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Monday, December 11, 2023

Soothe Yourself With a Picture Book About the Internet Dying

In the beginning Gore created the internet, and for a while it wasn’t completely awful. Nyan Cat begat Grumpy Cat, the Ice Bucket Challenge begat the Dress, and the birds practically angered themselves. These days, not so much. We’ve been marched to the edge of the walled garden and curtly shown the door. We’re all of us sinners in the hands of an angry doge.


OK, but what if the screens suddenly went dark? What would life look like then? Chris Colin, a writer who runs a pandemic-themed children’s newspaper out of the Bay Area, answers that question in his new book OFF: The Day the Internet Died (A Bedtime Fantasy).

Illustrated by Rinee Shah and written in the style of Genesis (as in the Book of, not the band), OFF invites readers to imagine weeks, decades, centuries without the internet. The characters take walks IRL; they play Minecraft with sticks and leaves; they get “way into” D&D.

WIRED talked with Colin about OFF and his kids’ thoughts on spinach. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

What first got you thinking about writing this book? Was there a particular moment that inspired it?

I was coming out of that Marc Benioff profile I wrote for WIRED, which had gotten sort of intense. Doing something funny with pretty pictures sounded swell. Also, the internet was helping to destroy the fabric of our society at the time, while on a personal level sucking our souls out of our bodies. And I don't mean this to sound braggy, but I'd already visited literally hundreds of websites. So I was pretty, pretty familiar with the terrain.

As for particular moments, it's more that my discomfort with the internet had been coming to a gradual, cross-platform boil. All at once it seemed to be degrading our free time, our jobs, our discourse, our democracy, and our mental health—while simultaneously becoming ever more inextricable from every corner of our lives.

A few years ago I said yes to an editing gig at a large tech company, down on the Peninsula. Riding the famed tech bus, I discovered that passengers have a clear view into every passing car on 280. You see right into them. One day I looked down and saw a little old lady in a Camry not reading her phone while she drove.

She was the only one. Every single other damn person was fully texting and driving, constantly. I got mad at the first 7 million of them. Then I realized they were the symptom, not the disease. And the disease can only be cured via picture book.


So then are you a closet Luddite?

The opposite! I wrote a Luddite book and am closeted in my ambivalence!

Also, my career would vaporize without the internet, the online newspaper I started would cease to exist, and my own kids would've had to get educated by our toaster this past year. Also—pause to be serious a moment—a billion far less privileged people would be actually screwed.

But the fact that people are so utterly reliant on the internet strikes me as yet another reason to rethink this whole arrangement. If my family's well-being hinged on my drinking a little mercury every day, I'd be considering wholesale changes.

Why does the book begin “on the 11,402nd day”?

That was the biggest number I could think of.

Why did you choose to write in the voice of Goofy Old Testament?

The book imagines a foundational reset, a kind of regenesis. Seems like you're supposed to break out Bible talk for things like that. Also, if you're going to allude to Extreme Dog Fails and other internet-era inventions, the occasional “hath” and “come unto me” really gives you some gravitas.

Let’s talk about Rinee Shah’s illustrations. The people sort of look like they stepped out of a medieval church painting; they have flowing robes and halos and that “spooked shepherd” expression. But the dad is also wearing ’80s gym socks, and they’re all holding phones and tablets. There’s a similar highbrow-lowbrow thing going on with the typography. How did this all come about?

Rinee has a wonderfully distinctive and demented style. It's hilarious, but it also lends itself to an early Renaissance fresco vibe. Like if Fra Angelico had painted memes and middle-aged befuddlement.

She and I bonded quickly over our shared sense of what's absurd about life in this era.

Do you have a favorite illustration or character?

There's a page where the father finally starts to reconnect with his more imaginative pre-internet self. He gets his old flute down from the closet, notices clouds that look like camels, and at one point really zones out on his ceiling—how bare it is, what it'd be like to walk around up there.

That was pretty much ripped from my mental diary. Show me a bare ceiling and I'll go to town imagining life upside down, all that free space, stepping through doorways, etc. Unless I have my phone on me, in which case I'll just read some stupid thing about Ted Cruz instead.

In the book, it seems like the only negative effect of all the screens going dark is that sewage floods the family’s basement (because “turns out the internet controls the something something wastewater treatment sensor something”). Ignoring the really terrifying stuff for a moment—planes falling out of the sky, surgeries interrupted mid-suture, and so on—what do you think would be the hardest thing about screens disappearing?

For years I would’ve said that the internet empowers the disempowered, and cutting the cord would be a pro-status-quo move. I'm not sure anymore.

At a personal, non-cataclysmic level, I bet the hardest part of screenlessness would be the reacclimation period. We all know our attention spans and sense of self and general depth are suffering. But on those days when you convince yourself to unplug and just gaze out the window like you used to, OMG, it’s so boring. You really have to gird yourself for how slow IRL is initially.


The book sneaks up on you with a radical idea: It imagines that the screen outage goes on for centuries, and civilization changes form. I’m assuming neither of us really wants the internet to disappear, but are there parts of this vision we could or should bring into being?

To be crystal clear, my book is not what I’d call a serious tome. It features the words “fart” and “pee.”

But I do have a theory that I consider only partly crackpot. I think humanity is allotted a certain number of interactions, after which things unravel. Like, we can only inflict our insanity on one another a finite number of times before civilization disintegrates.

Which historically was fine, because I imagine that finite number to be high. But now that reality moves so fast—instant communication, manic news cycles, immediate cultural churn—I feel us rocketing toward that disintegration.

Anyway, if we can't go back in time and kill baby Al Gore before he invented the internet, I guess our next best move would be to use it less. Less arguing about who's right, less conspiracy theorizing, less looking at influencers lounging by infinity pools. I’m not someone who believes you can just unplug—it's too hard. But if you replace those dopamine hits with something else that feels good, you might have a shot. 

Do your kids like the book? Did they get the Saved by the Bell reference?

To my kids, my disdain for the internet is just some inexplicable, sad adult tic they must endure, like putting spinach in lasagna. As for Saved by the Bell, it probably seemed like I was quoting The Faerie Queen or something. If my cultural allusions stray too far beyond Minecraft or Harry Potter, their eyes roll all the way back in their heads. It's a good thing! For a couple more years my wife and I are not the most basic people in the house.

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