The End of the Internet: An Interview with Matthew Thurber
January 2, 2014 | by Sam Frank
I met cartoonist and musician Matthew Thurber six-odd years ago somewhere in Prospect Park (a séance? a picnic?), and then saw him play alto saxophone in his Muzak-jazz-punk trio Soiled Mattress and the Springs at the New York Art Book Fair. We kept running into one another in odd places; or, since New York City is now lacking in odd places, at places where subculture obsessives go to convince themselves there’s still oddness in the world. Soiled Mattress broke up in 2008, but Thurber’s “Anti-Matter Cabaret” act Ambergris has continued, and sometimes he plays with artist Brian Belott as Court Stenographer and Young Sherlock Holmes. In 2011, after years of publishing minicomics, zines, and books on tape, Thurber collected his serial 1-800-Mice in graphic-novel form. It’s about a messenger mouse named Groomfiend, a peace punk named Peace Punk, and a cast of thousands. More recently, Thurber wrote a culture diary for this blog, and started Tomato House gallery with his girlfriend, Rebecca Bird, in Ocean Hill, Brooklyn.
Thurber’s new graphic novel, Infomaniacs, is about the singularity and the end of the Internet; it’s also the final book from the great comics publisher PictureBox, which serialized parts of Infomaniacs online starting in 2010. The book’s heroine is Amy Shit, a punk rapper who sometimes lives off the grid—in a subway tunnel, even. Her brother’s a neo–Ned Ludd who goes around smashing iPhones. Meanwhile, Ralph is an Internet addict who escapes from reality rehab, then embeds in an immortality cult run by a libertarian oligarch who wants to eat the brain of the last man who’s never seen the Internet. A horse and a bat, both intelligence agents for the ATF (Anthropomorphic Task Force), wonder what the singularity will look like—a 1950s computer, a crystal, a cell phone, a tree branch?
Thurber’s video trailer offers a sense of the comic’s raucous hugger-mugger and subterranean surrealism, but doesn’t touch on its Underground Man againstness. For that, perhaps this quote, from an early, uncollected strip: “All bundled up and no place to go … The man who hates the Internet is a man who hates the world.”
Thurber and I met in the office I share with a puppet theater, near the Barclays Center. Giant heads hung from the walls. I don’t have Wi-Fi and don’t know anyone’s password.
When did you quit Facebook?
The beginning of 2013. It was my New Year’s resolution. I was an addict, checking it twenty, thirty times a day.
And you were off Twitter for a while, right? You half-quit.
I deleted my account and then I couldn’t stay away. I don’t think I lasted more than two weeks, but I still get to the point where I’m completely furious at the way people are packaging their identities, and then I’ll make some kind of horrible statement like, I can’t, this is shit, this is …
A lot of people are able to use social media more casually than I can and feel less conflicted about it. You go to an art-marketing class, and they tell you that you have to constantly remind people of your existence. Even if you’re not directly telling them to buy your thing, you should be promoting yourself ambiently. This is a picture of my studio, or This is something I’m reading, or This is somebody I bumped into at a party. It’s interesting when you see literary celebrities doing that, like Salman Rushdie or Margaret Atwood or Joyce Carol Oates. They’re constantly on Twitter, and it makes me wonder if they’re actually really lonely or bored.
The few first drawings in Infomaniacs are more primitive. I can almost imagine your having drawn them with a stylus on a 1993 Apple Newton.
Those are unedited sketchbook pages where I was trying to launch the story. I didn’t do any scripting at the beginning. I just started developing a plot around characters I’d intuited. I knew about their attitudes and how they looked, but I didn’t know who they were. I was working from subconscious images and then trying to construct a plot or story line around them. At first the strips were gags about technology—the name Infomaniacs was there, but the characters weren’t. Starting off with nothing is a tactic I’ve used before just to get going—start with a title and write backward, trying to fill in the space between the clauses.
Infomaniacs is meant to be like It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, a caper—big, messy, overbudget.
The epic-comedy genre. 1-800-Mice was a soap opera, where I was cutting between all these little stories. And when I saw Mad, Mad World and Around the World in 80 Days, it made sense to go in that direction, because it’s all soap-opera story lines directed at a MacGuffin. Everybody’s going after some prize.
There’s another quality to your storytelling, though, a kind of unending proliferation of narrative. It makes me think of role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons.
I did pre-Internet role-playing games from age seven or eight through high school. I used to make my mom play D&D with me, and I was the dungeon master. There are preset stories you can follow, but there’s also the more improvisational school of D&D where you make things up and it’s a shared fantasy with your friends. We would come up with great plots, like a man with anthrax running after you trying to pee on you, or you find a truck in the middle of the dungeon. That’s when it gets really surreal. As the DM, you’re trying to be like Scheherazade, keeping everybody interested. You never want the game to end.
I wonder if college or high school students—kids who are born into the Internet—can relate to Infomaniacs. I’m teaching college kids now and they’re constantly online, dependent on technology, and if they’re drawing they always want to use images from the Internet as references. I had thought of them as my audience—
Or were you imagining them as your characters and thinking about how they might use the Internet?
The Ralph character is definitely just a confused college student, somebody I’ve seen in one of my classes. Infomaniacs is not a kids’ book, but in my mind the ideal audience is a confused teen or confused college student—a college student who’s angry at everything and doesn’t know why. Or maybe this is a kids’ comic. It’s pretty PG. There might be some swear words. Well, a character’s name is Amy Shit.
The comic reads like a fever dream of tech anxieties. Did you read up on singularity literature, or just make it up based on what had come to you ambiently?
