This month, Nirica reviews Calvin Kasulke's Several People Are Typing, a satirical WFH comedy about a character who finds his consciousness stuck in Slack. She also recommends some of her favourite books and movies that explore the internet age. Read on for her review, and get your copy here.
One of the largest (and growing) anxieties of our time is undoubtedly this: that we are addicted to technology. We live within it. Now we’ve got everything from weddings to work meetings taking place entirely between us and our screens, but these last few years of WFH have only exacerbated an already existing reality for so many of us – a reality that means our phones and computers (and as a result, the companies that benefit from our use of them!) are inescapable.
Several People Are Typing, Calvin Kasulke’s epistolary, scifi, satirical novel, doesn’t just ask “what does it mean to be online?”, it asks “what does it mean to be online, and only online?” In it, its protagonist Gerald, an employee at a New York public relations firm, finds his consciousness uploaded to the company’s internal Slack channels. With no way to return to his mortal body, no ability to communicate outside of messages on Slack, and surrounded by colleagues who think it’s just a prank, Gerald employs the help of one of his co-workers to get him out of this mess. As the book goes on, his world gets more and more surreal.
This book is told entirely through Slack messages, which feels like an odd peek into someone else’s workplace – as if you walked to the wrong office one day and just decided not to leave (or as if you accidentally picked up someone else’s phone). Through the firm’s internal messages, we discover the many projects they’re working on, are privy to budding office romances, are part of office inside jokes, and witness Gerald’s alarming descent further and further into the internet. What’s keeping him here, and how will he ever escape?
It’s also fascinating to see, in a book told entirely through Slack messages, how Kasulke chooses to get information across to us. How do we find out what happens outside of this messaging interface? We learn of first dates via gossipy group chats, of course. Each character’s typing quirks inform us more about them as a person – the punctuation they use, their choices of emojis and acronyms.
Several People Are Typing might genuinely be my favourite piece of writing about the internet. While it’s timely in this age of working from home, it’s also speaking to a lot of larger questions that have been brewing in our collective consciousness for a while. It taps into the exact anxieties that surround us right now – the prevalence of tech in every aspect of our lives, the absurdity of work during times of crisis, and sometimes just the absurdity of work, full stop. Existentialism runs through it. (Gerald muses: “we’re not made to absorb this much human information at once, man. all the pathos and bathos and other thos-es”.) It’s surreal, thought-provoking, and relatable. And it’s also very, very fun.
If you, like me, spend a lot of time thinking about the internet (and spend a lot of time on Slack), do pick up a copy of Several People Are Typing. At the heart of it, like most pieces of media about the internet, it’s about a life beyond it, a life where there’s something worth putting down your phone for.
A recommended reading (and viewing) list:
Because Internet by Gretchen McCulloch, a linguist who studies how the internet is transforming language. McCulloch explores how punctuation can change the tone of a text, how your first experiences with the internet inform how you read and understand digital communication, and how language evolves and takes new forms in the digital space. Get your copy from Champaca.
Everything You Ever Wanted by Luiza Sauma, a near-future story that perfectly encapsulates the worst of work culture, and the allure of creating a life entirely anew. Buy your copy on our online store.
Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino, a book of essays by a digital native about life on the internet and its effect on culture, balancing the personal with larger cultural questions, in a thoughtful exploration of the way we live today. Also, these two essays in the New Yorker: “The Age of Instagram Face” and “What It Takes To Put Your Phone Away”. You can get your copy of Trick Mirror on our website, or choose to get yourself a gift box that pairs it with Samanta Schweblin’s Little Eyes, a dark and thought-provoking novel about technology and surveillance.
The Heavens by Sandra Newman, in which every night, Kate dreams that she's someone else, and somewhen else — Emilia, a woman in London in 1593. She dreams vividly of her other life, and awakens each day to find that the world has become increasingly unfamiliar, changing in unimaginable ways, small and large. A stunning exploration of the harsh world we inhabit, and the worlds we could have. Get your copy here.
I’ve also seen a lot of media recently that’s tried to capture the feeling of being in a phone: Janicza Bravo’s Zola (2021) is a film adaptation of a Twitter thread, stylistically complete with iPhone lock sounds and Twitter notification chimes, signaling its source material. Matt Spicer’s Ingrid Goes West (2014) is, among other things, about the fine line between the life we live offline and the carefully curated one we live online. Black Mirror’s Nosedive satirizes a prevailing obsession with social media and online validation. Aneesh Chaganty’s Searching (2018) is a mystery-thriller that, like Several People Are Typing, uses form in an interesting way, set entirely on smartphones and computer screens.