© 2020 J.M. Berger
Jack has known nothing but the System his entire life. He rises when it tells him to, he dresses in the outfit its algorithms choose for him, he follows prompts to a selected diner and finds a delicious and nutritionally-varied meal waiting for him at the table, no waiting required. From his work to his social life (romantic interactions included), the System has taken good care of him. When the System assigns him a new task – finding a man who has disappeared, somehow dropping off the System’s grid – his tidy, content world will begin to unravel. Optimal offers us food for thought as we travel through a world only different from ours by degree.
Most of us can still remember a world before big data: we’d come of age when Gmail arrived and when we began learning that Apple, Microsoft, Google, and others routinely collected and analyzed the data our online activity generated, we were properly horrified – at least, for a few minutes. Then another news story pushed itself to the top of the feed, Amazon alerted us to a new book that was exactly the kind of thing it knows we liked to read, and we forgot. Imagine a world, though, so completely ruled by algorithms that most people needn’t make any decision at all: their clothes, food, and even leisure activities are suggested to them. The System is always watching, always making helpful suggestions. Optimal’s main character was reared in such a world, and he’s found it works very well for him, most of the time. Sure, there are times when the System’s benevolent administration of Jack’s life doesn’t square with what he’d like( he yearns to be an artist, for instance, despite the System insisting that he has the soul of an accountant) but on the whole, he can’t complain. He’s a happy, safe hamster on his wheel – until he begins investigating the disappearance of a man whom he discovers was sharply critical of the System. An antique radio reveals an illicit broadcast that blows into Jack’s mind and awakens him to new possibilities.
There’s not much I can say about the plot of Optimal that won’t give it away and deny potential readers the sinister thrill of learning about this Brave New World and its hidden flaws. Perhaps what’s most notable about Optimal’s world is that there’s no obvious coercion: the System rules by suggestion. If its prescriptions are followed, users can expect a steady stream of rewarding moments: if not, they encounter subtle friction, to the point that the desired object loses interest for them: the juice is no longer worth the squeeze. For some, though, impulse and reward are insufficient: they demand fulfillment, meaning, purpose – agency. Optimal creates a picture of a world that is dystopian despite its idyll, and bears thinking about given how much of our own reality is shaped by algorithms. It’s not an accident that the rule of the System came about through ‘information wars’, chaos created by people living in different intellectual worlds from the other – each living in their own filter bubble, in increasingly smaller conceptions of the outside universe. (Berger has done previous work on the origins of extremism, making his analysis particularly interesting despite the fictional setting.) How many people evaluate their own view of reality, moderated as it is through TV and social media feeds? How many people deliberately consider the view from other eyes? Entertainment queues, too, push our being: we Flanderize ourselves by allowing the discovery menu to make part of our interests become the whole of our viewing consumption.
Optimal is a fascinating, thoughtful thriller about the world to come. Definite reccommendation.