Are We Losing Our Humanity to Big Tech?

When Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp went offline earlier this week, proving just how reliant on social media we’ve become, it set an ironic stage for the release of Dave Eggers’s new dystopian novel, The Every. A follow-up to 2013’s The Circle, the new book takes place approximately 10 years in the future, when the world’s largest search engine and social media company merges with the leading e-commerce site (Amazon) to form the Every, the wealthiest, most powerful, and, subsequently, most dangerous monopoly of all time. A contemporary answer to George Orwell’s 1984, it’s a prescient—and hilarious—meditation on the rise of tech giants and how our blind trust in them could ultimately be our demise.

The book kicks off with its anti-tech protagonist, Delaney, plotting to take down the Every from the inside. After making it through an intense hiring process, she finally sets foot in the Every’s sprawling utopic California campus, where she encounters a succession of coworkers, each uniquely unhinged, who embody the worst of tech’s unsettling side effects. There’s skittish Kiki, whose every move is dictated by automated “self-improvement” alerts from her oval (think a sophisticated and highly integrated Apple Watch) that in reality are pushing her toward a nervous breakdown; Alessandro, who lives in constant paranoia of saying something incorrect or inappropriate and losing his job (all Every employees are monitored by AI while on campus and in public); and feeble yet self-righteous Syl, who takes pleasure in publicly shaming others for even the most minor of transgressions.

With the help of her best friend, Wes, a talented programmer and fellow infiltrator, Delaney hatches a plan to pitch apps that, while appealingly innovative to the Every, are so blatantly detrimental to humanity that when released, the public will have no choice but to repudiate the company once and for all. But to Delaney and Wes’s horror, each app—like Friendy, which allows users to quantify the authenticity of their friends through video calls; Did I?, which, linked to users’ ovals, tells them if they reached orgasm during sex; and Concensus, a decision-making app that relies on public input and polling—becomes incredibly popular. The backfire demonstrates our increasing complicity in relinquishing our judgment and free will to algorithms and statistics—a theme Eggers returns to throughout the novel.

Ahead of the book’s release, BAZAAR.com speaks with the author over the phone about tackling the evolution of tech through humor, the irony of innovation, and why opinion and choice are the most powerful forms of resistance.

Did you write The Circle with this sequel in mind, or was The Every an unexpected piggyback?

Definitely the latter. I had no inkling at all about writing a follow-up. The Circle came out in 2013, and I think it was probably 2017 when I started really thinking that there were a lot of new developments going on in the world that were in some ways an extension of the themes in The Circle, but in a lot of ways really new. And a lot of them were funnier. Even though there are a few connective threads between the two books, The Every starts maybe 10 years after The Circle, and in some ways, could exist independently.

In a way, with a dystopian novel, you’re just desperate to be wrong.

What’s in The Every is a real-time reaction to what’s happened since The Circle in regard to the progression of tech and the monopolization of the industry. Did you just see so much crazy stuff happening that you thought, I need to write about this?

Yeah, it’s usually when I see a new direction where we’re going as a species. I think that the main trend that I was particularly interested in exploring through a novel was the ceding of control over our lives to algorithms and data, and our increasing discomfort with uncertainty, ambiguity, and nuance. I just kept finding in every aspect that we’re no longer trusting other humans to make decisions, and at the same time, we’re becoming less comfortable with making them ourselves.

Whether it’s or umpires in baseball or teachers and grades or judges in the criminal justice system, there’s so many aspects of society wherein we no longer feel comfortable with the fallibility of human judgment.

The character of Kiki seems to embody that idea—she relies on her oval to tell her how to lead her life based on statistics and quotas.

Yeah, Kiki exemplifies how that theme manifests itself on a very personal level. She has all of these goals for herself, like we all do, and she’s using these tools to help her achieve them. But then she no longer has or really wants control over her daily life, because she feels like she’s going to waste that time and not use it as sufficiently as possible.

Right now, the market is flooded with apps that tell us that they’ll make us better and schedule our day and that they know how many breaths we’re supposed to take and steps we’re supposed to take and how many calories we should have and the heart rate that we should be seeking when we run and on and on, to the point where any ambiguity left makes us uncomfortable.

It creates anxiety, which is exacerbated by the pandemic, but people really have been promised a level of certainty and predictability in life that I think might be unrealistic. Those are some of the themes that I saw developing, and then [in the book] I had to try to turn them up to 11—that’s where both the terror and the comedy comes in.

When did you start writing the book, and did the pandemic and the events of last year affect the narrative at all?

It was almost finished when the pandemic hit. There’s always that temptation to revise because of recent events, so the mentions of the pandemics plural that I make here and there [in the book]; those were really late entries.

The Every’s monopolization of the tech industry and, really, every industry on some level serves as the framework for the whole book. Was it eerie watching Amazon’s colossal growth during the pandemic, knowing that you had predicted a similar narrative?

I think whenever you try to see 10 years in the future, you’re going to get at least 50 percent of things right and 50 percent of things really wrong. In a way, with a dystopian novel, you’re just desperate to be wrong.

What I hope that I’m wrong about in this case is with the Every; it’s a beloved monopoly, people love the convenience, they love the efficiency of pushing one button, having everything in one place, all of their communication and social media and e-commerce, all aggregated in one place. From the beginning of time, people have sought simplicity and convenience.

We’re no longer trusting other humans to make decisions, and at the same time, we’re becoming less comfortable with making them ourselves.

