Dave Eggers’ new novel is a darkly comical techno dystopia. The Every (no link: buy it from your local book shop) is the sequel to The Circle. Its eponymous company is an unholy alliance of the major tech behemoths whose names need no mention. The Every is well on its way to wipe out or enslave all competition when our heroine Delaney joins it, on a secret mission to bring down the system from within. But after the first chapters we already know that resistance is futile.
Winston Smith from George Orwell’s Ur-dystopia 1984 likewise knew he did not stand a chance against the omniscient, all-seeing Party. Yet whereas the surveillance technologies that Orwell conceived were science fiction in 1948, most of The Every’s toys are already here or available soon in an Apple Store near you. Every new addictive app is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, adding more data points to your privacy profile. Eggers’ mission as a techno sceptic is anything but subtle.
Nerd-dom, the philosophy that rules this technocracy, is based on mistrust of anything that cannot be expressed as a number. The confidence that only the algorithm can act objectively and without prejudice is a cynical deception when sexists and racists still program it. Human beings are reduced to mere collections of neutral data points, but even that is too much nuance. Why not conveniently condense your entire human worth into a single number? We saw it in Huxley’s Brave New World and in the Black Mirror episode Nosedive. By going into sarcasm overdrive, Bryce Dallas Howard at least got a few laughs out of what must be a true hell on earth.
Technofascism will reach its destination when all subjects self-censor unorthodox thought knowing that every dissention is instantly caught out and punished. Revolt in 1984 was at least eventually lethal, because the Thought Police couldn’t watch everybody all the time. AI surveillance will fix the scalability problem. Eggers shows how it creeps up on us through the soft, mediagenic side of nerd-dom: the irresistible temptation of ever greater convenience. We don’t object that AI automates everything away. The nerds make it up because they can, not because we ask for it. But once it’s there, we soon can’t do without.
We are slowly being reduced and weakened, both mentally and physically. Our phones eat away at our knowledge, capabilities, courage, self-confidence, and trust towards others. And we pay a thousand euros for the new model that make us dumber, poorer, and more anxious.
I am part of this we. I don’t leave the house without a quick check on my Apple Watch for temperature and likelihood of precipitation. I take fewer risks at getting wet. A funny episode from the book is when Delaney organizes a work outing to the coast, with preparation instructions running to sixty-pages. The super fit twentysomethings arrive in identical upscale outdoor gear, suitable to mount K2. Of course, the trip turns out an excruciating disaster.
Theme parks have apps to steer visitors to the less crowded rides and prepare them for the agony of waiting. Imagine the grumblings when the wait ends up five minutes longer than promised. Our patience and resilience are wearing thin, together with our long-term memory and many skills. I don’t miss the old gear stick in my car. That skill can join the museum of obsolescence together with milking a cow by hand. Before the introduction of the postal code some employees were human atlases, knowing by heart which village went in which bag. Few professions nowadays tax your working memory so such a degree, except of course the infamous Knowledge test. There is still hope for humankind.
What happened to our appetite for small risks? Long before mobile phones and GSM were available, let alone portable, I went on a winter hiking trip to Scotland with other students. If you twisted your ankle on a mountain there was no way to call for help. So, you didn’t go out on your own and you didn’t deviate from the planned route you left at the reception of the hostel. You took rations and a plastic survival bag in the unlikely event you had to spend the night outside. It didn’t feel reckless then, and it still wouldn’t be today. Our safety was never at stake, only our comfort.
And you learned how to navigate using a map and compass, which isn’t easy or accurate. It’s even dangerous while riding a bike or driving a car. It demands your vision as well as your brainpower. It’s easier to let Mr. Garmin talk and point you to your destination. Safer too. You can concentrate on driving (or a Snickers bar), but you don’t store a mental map of your surroundings. You need the machine again when you make the same journey a week later.
There is no better tool to learn where you’re going than an old-fashioned foldout map. This is not only because it gives you a superior overview that a phone screen never can. You just have a stronger incentive to internalize the route and store it in long-term memory because it’s slow and tedious. I bet professional translators today have a smaller active vocabulary than their colleagues of a generation ago. Looking up words in a paper dictionary took valuable time. Rote learning is worthwhile when you’re paid per word.
We are spared the cerebral storage space for the correct spelling of illegible and eligible, but there are still plenty of potholes you can’t avoid when you rely on the cruise control of autocorrect. The other day I was asked if my digital piano autocorrects my play. I smiled at the suggestion, but I wouldn’t be surprised if such a dummy mode is already available. If the software can do a real time comparison of me playing a Mozart sonata with the MIDI data of the piece, it can correct or insert the keystrokes that I miss.
But, honestly, where’s the fun in that?