Dave Eggers’ heartbreaking list of staggering tech concerns: ‘We’re

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Brecht Van Maele

In Dave Eggers’ latest sci-fi dystopian vision, The Every, apps rate your friendships and your parents and tell you how much you enjoyed your last meal. Tracking tech has made surveillance de facto mandatory, even in the wilderness, under the guise of safety concerns. Even worse: Eye-tracking hardware ensures you read every word of every user agreement, contract or legal disclosure.

It’s a near future where current tech trends have advanced just enough to land in a disconcerting place somewhere between inevitable and absurd.

And it’s truly chilling stuff.

Like so many headlines from Eggers’ long-running humor site, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, the full title of the book gives away the entire story and its author’s stance on his subject matter.  It spreads across two pages in large-type print: The Every or At Last a Sense of Order or The Final Days of Free Will or Limitless Choice is Killing the World.

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The Every is out now from McSweeney’s books at independent booksellers.


McSweeneys

The 500-page-plus satire is the sequel to the novelist and journalist’s best-selling 2013 novel The Circle. It returns us to that familiar parallel reality, in which the world’s largest online retailer (referred to only by its nickname, “The Jungle”) has merged with The Circle, itself bearing a strong resemblance to a merged Google-Facebook entity. 

The Every is published by McSweeney’s books division and available as a hardcover edition exclusively through independent bookstores. The paperback, e-book and audio edition will be available everywhere, including Amazon, on Nov. 16.

“I think generally speaking, humanity has spoken, and humanity has said that they want monopolies,” Eggers told me via a landline phone from his office in downtown San Francisco. 

The writer famously does not own a smartphone, has almost zero social media presence and does most of his writing on an ancient laptop he says has never been connected to the Internet. (It’s good to know Clippy might still be alive somewhere!) Conducting our interview via Zoom or another video platform was never an option.

Unsurprisingly for such a reputed Luddite, Eggers isn’t so comfortable with the monopoly power of tech companies that collect server farms’ worth of our personal information, track our movements, preferences and, to some extent, our deepest thoughts. 

“As a species,” he says, “we’ve proven that we want convenience, safety, certainty, all of these things that are made possible through data and surveillance, and we’re not as interested in humanity, freedom and mystery as we are in certainty, convenience and safety.”

In The Circle, which was adapted into a 2017 film of the same name starring Tom Hanks and Emma Watson, Eggers explores the dangers of the Silicon Valley social media surveillance system most of us willingly opted into years ago. The story follows protagonist Mae Holland and her rise from idealistic college graduate to top exec at The Circle. By the end, Holland is transformed into a megalomaniac drunk on the company Kool-Aid, convinced of the purity of The Circle’s hegemonic mission and willfully blind to its destructive potential. 

Mae returns in The Every as the head of the new mega-company. But the sequel centers on another idealistic young protagonist, Delaney Wells, and Mae is the final boss Delaney will inevitably have to face down after working her way through the corporate maze. Unlike Mae, however, Delaney has adopted the subversive mission of attempting to destroy The Every from the inside. Motivated by the decimation of her family’s small business at the hands of The Jungle, Delaney and her roommate/accomplice Wes conspire to seed all sorts of purportedly awful product ideas within the company as they rise through its ranks. 

Eggers tells me he didn’t have to look far to find inspiration for such ideas. He points to one passage about measuring laughter in the office because laughing is considered good for your health. 

“There was a design firm here in San Francisco that was measuring laughter, for the same reason, because scientists said it was good. So then they said, ‘Well, the obvious next thing is to have a device in the conference room that will measure how much we laugh, and that’ll tell us how healthy our company is.’ It’s far beyond anything Monty Python or anybody could have dreamed up, but it really happened.”

Eggers embeds his warnings in a darkly hilarious narrative that doesn’t just hit close to home. It burns the home down and then coldly assassinates all insurance adjusters who arrive on the scene to offer redemption. 

Delaney and Wes continue to up the ante as a violent backlash to The Every begins to grow more bold. They champion an app allowing people to film and tag misbehaving children with tracking chips embedded in their ankles, among many other ideas that fail to have the desired effect of inflaming the public’s concern for privacy, freedom or basic mental health. 

Predictably, the company and the dopamine-addicted public embrace each increasingly absurd and deleterious new offering with a sense of gleeful gluttony. 

While The Circle explored the potential of our ubiquitous technology to corrupt the individual, The Every pushes further — just like its main characters — to emphasize the broader dystopia that exists alongside the shiny, futuristic techtopia sold by Silicon Valley.  This is no metaphor: In the novel, a literal shantytown has been set up outside the gates of The Every’s pristine campus. 