So our comfort level with this particular monopoly, whether it’s the Every or Amazon, is always startling when you think about it. With the pandemic, the convenience was really important to people. It was amazing to see just how quickly Amazon grew and how many more Prime members they got, and how many more converts they got during that time. The pandemic accelerated a lot: It accelerated the power of that one monopoly. It accelerated our addiction to screens. It accelerated our discomfort with other people and interactions. It accelerated all these things that were already where we were going as a species.

What I found especially disturbing about the book was the characters’ complacency with their loss of privacy. What in our day-to-day lives led you to envision that dark future?

Every day, we know we’re being surveilled, whether it’s through our phones or through cameras. The average American is photographed about 240 times a week. There’s not a lot we can do about it, and so we live with it, especially since it’s not like these pictures of us show up on the Internet the next day, and they’re embarrassing. It’s mostly passive, and mostly for use in case something goes wrong. But our comfort level with it was startling to me, because there is so rarely pushback.

I think that there’s no level of surveillance that we will be uncomfortable with, especially if it makes us safer. I think within 20 years, surveillance cameras will be common and even legally required inside the home, because they will save lives. And if you think about the effect it might have on domestic violence, which affects 10 million people a year, how do you argue against that?

I don’t even know how I feel about it, because I often have that 50/50 debate. I’m like, “Well, if even one life could be saved … ” But at the same time, it makes my skin crawl to think that no one will ever have a private moment again, unless it’s hiding in the bathroom.

In the book and in our real lives, we’re so eager to solve problems that are arising, be they anxiety or depression or climate change, with tech, when oftentimes, tech is either the cause of or contributes to the problem in the first place. How can we reconcile our need to innovate with the destruction that it can cause?

You nailed it, exactly. Those are the issues and the paradoxes that I really love the most, and some of them are too complex. I don’t have the answer very often. I just point out how absurd it is, just like you’re recognizing. The most absurd thing of all is that tech-centric humans are always thinking of the technology to solve the problem. It’s never an option to not have a non-technology-oriented solution.

In the book, Delaney invents an app and says that to treat depression among teenagers, we need to keep them on their phones more, which really made me sick to my stomach to even write, because I’m a father to a teenager and a tween. I’m horrified by much of what teenage girls have to deal with online. Depression is a big problem. Suicidal ideation rates have been skyrocketing. All of these things that are directly tied to the rise of the smartphone. But we can’t put that genie back in the bottle. So let’s think of a way to use the same technology that’s causing the problem to somehow alleviate it. It is such a terrifying way of thinking.

The most absurd thing of all is that tech-centric humans are always thinking of the technology to solve the problem. It’s never an option to not have a non-technology-oriented solution.

In the book, they determine the quality of art—like movies, books—by assigning numerical ratings to things based on predetermined standards. It’s heartbreaking because it seems to defeat what art is about in the first place, though it’s something we already do in our world today. How can we push back against this?

It’s going this way because people have discomfort with subjectivity. I see it among teenagers who are really uncomfortable with an English teacher telling them, “That’s a B, and that’s a B+, and that’s a B-.” What right do they have? Isn’t there bias? Isn’t there fallibility? Wouldn’t it be better if an algorithm rated my English paper, because there would be consistency and fairness?

I think that we can individually just say, “You know what? That’s just nonsense. I’m not going to accept a numerical rating for poetry. I’m going to fight back with that one.” We’ve accepted it for film. We’ve accepted it for books. We’re going to fight back with dance and poetry. We’re not going to allow those two art forms to be numerified. I think every so often, you do have a chance to create a little bit of a firewall for at least a few years, where we can have a little bit of nuance left in this one little corner of life.

Yeah, and I can’t imagine how boring art would be moving forward if everyone was just trying to adhere to some guidelines. How do you hope people turn what they read into some sort of action?

We are definitely trying to become robots, in every way possible. That’s where 99.9 percent of everything we do is going. But I think that if at least some people say, “Eh, not me,” and embrace the wild and free and unknowable, then I think that we can continue to be an interesting species.

It’s an ongoing battle that we have to be conscious of and push back against when we can. I don’t think that this book will change the behavior of any of the tech companies, but on a personal level, I think books sometimes have a way of worming their way into your head, in a way that’s like, “Huh, I’d rather do this than that. I saw this negative example of what happened to Kiki, and I don’t want to become a Kiki.” So sometimes, we can illustrate an undesirable path, such that we can take the other path and run into that fork in the road.

If at least some people say, ‘Eh, not me,’ and embrace the wild and free and unknowable, then I think that we can continue to be an interesting species.

Speaking of making those choices, the hardcover version of The Every will be available only in indie bookstores. Why did you make that decision?

The hardcover will only ever be in independent bookstores, and the jackets and the packaging will keep changing, just to prove that we can. I have a right to change it; it’s not a widget, and it’s not an app. It’s an idiosyncratic art form that really finds its best partnership with idiosyncratic bookstores that are okay with opening the box, and there’s a different cover, or I’ve added a chapter or whatever I want to do without an algorithm telling me that I can’t.

That is actually the case with Amazon—I had it explained to me that if I was to have multiple jackets for the book, somebody might order one and get a different one, and then they would give it one-star rating. And then if there were too many one-star ratings, the algorithm would de-preference it, and then it wouldn’t sell well, and blah, blah, blah.

People are making creative decisions based on what an algorithm says, which is horrifying. The more that tech companies own the means of production and own movie studios and own other cultural producing entities, the more that production will be subject to monopolistic thinking.

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