen.

New York - A strange thing happened when Joshua Cohen was deep into writing his new novel, Book Of Numbers.

It started to come true. He had already written most of the book - a dense, dizzying story about a struggling novelist named Joshua Cohen who is hired to ghostwrite the memoir of the shady billionaire founder of Tetration, a Google-like technology company whose revolutionary mission is to "equalise ourselves with data and data with ourselves". The fictional Joshua Cohen stumbles upon a bombshell when he learns that Tetration is sharing consumers' search-engine history with government intelligence agencies. Several years ago, the real Joshua Cohen showed a draft to a friend, an expert in cybersecurity and civil liberties, who warned him that a plot twist based on such a revelation might be a bit of a stretch.

Then, in the summer of 2013, former intelligence contractor Edward J. Snowden leaked hundreds of thousands of classified documents revealing the extent of the United States government's warrantless surveillance of its citizens, and the role that communications and technology companies played in handing over consumer data. Cohen read in disbelief about a Web surveillance program, XKeyscore, that was not unlike his invented program, called "autotet".

He was elated.

"The world made this book true while I was writing it, which, of course, is the paranoid's greatest fantasy," he said, smoking a cigarette and sipping a glass of grapefruit juice in his small basement apartment in Red Hook one morning. "The question now is not, 'Is this true,' but 'How can we live with it?'"

Book Of Numbers, a dense, unbridled 580-page epic, is the latest and perhaps most ambitious entry into a growing literary subgenre which some book critics have labelled The Great American Internet Novel. Notable specimens include Thomas Pynchon's gleefully paranoid tech takedown Bleeding Edge; Dave Eggers' ominous The Circle, about a sinister Internet company that comes to control everything from personal finance to elections; and Peter Carey's cyber thriller, Amnesia, which was inspired by WikiLeaks and features a persecuted computer hacker.

Cohen, 34, has taken the tech trope even further with Book Of Numbers, which novelist Adam Ross called "the single best novel yet written about what it means to remain human in the Internet Era". The narrative explores how technology permeates every aspect of our daily lives and consciousness, altering how we construct our sense of self and infecting our speech. (Cohen's frequent use of the invented verb "tetrate" serves as a reminder that "Google" is a relatively new verb.)

As the novel's shadowy antihero describes the transaction between the search engine company and its users: "All who read us are read."

Novelist Norman Rush, an admirer of Cohen, said the ambition and scope of Book Of Numbers set it apart from earlier fictional works about our growing dependence on technology. "It's a theme that's so big, it's daunting, and it's hard to know how to get at it," he said. "He's a very extravagant risk-taking writer and it took that kind of spirit."

Cohen published his first short story collection, The Quorum, in 2005, and was paid US$50 and beer. He made incrementally more on his next few books. For his 2010 novel Witz, a dark satire about the last Jew on Earth which was turned down by at least eight major publishers, he says he received a small advance of about US$1,200 from Dalkey Archive Press.

"I've spent a decade entirely broke, published by small presses, read by no one," he said. That is no longer the case. Random House is publishing Book Of Numbers, which some have compared to sweeping works by David Foster Wallace and Pynchon.

Cohen said a simple, nagging question provided the spark for the novel.

"What are the basic principles behind these devices that have come to dominate every aspect of my life?" he said.

Cohen doesn't seem at first like the best-equipped person to bridge the divide between literature and technology. He writes his first drafts in longhand on legal pads. His book collection, which spills from shelves into neatly organised stacks on the floor, includes books in German and Hebrew, languages he reads fluently and has translated. The first sentence of Book Of Numbers takes aim at tech adopters, using a crude expletive to tell those who are reading the book on a screen not to bother. "I'll only talk if I'm gripped with both hands," the narrator continues.

Cohen tried to tackle the unwieldy subject from the inside. He read more than 180 books, including wonky treatises about surveillance and cybersecurity, books about the history and architecture of the Internet, and memoirs and biographies of technological innovators such as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Alan Turing and Konrad Zuse, a German computer pioneer.

He also learnt to write computer code, reading books on Python programming and taking online classes. "I was interested in the connections between these algorithms and language," he said.

Early on, he had turned to his friend Ben Wizner, a lawyer at the American Civil Liberties Union, for feedback. They shared books about surveillance and privacy, and had intense, alcohol-fuelled debates. Wizner, who ended up representing Snowden, said the depiction of the "surveillance economy" in Book Of Numbers was alarmingly accurate and added that he hoped the book would drive a more robust discussion about Internet-enabled surveillance.

"There's a frustration on the law and advocacy side about how abstract some of these issues can seem to the public," Wizner said. "For some people, the novelist's eye can show the power and the danger of these systems in ways that we can't."

New York Times

Book Of Numbers is available from Books Kinokuniya at $42.67.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 21, 2015, with the headline 'Being human in the Internet age'. Subscribe