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Author Jia Tolentino on American culture through the prism of the internet


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Judy Woodruff: The January pick for our Now Read This book club was a book of essays exploring many aspects of American culture through the prism of the Internet and social media.

At age 32, author Jia Tolentino has gained acclaim as one of its most astute observers. She's a staff writer for "The New Yorker," and "Trick Mirror' is her first book.

She recently spoke with Jeffrey Brown for our ongoing series on arts and culture, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: Jia Tolentino, thanks for joining us.

Jia Tolentino, Author, "Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion": Thank you for having me.

Jeffrey Brown: I want to start with the subtitle, "Reflections on Self-Delusion."

What does that mean?

Jia Tolentino: I was thinking of the Internet as this mechanism that everything else in our world is run through, essentially, and the Internet is structured in this very specific way that has -- I have grown up with, I have spent my whole life with.

The Internet and social media in particular, it's structured in a way that makes people look at the world and see the world as kind of a personal reflection on them, right? The Internet encourages you to look at everything and say, what does this say about me?

And I just -- over the years that I was writing the book, in the years preceding it, I was just starting to think about the effect that this had on people, sort of politically and civically, in terms of the narratives we tell ourselves about ourselves.

Jeffrey Brown: You know, the change in American politics and culture after the 2016 election clearly shaped some of your -- these essays.

Jia Tolentino: There was something about the 2016 election where I started -- it started to become -- for me, it was the moment where it seemed like the Internet was determining the worst things about offline life, rather than reflecting them.

And I think that's something we have only seen blossom from the 2016 election through the Capitol riots and so on.

Jeffrey Brown: But here we are in a pandemic, where we live evermore in that space in some ways.

Jia Tolentino: Yes, the Internet's magic. I can get on YouTube and look up any concert, look up live footage of any concert at any time at any venue. You know, I can listen to any song in the world. I can look at any painting on Google, right?

I try to not forget that it's magic. It's the thing that has allowed me to -- I can see a picture of something I want to text any of my friends and do that. And I don't want to neglect how much that's kept our lives together during the pandemic.

But, at the same time, I think the sort of uncertainty, the incompletion, the hollowness, the strangeness we feel and the weird currents of aggression and loneliness, it's evidence of the way that the Internet is, at best, kind of a poor simulacrum of real life.

Jeffrey Brown: We have just gone through a period where the some of the large social media companies have taken voices off their platforms, notably Donald Trump's.

Jia Tolentino: I think that what was so interestingly obvious the second Twitter banned Trump on -- after the riots was that the CEO of Twitter and the CEO of Facebook, these men are 100 percent more powerful than the president of the United States. And it's not even close.

And I think that's been true for a long time. I think that almost everything wrong politically, with COVID misinformation, with all of this conspiratorial thinking about the election, I mean, the whole QAnon fiasco, none of these things are possible if social media did not have the specific economic incentive that it does to addict people, to make them angry, to make them seek community in ways that are refracted through anger and, like, loneliness and self-righteousness.

I think that the entire political landscape of the United States for the last, I don't know, six years has been shaped by these particular financial incentives that Twitter and Facebook have. And we are going to be -- we're going to be dealing with this for the foreseeable future, until that economic model changes, I think.

Jeffrey Brown: Do you sense a yearning from young people, people of your own generation, to escape that? And is it possible to escape?

Jia Tolentino: I think there's this enormous hunger to find realms of interaction that are not surveilled, where we are freely giving and taking of each other, and, for me, for community, these places where you feel a porousness to your identity, where you don't feel solid and locked down, you feel completely open.

And I think -- I don't know. I think we're all pretty hungry for those experiences right now, maybe my generation in particular, because maybe our brain damage is slightly heightened from how we grew up with it.


JEFFREYRJeffrey BrownOWN: Oh, I hope not. And I wish you will.

All right, the book is "Trick Mirror."

Jia Tolentino, thank you very much.

Jia Tolentino: Thank you.

Judy Woodruff: Really interesting.

And our February book club pick is "Interior Chinatown," a wildly inventive, National Book Award-winning novel by Charles Yu that takes on Hollywood culture and Asian-American stereotypes.

We hope you will read along and join the conversation on our Web site and Facebook page for Now Read This. It's our book club partnership with The New York Times.

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