© 2021 Dave Eggers
Nearly ten years ago, Dave Eggers published The Circle, about the rise of an uber-corporation whose products had transformed not only the digital world, but were beginning to shape society as well. Think of Google, but add to its influence that of facebook and Apple, and you have some idea of The Circle’s power – but that was only the beginning. Having devoured a company that sounds an awful lot like Amazon , the Circle has further metastasized into something far larger, more influential, and (to some) insidious: it is The Every. To Delaney Wells, The Every is an architect of human tyranny that needs to be destroyed – but no legislator has the will, let alone the power, to break it. She needs to get inside and find some way to make it implode, burying her aversion to Everything about this company long enough to subvert it. The result is a novel far darker but just as humorous in its satire as The Circle, targeting the technological prison we are building for itself as well as the culture of modern corporations in general.
Delaney is not quite alone in her quest to destroy the beast; she’s aided and abetted by her roommate and friend Wes, who shares her loathing of it in part, though he’s a techie who also occasionally mesmerized by the potential of new tools. His ability to see and use the promise of tech makes him Delaney’s key ally: their idea to destroy the Every is to feed it ideas that fit its appetites perfectly, but will be so obnoxious and invasive to most people that consumers will rise up in rebellion against the new Panopticon. As a new employee, Delaney is rotated through departments to gain a concept of The Every’s scope of operations, and at nearly every stage she and Wes feed ideas into the beast. To their rising horror, though, upping the ante doesn’t work: the few consumers who resist the invasiness are quickly overwhelmed by popular opinion (which is God in this hyperconnected world where thoughtcriminals can be shamed into oblivion and poverty) or otherwise marginalized. Delaney and Wes are expanding and perfecting the dystopia, not sowing the seed for its destruction – and because of its global scope, the goings-on of the Every have drastic repercussions for society. That’s part of the problem, the sugar coating the poison of The Every’s command and control of most of the global market and most of the global populace: its tyranny can make some things better, reducing waste, improving health, and eliminating violent crime. The only price is human flourishing.
The Every succeeds as a tech thriller, with few kinks in the narrative to keep things interesting. Having read Eggers before, I had some suspicion of the ending, but there were surprises enough to keep me wondering. Where’s it’s most effective, though, is where it doubles down on the growing horror of The Circle, in slowly painting a picture of humans completely possessed by their own devices. We saw in The Circle how experiences were completely reduced to sharable moments, newsfeed fodder: everything became tragically shallow, yet was taken all the more seriously by the book’s hyperconsumer characters. This has only increased in The Every, but is made far worse. Various Every apps constantly ping their users to prompt them to pay attention to certainly daily goals, so we witness characters stop in mid-conversation to start jogging in place (need those steps!), laughing randomly, or shouting words to increase their vocabulary. More unsettling is that this is regarded as normal behavior, at least within the Every’s campus – an island unto itself, where skintight lycra is the norm, and language is insipid and inoffensive when it’s not incomprehensible corporate jargon. Although members of The Every are adapted to being nothing more than human rats in an elaborate digital Skinner box, Delaney’s connections with those outside allow us to see more of the human costs, but more disturbingly, the ways people justify their rapidly decreasing agency by pointing to superficial material improvements. Sure, I live in a home where every system is controlled by algorithms created by an company with its own agendas, but it’s a comfortable place and I never have to go shopping again. It’s a new vision of Huxley.
The Every is both amusing and deeply disturbing; amusing in the way it mocks corporate culture and demonstrates what fools we can make of ourselves, dancing to the tune played by algorithms and bowing before big data and its technocrat handlers — but profoundly disturbing in its depiction of how small and enfeebled technology and contemporary culture can and are making us. Unimaginable is the human of old, who strode across continents, enduring all kind of weather and who put his mind and muscle to work creating civilization: here we find oversized toddlers, incapable of navigating their world without the constant voice in their head telling them where to go. We find people who, at the least amount of friction, opposition, or stress, shut down and shrink into themselves — who are always plugged in, always striving to be at the center of attention and constantly fearing that they’re being left out. It’s sad because this is not fiction, merely an exaggeration of what we already witness on a daily basis, the subjugation of a given person’s humanity by the Matrix-jacked consumer-creature, his inner Gollum forever trying to find his precious among the endless newsfeed.
Optimal, J.M. Berger. A novel set in a world controlled by The System, in which every aspect of human life is provided and guided by algorithms.
The Warehouse, Rob Hart. Another technocorporate dystopia.