Leigh Alexander on finding joy and connection online

In “Online Reunion,” author Leigh Alexander imagines a world in which a young journalist is struggling with a compulsive “time sickness,” so she sets out to write a tearjerker about a widow reconnecting with her dead husband’s e-pet — but she finds something very different waiting for her in the internet ether. A self-described “recovering journalist” with a decade of experience writing about video games and technology, Alexander has since branched out into fiction, including an official Netrunner book, Monitor, and narrative design work for games like Reigns: Her Majesty and Reigns: Game of Thrones.

The Verge spoke with Alexander about finding joy and connection online, preserving digital history, and seeing the mystical in the technological.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

What makes e-pets interesting to you, particularly in a story about a better world? Or as Sarrapere puts it: “Pets? Why do I give a rat?”

I came of age during a time when being on the internet felt like wandering through relatively undiscovered territory, getting attached to whatever you came across. It feels to me like all of these clunky, free, webtoon paper doll sites, pink online worlds, and inscrutable animal-raising shareware games were part of an early computing vocabulary for young women, in particular.

When I felt around in my feelings about the future for something that felt “better,” it was the idea that there might be some way of returning to that feeling of being excited by technology, by internet strangers, by all of these little toys and games, and finding it a safe and connecting place: “When all of my friends are online at once,” as artist Gene McHugh put it back in 2013. Virtual pets, in particular, felt appropriate to focus on here because they really express how weird it is when care and labor become entangled with technology products, and that’s something I seem to return to a lot in my fiction.

Author Leigh Alexander

Video games and interactive experiences like e-pets are particularly vulnerable to obsolescence due to the ways platforms and communities often move on with no way to carry them forward. What do we lose when those experiences and histories become inaccessible, and how important is it to preserve them?

I’m glad you mentioned this. It really freaks me out that our digital spaces are increasingly owned by only a few corporations whose algorithms study you and reflect back a biased version of the world at you. Meanwhile, it falls to basically volunteers and hobbyists to archive actual digital histories. Old computer games are these wonderfully weird and broken tactile things that are full of innocent spaces and quirks.

I’ll often go back to some crude parser game from 1984 that is like 200 kilobytes in size and find that, in fewer words, early developers grappled with the same questions about the medium and the same hopes as the creators and critics of today, who believe ourselves to be significantly advanced. Or I’ll find the astonishing gleam of moonlight on a fantastical lake, rendered only in a few elegant suggestions of violet, green, and white lines against a black screen.

There are all of these things the tech industry achieved and disregarded or didn’t learn from, thanks to the priorities of capitalism. The industry thrives on the fantasy of “what’s coming next,” but I see the anxieties caused by the internet age where the need for a digital identity increases at an inverse proportion to our control over our digital identities, and I wonder if we will regret rushing.

Also, I’ve now been on the internet long enough to have complicated feelings about my history in the space — like, maybe I want my teenage AOL role-play logs to survive somewhere. But do I really want that to mean that anybody anywhere can theoretically dredge them up and mail them to my future employers if I were to I alienate the wrong group on social media? What to preserve, who’s preserving it, who decides what I can access, and who can access things about me? It feels to me like these issues are key to any speculation about humans in the future, unless something drastically changes soon.

I’m curious to know more about the time sickness that afflicts Jean in the story. It felt a little like the sort of compulsion and time distortion that some people experience around extreme internet usage. Is there something inherently pathological in spending too much time logged in, something that distances us from others rather than connecting us?

Your interpretation is pretty right on. I’ve been working on this “time sickness” idea in a couple other stories, too. I think the social media environment creates a compulsion to be connected, and I think it is gradually training some of us to expect more stimulation, more interaction, and more “reward” than we once would have been comfortable with in a similar period of time. It often feels like I’m frying circuits or something by going through so many things, with so many people. I learned late in life that I likely am a pretty classic case of a woman who has learned to mask attention deficit disorder (ADD). And, for me, symptoms recognized as being part of ADD are inextricably tied to the way I use the internet. I developed both at the same young age.

Recently, though, it feels like I’ve begun to depart radically from even the ways I processed events and connected to people in my teens as a result of my social media habits and their effect on me. On one hand, I’m glad to know the things I didn’t know before, to regularly experience the desire for justice in ways I might have been cushioned from in the past. But you know when someone on Twitter is like, “Can you believe [x event] was only a year ago?” And whatever hot topic it was actually feels like it was ages away? Like, how long has Donald Trump been president? I have literally lost my ability to judge time because I process feelings and moments in these hyperconnected, real-time ways, sometimes with hundreds of people.

It feels like it affects my real life, and it feels like it’s been somewhat recent. I can’t imagine it won’t have implications for more people. I think media people and others who “have to” be extremely online are particularly vulnerable to this, which is why I made Jean a sort of “journalist.” In my dramatic moments, I envision some neuroscientist announcing that our brains are actually changing, that if I lie awake scrolling and scrolling in feedback loops while pregnant, it could affect my child, or something like that. I know this sounds incredibly paranoid, but this is what happens to me now when I try to think about the future. I can’t even say “science fiction” right now. The compelling, fascinating, beautiful, terrifying car crash of humanity and technology is right here.

