The Internet Is a Playground: Irreverent Correspondences of an Evil Online Genius. By David Thorne. Tarcher/Penguin. $14.95.
Does the Internet actually spawn idiots, as rotten meat was once thought to produce maggots by spontaneous generation? Or does it merely pull idiots to the forefront of others’ consciousness by making them think they are witty and smart rather than, well, idiots? Let us leave that question to the philosophers, among whom would decidedly not be counted David Thorne, Australian “humorist” and perpetrator of the Web site, www.27bslash6.com, whose vague relationship to George Orwell (perhaps cribbed by Thorne from Terry Gilliam) is the cleverest thing about his musings.
The other things about said musings are that they stand in microcosm for many things that are wrong with the Internet age and, from time to time, for some things that are right with it (the “from time to time” parts explain why the book gets a ++ rating rather than a +). The works of an author’s youth are often described as “juvenilia.” On that basis, The Internet Is a Playground should be called Thorne’s infantilia. Except – and this is a crucial element of the Internet age – quite a few alleged adults visit Thorne’s site regularly and apparently find him and his writings hysterically funny, apt, pithy, what-have-you. The fact that they are none of the above explains as much about the site’s visitors as it does about Thorne – more, actually, since Thorne has figured out how to profit from this stuff by getting other people to enjoy it so that they, in effect, provide free endorsements and a path to riches (hopefully modest ones, lest Thorne spawn huge numbers of imitators – oh wait, too late).
Thorne is something of an icon of the Internet age. Not especially talented or especially intelligent (at least on the basis of this book), he occasionally veers accidentally into some hysterically funny lines or observations that hit the proverbial nerve and lead people to think he is much more self-aware and analytical than he in fact is. One of the great lines of poetry by Alexander Pope (whom you can Google), regarding a rival poet, was, “Shadwell never deviates into sense,” a brilliant two-language pun (“deviates” is from Latin; you can Google it). Thorne, however, does deviate into sense from time to time, which surely explains the willingness of the usually reasonably intelligent people at Tarcher/Penguin to produce this handsome hardcover volume (well, it’s a trade paperback, actually, but if you care about the difference, you can Google it).
Thorne’s work has been endorsed by such high-ranking intellects of our time as David Letterman, Ellen DeGeneres and Conan O’Brien (you can Google them, but you probably don’t have to); so you know he has his finger on some sort of pulse. It is a pulse (beating faintly) in which Thorne makes life as miserable as possible for people to whom he owes money (a chiropractor to whom he twice tries to send spider drawings in payment of an overdue $233.95 bill); people who annoy him for no good reason (a neighbor whose cane furniture Thorne dislikes); businesses whose method of doing business he dislikes (IKEA for its carefully planned stores, Blockbuster for charging late fees, etc.); and elements of life to which he objects (apartment rental contracts). Like Gene Weingarten of The Washington Post, who has made something of a name for himself by calling customer-service representatives (whose job requires them to be polite to all callers) and asking them a series of inane, irritating and downright stupid questions, Thorne subjects everyone to whom he has even the slightest objection to a nearly unending torrent of E-mail abuse. But unlike Weingarten, Thorne uses plenty of four-letter words, so he must be funnier (you can Google it).
What seems to encourage Thorne in his ongoing inanities is that sometimes they get him what he wants (this is the “sandbox” approach to life, which is similar to the “playground” approach but, in Thorne’s case, includes use of the sandbox as a relief station for cats). What Thorne wants is to sleep as late as he wishes, do as little work as possible, smoke plenty of cigarettes, help no one, defy both reasonable and unreasonable authority, make plenty of money, and live without regard to the effects of his actions on anyone or anything. These are the things that help make him such a perfect icon of the Internet age. Among the many E-missives in this book are a number in which Thorne’s visceral inanity actually gets the results he seeks. For example, he repeatedly writes with snide nastiness to his son’s teacher, and eventually – just to shut Thorne up – the school reverses a punishment. He spins weirder and weirder tales about keeping animals in his apartment despite rules against doing so, and eventually the management decides – again, just to shut Thorne up – that it will make a note that he has no animals there. What seems to encourage Thorne wannabes (and there are lots of them commenting on just about every news article ever put online – you can Google it) and pump up his Web site’s visitor count is that so many of his targets really do, at some level, have it coming…and so many people wish they had the guts to give it to them. Some school rules are inane to the point of asininity; some businesses seem to choke off creativity at any opportunity; landlords as a group are not noted for their understanding and beneficence; the idea of police handling complaints about blogs rather than dealing with more serious issues is ridiculous; and so on. So although Thorne is a complete wanker (you can Google it), bravo to him for taking on these irritants of adult life in a manner so transparently juvenile, so thoroughly idiotic, that the bad guys’ defenses can’t figure out what to defend against, never mind how. Thorne deserves credit for pricking some bubbles of self-importance that can certainly use deflation. Unfortunately, at this point his own self-importance bubble is bigger than most of those he goes after. So the burning question raised by The Internet Is a Playground is: who will be the Thorne in Thorne’s side? Maybe you can Google it.