Joshua Cohen Is Watching You
In “Book of Numbers,” novelist Joshua Cohen has written a fictional exposé of the technological consequences of surveillance. The novel itself is quite a read, a nearly 600-page whirlwind that focuses on the protagonist, Joshua Cohen, a washed-up writer who has been chosen to write the memoir of another Joshua Cohen, the billionaire founder of a Google-like company called Tetration.
“Book of Numbers” thoughtfully examines themes of enslavement and rebellion in Jewish history, which transpose our modern subjugation to technology and all its conspicuous and hidden effects on society.
I sat down recently with Cohen near his home in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn to discuss his impetus for writing the book, technology’s effects on human behavior and writing fiction for himself, as opposed to the masses.
Jillian Scheinfeld: It seems that, as human beings throughout history, it’s quite easy for us to remember, but exceedingly easier to forget. I think we can attribute that forgetfulness even more now to our constant news cycle; the information has become an addiction. Do you see this trend as detrimental to society, or conversely, is it making us more perceptive, more curious?
Joshua Cohen: Because this is in an interview for the Forward, where I worked for six years, I’ll give you the Jewish answer to that question. To outsource your memory to machines — which is what many of us do with regard to our use of search engines — seems to me to be fairly antithetical to the basic qualities of Jewish life that have kept the Jews alive for so long. Nowadays, every smartphone is a model or symbol of portable intelligence, whereas Jews were their own portable intelligences for years. When you would have to leave a country, you would take whatever you could fit on your back, but you would really take whatever you could fit in your head. And that in many ways is responsible for notions of Jewish intelligence and Jewish continuity. When knowledge no longer becomes the commodity of the few, but in a sense becomes equalized by everyone having access, you lose some aspect of Jewish particularity, or at least a Jewish particularity that is fundamental to the construct of Jews as people of the book, which was always interesting. It was the people of the book, but it was more importantly almost always the book in the head. So yes, it does represent something of a shift.
While I was reading your book, I couldn’t control my urge to look at my phone every 10 pages or so for an email or a text. Do you suffer from the same woes?
Really? Hmm, well, I suffer from rage and anger. When I feel that I’m induced to look away from something I know I want to be doing, that rage usually brings me back. I don’t like being victimized by a machine or by other people’s demands on my time. I become resentful by feeling forced or incentivized to live a life I don’t want to live. That rage in general prevents me from entirely becoming enslaved by technology.
Enslaved, exactly. In some ways it feels like the Internet has become as transformative as the Bible. Do you think there is a greater belief now in the machine than in humankind?
I think that technology is essentially a continuation of a divestment of theological power that’s been happening since The Enlightenment. It’s the idea that God can see and hear everything. There are many people who believed this and still believe this, that He or She or It can see all of your thoughts and knows everything you’ve done. And you have the notion then of sin. Even when you sin alone, when no one else can see you, you’re still subject to that surveillance. Then when you transition or devolve those powers of surveillance from God to a state, a state which has technologically replicated the sensorium of God, our notions of sin may be restricted of theological implications, but they still have deep social implications. And so I think that the same sense of sin and conduct still exists, it’s just socially enforced. And it might always have been socially enforced — especially in pre-Haskalah Jewish communities, the social enforcement was the religious enforcement, there was no distinction.
I read in The Times that while you were in the process of writing “Book of Numbers,” the news of WikiLeaks was first announced. There is a character in the book, Thor Ang Balk, who closely mirrors Julian Assange. What was your reaction to the timing and overlap of fiction and real life?
Yes, I had largely finished a draft of the book. Transparency always cuts both ways, regardless of power and balances. So, for WikiLeaks, for example, private citizens could read government communications, which stood to reason that the government could also read our private communications. Especially because companies aren’t infrastructure, and infrastructure, the famous “tubes” of the Internet, are largely maintained by government. I’ve read enough pulp science fiction and I’ve lived in enough former Soviet bloc countries to not in any way be surprised by this fairly mundane deployment of technology.
What was your Jewish background growing up?
