Head in the Cloud
Fragments of an Infinite Memory: My Life with the Internet by Maël Renouard, translated by Peter Behrman de Sinéty. New York Review Books, 177 pages.
In 2016, the year his newly translated memoir, Fragments of an Infinite Memory, came out in France, Maël Renouard published a short essay that could have accompanied the book as an artist’s statement. “If it hopes to describe the twists and turns of a mind as accurately as possible,” he wrote in the Brooklyn Rail, “the literature of introspection, whether autobiography or psychological novel, ought now to mention the name Google every sentence or two.”
Google, here, is a metonym for the internet. In one of his book’s nearly two hundred “fragments”—short reflections about life online—Renouard develops the idea further. The internet, he argues, has had a more profound effect on literature than other world-changing inventions. A three-hundred-page novel set in 1990 could omit phones without difficulty. “But the internet has become so coextensive with all our mental acts, with all our moments—of boredom, idleness, frantic work, philosophical reflection, personal anxiety—that a character in the 2010s who was deprived of its use for one reason or another couldn’t fail to be obsessed by its absence.”
Recent releases have proven him right. When the internet is absent from contemporary novels, its absence is often a major plot point, along with whatever disaster caused the absence in the first place. (That disaster seems the most plausible cause, at least for securely internet-connected authors, is further evidence of Renouard’s point.) In Rumaan Alam’s Leave the World Behind (2020), a mysterious catastrophe cuts off the internet connection of characters vacationing on Long Island. In Tim Maughan’s Infinite Detail (2019), a massive denial-of-service attack shuts down the internet all over the world. In Ling Ma’s Severance (2018), the culprit is a global pandemic that kills most people on earth. Aware that “Google would not last long,” the small handful of survivors desperately get in their last searches before it disappears: “We Googled maslow’s pyramid to see how many of the need levels we could already fulfill. . . . We Googled 2011 fever survivors . . . we Googled 7 stages of grief to track our emotional progress.”
When the internet is absent from contemporary novels, its absence is often a major plot point, along with whatever disaster caused the absence in the first place.
The loss of the internet, in these novels, is a loss of memory, a loss of basic knowledge, a loss of infrastructure. By contrast, the writers most famous for foregrounding the internet’s omnipresence—Sally Rooney, for example, or Tao Lin—tend to portray it most saliently as a means of expressing oneself or conducting personal relationships. Their preferred metonym is not Google but social media, email, text messaging, or all three. It’s easy to see why. The act of searching doesn’t have the kind of built-in social stakes that are so helpful for developing a plot or any sense of emotional weight. If the internet is functioning properly, you can—like someone with their Maslow’s pyramid bases covered—take the basic infrastructure for granted and focus on its higher uses. Absent a pandemic about to obliterate it, the ability to look things up is hard to depict in a way that makes it interesting.
But it can be done. In 2007, Martine Syms published EverythingIveEverWantedtoKnow.com, a giant drop-down menu of everything she had googled since 2004. Selecting any term in the menu takes you back to where you started: the website’s only page, with the menu unexpanded again. The interaction strips to its essence the circular experience of using any addictive platform. In 2019, Vauhini Vara published her own list of search terms, all of them starting with question words, in the Opinion section of the New York Times. Under the headline “My Decade in Google Searches,” there is one paragraph each for who, what, when, where, why, and how searches, so that the personality of each type emerges. “How” is predictably practical (how to get travel deals, how to cut cabbage). “What” is surprisingly open-ended (what is vienna like, what a fetus feels, what makes someone charismatic).
While Syms and Vara use years’ worth of data to draw out patterns seen only with distance, Anelise Chen’s So Many Olympic Exertions (2017) contains a sequence of searches more reflective of real-time experience. Even without the impending disappearance of the internet, she manages to give it stakes. In a passage similar to the one in Severance, the novel’s narrator, Athena, opens her computer and:
I google “knut polar bear.” I google “baby knut video.” I follow a link “knut keeper dead.” I google “knut keeper dead why?” I google “knut keeper conspiracy.” I am bored. I google “animals talking.” I google “animals talking new.” . . . I google “famous thinkers.” I google “famous thinkers young.” . . . I google “how do writers stay thin.” I google “sedentary life advice.” I google “writing on treadmill.” I google my own name. I google my own name again, with quotation marks. . . . I google something else.
Rather than use data to abstract the experiences that generated it, Chen immerses us in those experiences. She concatenates searches for readers as Google concatenates them for Athena, compelling us to follow an associative chain that could continue indefinitely and stops only arbitrarily. But as with Syms and Vara, the searches Chen depicts are the outward traces of a mind at work, a pileup of clues to an interior life that remains more or less inscrutable.
Renouard is more interested in the other half of the feedback loop—not what our personal internet histories suggest about ourselves, but what his and others’ experiences can tell us about the internet and its effects. In his opening fragment, he recalls a moment when he was suddenly overtaken by the urge to google what he’d done two days earlier. Taken aback by the as-yet-unrealizable impulse, he begins to reflect on how the internet—and, in particular, the inexorable accumulation of instantly retrievable data—has reconfigured people’s emotional, intellectual, and practical lives. Before the internet, “we might forget who was prime minister in 1952, or who won the World Cup in 1970, but we could assure ourselves that at least there was one thing . . . we’d never forget as entirely as all of the rest, and that was our own life.” Today, with the emergence of “a gigantic auxiliary memory capable of making up for just about every lapse in our recollection of external facts, it is rather our personal memory that suddenly, by this new contrast, seems afflicted with a disquieting imprecision.”
