On or about December 2011, human character changed. That month the pope sent his first message on Twitter, which had just rolled out a substantial redesign whose “Discover” tab would glean your data to push you personalized news and updates. A new service called Snapchat debuted, with which you could string together short videos of your daily activities into “stories” (it became a teen obsession, and was the first social media app to make me feel old). Facebook introduced its “Timeline,” a reverse-chronological biography of your posts, photos, and likes that together told what Mark Zuckerberg called “the story of your life.” In 2011 Apple released the iPhone 4S, with a new voice-operated assistant called Siri—and, more enduringly, it introduced a new keyboard with little pictographs that captured emotions in cartoon form. In 2011 I was twenty-seven and I was dating Ian: younger, diffuse, who unlike me lived in Brooklyn, whom I’d picked up, almost inevitably, at an n+1 issue launch party. It was Ian who showed me how to activate my phone’s still-optional emoji keyboard, and who started sending me smiley faces, rocket ships, cute animals, and lascivious peaches and eggplants.
That autumn Ian took me to Occupy Wall Street, in lower Manhattan. That summer the US government had come within days of a shutdown, averted only by a sadistic “sequester” of $1.2 trillion in budget cuts—but Occupy, which brought its hand signals and drumming circles to Zuccotti Park on September 17, stomped on the political class’s austerity fetish and proclaimed, in the words of the anthropologist David Graeber and the artist Georgia Sagri, “We are the 99%.” It did so not only in the real space of the park but online, via #OWS and associated hashtags, where it intermingled with people-power movements in Tunisia, Egypt, Chile, Turkey, and Ivory Coast, not to mention mini-Occupies from Detroit to Anchorage. A year earlier, Nicholas Carr had published The Shallows, his coruscating warning of “what the internet is doing to our brains,” but by 2011 public discourse had metabolized a bewitchingly naive faith in technology, particularly smartphones, for democratic renewal. “With Facebook, Twitter, and Yfrog [a now forgotten photo-sharing service] truth travels faster than lies,” the left-wing journalist Paul Mason wrote in The Guardian in 2011. The Deterritorial Support Group, an artist collective, had a memorable poster that circulated among live and digital protesters: “Strike! Occupy! Retweet!”
Overthrow, Caleb Crain’s second novel, returns us to this heady moment of democracy and technology, though its scenes at Occupy Wall Street are concentrated at the start of the book, and most of the action takes place at the end of 2011 and the beginning of 2012: after Michael Bloomberg’s police had cleared the Zuccotti Park encampments, and while activists like…
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