We typically think about metadata in very invasive ways when it comes to personal privacy. But here, it acted not as a violation but as a form of healing. Do you see a potential benevolence in the possibilities of metadata, at least when it’s self-applied? To what degree are the e-pets here entities or relationships separate from the owners, and to what degree are they an extension of themselves?

Well, that would be the dream, I guess, if it somehow “all turned out to be for something.” If there was this sort of unintended beauty and humanity emerging over time from these rampaging designs. It comforts me to think about technology in the same way I think about magic in nature: everything is given power by an intention, and just because we have established systems and patterns for things doesn’t mean we fully understand a mystery or that we can control it. I hear people using almost mystical terminologies to talk about data or artificial intelligence, and most technology innovations get funded by appealing to our literal sense of awe.

I kind of like that. I would rather think about the tech world as a form of human magic, as capable of invoking awe and mystery, because that would mean it had its own laws, its own ecosystems, beyond us. And it would mean that even in a world where, let’s say, a corporation owns all of my data, my data itself, as a part of me, might be able to act on my behalf. Like instead of internet germs we leave behind like DNA, they’re more like spiritual echoes that allow us to be “known” through data by someone even more powerful than the corporation.

The idea that your virtual pets might still be alive, wanting to find you and provide care for you, was so sweet to me. It was a simple way of expressing that magical hope.

One thing I found interesting about “Online Reunion” is that I — like Jean and her editor — initially perceived it as something between a ghost story and a love story. But ultimately, it felt more like a story about different sorts of relationships, about reconnection with old friends and with yourself. What made that a more interesting story, in the end — for you, for your readers, and for Jean’s?

We learned over the election cycle that these systems we now depend on to get our news about the world and one another can be rigged to advance a particular narrative. We had the dangerous belief that technology was inherently neutral, that any procedure involving data was inherently neutral, and now we have a world where lots of what we see is crafted to suit our preferences. We all get these incredibly specific reflections from the digital environment. (I get advertised mugs that are not even that far off from “Don’t mess with a LIBRA from HOUSE LANNISTER who SMOKES WEED!”)

Content creators, whether they’re on YouTube or writing articles or on Twitch or whatever, are constantly contorting to keep up with the latest trends to keep their subscriber numbers from plummeting. (Who cares what you really do? This week, you need to have DIY SLIME INVOLVED!) So we already live in a world in which content creation is led by the need to satisfy specific appetites and where hitting previously anticipated “key beats” to gain views or whatever is probably going to become more of a priority than the truth.

Obviously, this is nothing new in itself. I just know I’m soliciting multiple 20-paragraph emails from guys wanting to tell me about Marshall McLuhan and stuff like that. But when you factor in the questions and concerns we have about preservation and neutrality, I often think about whether “the truth” of our times will be readable in the future, or if centuries from now, people won’t be able to tell whether these two Instagram stars with 6 million followers each were really in a couple, or if they just conspired to post elaborate dating, breakup, and makeup posts and stories for the ‘gram narrative.

I think Jean’s insistence on seeing a heteronormative tragedy here says a lot about Jean. She’s a not-so-recovering addict who seems to have been isolated recently, and she resents her partner’s desire for social attention because she sees it as a threat. Jean’s unwillingness to see the truth about Mrs. Marchenstamp is similar to her denial about herself, that she is the one in the tragic situation. And I always think stories of nuanced women’s friendships, broad ranges of intimacy and interconnection are more interesting than tragic romances, especially when I’m aiming to have even a little queerness in my stories.

Although you have many years of experience as a journalist in the video game and tech spheres, I know you’ve been moving more toward prose fiction and narrative design work in video games recently, particularly on Reigns: Her Majesty and Reigns: Game of Thrones. What excites you about telling stories right now, and what kind of stories do you want to tell?

I really like writing and doing narrative design for video games, and I’m learning so much about using systems to tell stories. I’m going to sound tedious because, of course, people say something like this every five years, and it never comes true, but I actually believe audiences are ready for small, independent games that help extend their experiences around their favorite universes. Like little fan-fic generators, or side doors into the world of a series or a particular character.

Getting to work on Reigns: Game of Thrones was so cool, but what was amazing was that the team was so small. The success it’s had so far bodes really well for small teams that are just the right fit, to do these kinds of extensions to quality with a lot of creative control, versus the usual mode of “I guess we’ll make an interactive movie of this property.” There is so much people can do in this space, and I would love to be a part of it.

Trying to do more fiction has been part of that plan, I feel like. I recently had a piece in RESIST, Gary Whitta, Hugh Howey, and Christine Yant’s sci-fi anthology to benefit the ACLU, and there are a couple of other stories on my website that represent some of the themes I’m really longing to work with in fiction, narrative design, and perhaps even screenwriting. I have a new story about a cyborg mermaid who washes up in the Thames that I’m hoping to publish somewhere cool, and I need to bite the bullet and get an agent soon, so I’d love to hear from anyone who wants to work together on these kinds of themes.

I think it’s such an exciting time to be telling stories about the future. I really believe in the power of fiction to change outcomes… but then again, the tech industry looked at the inequality, desperation, and malaise of cyberpunk and went, “Cool, I want that.” They’re still going, “Cool, I want that.”

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