Born in 1979, Renouard got an email address and an introduction to the early search engine AltaVista in 1998. But his story is not like those of the early forum communities, LiveJournalers, or MySpacers. While his pedigree is about as elite as you can get—a degree from the École Normale Supérieure, a job speechwriting for the now former prime minister, several acclaimed works of criticism and fiction—his internet usage is nothing special. He doesn’t seem to have been an early adopter of any platform, or particularly technically inclined. He just watched developments as they came, and took notes.
Fragments of an Infinite Memory divides the resulting “notes,” as Renouard himself sometimes calls them, into eleven very loosely themed chapters. The first circles around the effects of search on personal reminiscence. Sidestepping the neuroscientific perspective that tends to dominate popular accounts of “what the internet is doing to our brains,” Renouard filters his reflections through a literary sensibility. In one fragment, he observes that search has “partly demolished” the Proustian distinction between voluntary memory (an effort to recall things you consciously registered) and involuntary memory (when a trigger, like smell or taste, plunges you into a past experience that would otherwise have been inaccessible). “On the internet, acts of voluntary memory . . . confront us by chance, unexpectedly, with buried swaths of our past existence,” Renouard writes. “Epiphanies of involuntary memory draw the digital wanderer into new searches, where he seeks—voluntarily, now—to get his hands on another dose of the ecstatic recollection that so intensely transported him the first time.”
Subsequent chapters address the ways the internet has also changed its users’ relationship to the material world, death, social mores, language, images, etc. The fragments they contain are diverse in form. Many are stories of Renouard’s past or riffs on literature, history, or philosophy. One comprises six pages of YouTube comments in several languages, many of them attesting to nearly identical feelings of nostalgia that videos of old songs had produced in their viewers. A Freud-inspired series, interspersed throughout the book and presented as numbered examples of the “psychopathology of digital life,” recounts others’ stories, presumably as told to Renouard. B. remembers not taking any pictures on a long trip because “I could find on Google Images as many representations as I liked of the places where I went, with an ease directly proportionate to the beauty of the place.” M. explains that getting access to the internet as they were coming of age saved them from the shame of having to “ask about things that appeared obvious to everyone.”
Writing about the internet is, in this light, no different than writing about life.
As these anecdotes suggest, Renouard has hit upon a way to infuse drama into a depiction of the internet as basic infrastructure, a technology underpinning memory, practical knowledge, everyday life. The conflict arises from the impossibility of loss without gain, or gain without loss: the push-pull between what the internet and its devices have added to, and taken away from, people’s experiences of the world. “Who hasn’t gone on the internet looking for past loves and friends not seen for years? Time lost in search of lost time,” Renouard quips. (Proust comes up frequently.) The mass adoption of email means that the @ key, which captivated a young Renouard when he first saw it in the 1980s, loses its magic and mystery. The distinction between documenting and experiencing a moment fades alongside the necessity of “stick[ing] one eye to the camera—closing the other” to take a photograph. And the pervasive assumption that a historical event you can’t find online didn’t happen makes it impossible to suggest, as Jean Baudrillard did in Cool Memories II, 1987–1990, that an imagined disaster might actually have been real.
Renouard is generally sanguine about this give-and-take, and his disinterested approach is a sometimes-refreshing contrast to the dueling strands of boosterism and (needed) criticism that dominate popular writing about technology. One of my favorite fragments is a dialogue between two people identified only by their initials:
F.: “A writer like Modiano has become impossible, now that we know everything about everyone and nothing is threatened with absolute oblivion.”
H.: “One day, email will be a hundred years old. Then two hundred, three hundred, etc. Philosophy or literature scholars in the year 2500 will unearth forgotten or deleted emails the authors they are working on wrote several centuries earlier. . . . People will say: I found an old Facebook profile from fifty years ago, from two hundred years ago. . . . A writer like Modiano, therefore, hasn’t become impossible. A Modiano of the year 2080 will create plots and atmospheres out of peculiar friend connections, “blanks” in a biography time line, or a few photographs that have been online for decades and in which one often sees—particularly at some grand parties that took place on avenue Marceau in 2025—a single pensive face whose name, mysteriously, has never been tagged.”
This imaginative exercise is beautiful the way a satellite picture of earth is, recontextualizing the problems at hand in a way that makes them both more and less important—part of something big and noble, thus comfortingly insignificant in their particulars.
Such a picture, though, leaves out a lot that is essential to understanding. There are broad and deep currents of online life that you wouldn’t know existed from reading Renouard’s fragments: the stranglehold in which a few corporations hold the web, the mass incentivization of disinformation, the rampant sexism and racism, the incursion of advertising into ever more areas of life, the algorithmic flattening of taste, the abhorrent labor practices, the environmental destruction. Yes, this is only a disjointed memoir; Renouard wasn’t trying to write a comprehensive treatise. But especially in light of how observant he can be, the scope of what he doesn’t notice or address stands out.
Then again, if the internet is “coextensive with all our mental acts,” that is because it’s so coextensive with the whole internet-connected world that any book about it could not fail to leave out almost everything. Writing about the internet is, in this light, no different than writing about life. And who would ask that a person writing about “life” come at their subject from so many angles? My instinct to make such a request of Renouard springs from the same source as his desire to consider the internet—in spite of his own observations—as a thing apart. That source, in many corners of the earth, is rapidly drying up. It’s the lingering memory of what life was like before.