The Every, like The Circle before it, reads like an exaggerated, farcical version of real life. Wired and others criticized the first book for misunderstanding aspects of the internet and other technologies. 

But today we are swimming in the wake of two US presidential campaigns (and arguably a presidential term) conducted largely via social media and against the online tide of pandemic and vaccine misinformation. From this vantage point in 2021, Eggers’ visions come across as more clairvoyant than cartoon.

‘Unprecedented path of aggravation’

Eggers initially rose to fame in the late 1990s, at the tail end of the Web 1.0 era and the original dot-com boom. He founded McSweeney’s in 1998, and his widely acclaimed memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius catapulted him to literary rock star status when it came out in 2000.

The book came out during a tumultuous year for me and anyone else with a foot in tech. I left college for a job in San Francisco I wasn’t qualified for and rapidly saw the company sold, the 1990s dot-com bubble finally burst and the tech-focused publication I worked for shuttered. I was back to finish college in less than half a year. 

Much as it is for The Every’s Delaney, the experience of uprooting to chase that silicon dream only to land back on my Midwestern university campus a short time later left me feeling a bit burned by tech. Throughout that time I had been reading A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and was inspired by Eggers to instead double down on writing and journalism. I was captivated by the playful way he approached the tragic subject of his parents’ deaths and his sudden obligation to raise his younger brother while still a young adult himself. 

Eggers’ trademark irreverent style is present on even the copyright notices of his books. Before his Heartbreaking Work even begins, the copyright reads:

Published in the United States by Simon & Schuster, a division of a larger and more powerful company called Viacom, Inc., which is wealthier and more populous than eighteen of the fifty states of America, all of Central America, and all of the former Soviet Republics combined and tripled. That said, no matter how much money they have or make or control, their influence over the daily lives of and hearts of individuals, and thus, like ninety-nine percent of what is done by official people in cities like Washington, or Moscow, or Sao Paulo or Auckland, their effect on the short, fraught lives of human beings who limp around and dream of flying through bloodstreams, who love the smell of rubber cement and think of space travel while having intercourse, is very, very small, and so hardly worth worrying about. 

Twenty-one years ago I was inspired by this little scrap of beat poetry snuck into the backside of a title page. But when I read it again in 2021, my response was WTF? Eggers kicked off his celebrated career in letters by declaring that corporate monopoly power was “hardly worth worrying about?”

When I spoke with Eggers on the phone, I gratuitously read him the entire passage from that 21-year-old copyright notice and asked him how the author of The Circle and The Every feels about the last sentence today in 2021. 

“I would say that my views have evolved from that,” he tells me with a chuckle. “The big five tech companies are infinitely more powerful than Viacom has ever hoped to be. … A new thing in the history of humankind is that you have to have a tether via your smartphone to participate in commercial society or democratic society. You are never untethered. And we’re never unstudied.”

In The Every, one company project studies data from countless e-readers with built-in eye-tracking to determine the formula for the ideal novel. Here’s a particularly interesting passage:

“We found so many things!” Alessandro said. “Overall number of pages is fairly clear. No book should be over 500 pages, and if it is over 500, we found that the absolute limit to anyone’s tolerance is 577.” 

Naturally, the hardcover edition of The Every comes in at 577 pages. I guess you can avoid the tyranny of the algorithms when you create the fictional alternate reality that spawned them. But back here in the real world, the algorithms continue to grow more insidious, and perhaps a bit self-aware. I swear I’m not being (too) paranoid; I can explain. 

When I interviewed Eggers, I recorded the call and fed the audio file to a speech recognition algorithm that automatically transcribes it for me. 

After the first quote I used in this article, the one where Eggers told me “we’re not as interested in humanity, freedom, mystery, as we are in certainty, convenience and safety,” he continued:

“To have both it takes some decision making and it takes some rebellion against the aggregation of power and wealth, but I don’t think that we’re necessarily on that path. I think we’re really on an unprecedented path of aggregation of power among a very few companies.”

Oddly, the algorithm — from a startup just down the road from Google — actually transcribed that last sentence this way:

“I think we’re really on an unprecedented path of aggravation of power, among the various You companies.”

Now, I don’t actually think this piece of software is trying to change the meaning of the words of one of Silicon Valley’s most vocal critics, but I am now wondering what the 21st century algorithmic equivalent is to a Freudian slip. 

Fortunately, for now, no matter how much Eggers aggravates powerful companies who have made you (and me and everyone else) their primary product to sell, they don’t (yet) control the narrative. 

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