Well, I had a bris. I went to Hebrew Academy in Atlantic City, New Jersey, for 14 years. We had Torah, Gemara, Hebrew studies, two hours of general studies, and they threw us out. We had to wear tzitzit and a yarmulke. You had to do extra chores if you didn’t wear them.
In the book you write about “Autotet,” a fictional representation of what we see now with search engines personalizing our interests daily. Do you think this is leading to the dumbing down of society, making us not have to leave our comfort zones?
Yes, you get stuck in the feedback, sure. You become a victim of your own prior behavior. If you constantly live your future predicated on the decisions made in your past, how do you grow? You wouldn’t consent to that in almost any other medium.
What’s the research component that went into this book? Have you always been interested in numbers and technology?
I actually have always not been a math guy. I had a lot of trouble with math as a child, and I only really came to understand it on my own. I always had somewhat of a learning disability with math; it was the one subject that gave me trouble at a very young age. For the research process, I read nearly 200 books, a number of them published memoirs, some about people who worked at Xerox PARC. I read coding manuals. I took some coding classes online, which is like learning a new language. I spoke with a few people who worked at Google and Apple, and some friends of mine that I went to school with who have startups. Also, I spoke with a friend of mine who is a lawyer for the [American Civil Liberties Union], who was also Edward Snowden’s legal counsel.
What was your fascination or obsession with the subject of technology that led you to write the book?
For me, obsessions are as much emotional as they are intellectual and formal. So, while it was tempting to try and make sense of what technology means to me — what technology means to us, however you want to interpret “us” — it really came together with a reading of Bamidbar Rabbah. There was a metaphor that was recurring to me: this generation coming out of slavery from Mitzrayim, and wandering and dying out so that only the new, shiny generation could inherit the future and the land. That seemed to me to be a fairly pertinent analogy for our time now, where you have a generation enslaved to the book, and this idea of the Promised Land as the Zion of the screen. Something about that entire period of rebellion in the desert, and that period of strange, cultic practices, madness and quantification, struck me as ripe for some sort of transposition to a contemporary context.
It seems to me that you have to be fluent in “Jew” in order to fully understand the book and a lot of its language. Was that purposeful, to not “decode” for others?
If you think about one person, you have to think about two people; if you think about two people, you have to think about three. Where do you stop? The problem with the Internet is that it makes you think like that. You’re writing for the largest audience ever, and you’re published by a large publishing house who wants to sell as many copies as possible. And I have no interest; I’ll speak to people who want to listen. Before everything went to shit, probably when Random House gutted Schocken, the great German Jewish publisher — whenever there was a word that a Jew would use normally, like “Kaddish,” it would always be in italics. I would always hate the italics because it took it out of its language. It said, “This is a foreign word that we are putting into this language,” whereas when I would use it, it seemed like it was all part of the same language, my language. I always hated that idea of translating yourself for a general audience. Demarcating what is English and what is not, what is ours and what is theirs, to me that was too much of a separation. I’m going to write what sounds right to my ear, and any who want to hear will hear, and any who won’t, wont.
After writing such a lengthy exposition of fiction that really mirrors a lot of the issues we see daily regarding the Internet, government and corporations, what has been one of the greatest lessons you’ve learned about corporate power and control?
I’ve learned that there are no lessons, or at least that I can’t learn them. I’ve learned that it’s really hard to write a book. I don’t believe in learning anything, I believe in making some of the same mistakes over and over again. Fiction can have a didactic purpose, but that’s not the fiction I’m interested in. I mean, yes, these companies victimize consumers, but they are being victimized by the government as well. It’s not like Google is happy that the U.S. government asks them for information. Why do we read fiction? It’s to read without learning something, or, more importantly maybe, to read fiction teaches you how to read and interpret the world. Nonfiction can be interpreted on a single valance; fiction, however, needs to be read in the way of interpreting the writer. You’re constantly unpacking fiction to understand its subtext, its connotative bent, and in doing that it teaches you to then question all statements, and all apparent presentations of reality. The only thing you can ever learn from fiction is to regard all the world as fiction and to parse it for the truth that you need, not the facts that you need.