I had to make it up or respond to a made-up version of what the tech utopians were thinking. There was a New Yorker article about Peter Thiel—that was my main research. He’s driving around and going to the Methuselah Foundation to meet with the life-extension researchers he’s funding. It’s like post–Ayn Rand, this is the next step you can take. Now that you’re the master of the universe, now you can behave like an immortal. And Thiel gave Facebook a huge angel investment when they were starting out. But what an incredible character. He was my idea of an Ayn Rand character come to life. He’s like a Bond villain in his nascency.
Then I started actually reading Atlas Shrugged, and I thought, This is a great science-fiction novel. For the first fifty pages, it felt like a neat Philip K. Dick story. And then I got bogged down and stopped.
I like not-knowing in general. And if I’d waited until I’d read all of Ayn Rand and all of the singularity literature, I wouldn’t have been able to work fast enough to get this comic done. I felt an urgency to get it out before it became completely irrelevant. YouTube has been around for a decade. The Snowden stuff happened when this book was coming out. But I felt like it would be funny if I didn’t know what those things were. Writing a book responding to the singularity but not really knowing what it was. It was just a rumor. Ineptitude can be funny, too.
What about the singularity made you feel like you wanted to reply to it? Because it feels like the endpoint of technology?
The escalation of culture and technology to a certain messianic goal. Is there a point to all this time-wasting activity, or is all this confusion that we feel with technology and all of the metaphysical torture from social media—is it all going to be okay in the future when the singularity happens? We’ll just have evolved?
The idea that people might be poor now, but in the future the technology that’s making them poor will make them rich.
Yeah, which is a MacGuffin. Everyone’s in pursuit of this thing, and it’s a mirage. We’re all just going to be competitive on these platforms forever.
In Infomaniacs, the singularity is a thing, but it’s also a person. It’s a character.
That’s what I mean about making it up. Because I don’t know what the singularity really is. I understand that it involves the hybridization of humans and technology, or A.I. Or actually, no, I don’t know what it is. A robot? Like the movie D.A.R.Y.L.? Or any movie where there’s a robot who has feelings?
As far as I understand it, there are a few different versions. One is Ray Kurzweil’s—predictably exponential technological growth, and that means we’ll all become hybrids. And then there’s the idea that there’s a point beyond which we can’t really know anything, it’s unimaginable, like traveling into a black hole, totally unknowable to our tiny human minds.
And maybe it already happened? Do people think it already happened?
There are some people who would say, Oh, obviously we’re self-improving intelligences and we have been for a long time, so we’re already on that road. Most singularitarians don’t think it has already happened. They think it’s going to happen around 2045.
I have the cranky old misanthropic personality of every stupid cartoonist or artist, which is that everything is getting worse and people are disempowered and can’t draw, can’t write, can’t think. They’re dependent on technology, so then it’s less a religious awakening than a Matrix-y dark future. My definition of utopia is technology-free, probably more like the Garden of Eden than like having infinite knowledge.
Maybe constant communication has its benefits. People become sophisticated pretty quickly, they figure out what’s a good aesthetic to have, and they get feedback more rapidly. On the other hand, while it’s not necessarily great to be on your own and trying to figure stuff out for yourself, sometimes it means you make something that’s super weird and amazing, even if it’s totally flawed.
Real freaks can’t help it. Sometimes you’ll meet somebody, and you’re like, This person is undersocialized, but they’re incredibly smart, and they’re talking enthusiastically and they’re not afraid to be talking about it. I don’t want people to have their freakishness crushed by constant socialization, which creates conformity. Even on Twitter there’s stuff you can’t say or you wouldn’t say, and that sucks, but you would say it if you were Mike Diana or Dame Darcy making a comic book.
Dril is the one character from weird Twitter I like reading. He’s not a consistent character. Sometimes he’s a middle-aged divorced guy who’s kind of gross. He has sexual hang-ups about jeans, and he likes smoking cigars, and there’s something that’s a little bit wrong there that’s verging on scary, which is good.
That sounds like the kind of thing I want to read on Twitter—a completely fictionalized, fully rendered character. When it gets too personal it’s like, This is me but also it’s not me. It’s too confusing. Personally, I find it difficult to write anything sincere on Twitter. And it’s why I quit Facebook. Because it’s broadcasting to the public, and I find it vulgar to share personal things about my life in a commercialized, monitored space. The NSA is spying on you, and so are your friends, your business acquaintances, and your mom. We’re behaving more like spies every day. I think this conditions us for a corporate, if not fascist, future in which free and nonconformist behavior is really difficult.
I should read Brian Chippendale’s Twitter more—is that safe?
It’s a fire hose of really good jokes. I don’t know how he does it. I’m trying to think of who my favorite Twitter person is. It’s like that quote that remarks are not literature.
Who said that?
I don’t know.
I’ll google it.
We can google it.
Are you working on another comics project right now?
Did I tell you about the handwriting-analysis thing? I wrote a bunch of one-page or one-paragraph samples and put out a call. I mailed people a typewritten sample of prose—it’s all fragmentary. Maybe some of it goes together to make different stories. So they rewrite it and mail it back, and then I’m going to develop a system of analysis to understand who they are through their handwriting samples. That’s the next project, to make a book out of that, or maybe just a long booklet, but I’ve got 160 samples so it might be a really long zine.
It’s a way to type and keep communicating with people in a non-Internet way. The handwriting-analysis project was really motivated by the desire to receive letters, so even if I had to write them and people had to rewrite them, it was still stuff in my mailbox. For when the Internet goes away—it’s my insurance.