DAVE EGGERS ARGUABLY has poor timing. Today, there’s nothing that guarantees a book like his will be favorably received, not even auspicious timing, skillful editors, and sophisticated proofreading software. Tomorrow might be different, as his new novel spells out.
Eggers sets his fiction in a “near future” when computers analyze massive amounts of information about how people read ebooks, with software finding patterns that precisely reveal what these readers find satisfying or unpleasant. Take the literary classic Jane Eyre. According to the algorithms Eggers conjures up, many people stop reading it “around p. 177.” Given what’s happening at that part of the story, one of Eggers’s typical techie characters concludes readers find the character Grace Poole “scary and depressing” and wish Charlotte Brontë devoted more pages to the “romance with Mr. Rochester.” The techie laments Brontë didn’t live long enough to “learn from the data” and “fix” her flawed story.
Fortunately for the authors living in Eggers’s imaginary world, they can outperform Brontë even if they lack her talent. For starters, they can use software to help them craft pleasurable plots and characters. Writers also can apply rigorous, evidence-based rules for keeping readers engaged, like “[n]o book should be over 500 pages,” and readers will only “tolerate” a maximum of three “ideas or themes” per story. Additionally, novelists can work briskly by delegating the boring parts of a narrative to a text-generating artificial intelligence that’s so advanced it’s poised to “eliminate much of the profession of editor, archivist, and translator.” What an ideal division of labor — humans get to be creative and machines do the grunt work!
Eggers is, in fact, horrified by the prospect of computationally coached crowd-pleasers replacing the likes of Brontë and Beckett. More fundamentally, his literary anxieties are directed at an all-encompassing data-worshiping sensibility, portrayed in The Every as a zeitgeist. Quantifiable metrics guide all aspects of personal and institutional decision-making: film and art ratings; social and professional communication; self-understanding; personal and collective safety; hiring, firing, and promoting; and ultimately, truth. The biggest tech company in The Every perpetuates “techno-conformity” by demonizing subjective experience as terrifically unreliable, and by providing an antidote by way of products that counter existential ambivalence with algorithmic conceptions of what’s beautiful, good, and fair.
Clearly, The Every, like its predecessor The Circle, is an ideas-oriented book: character development and plot are less important than building a world in order to satirize Big Tech. Does this approach add value to existing nonfiction tech criticism? Here, we’re in my territory. Does Eggers do what my much drier form of tech criticism can’t do? Of course! Whereas Neil Postman once warned we’re Amusing Ourselves to Death, Eggers invites readers to laugh at absurd, dystopian scenes that showcase the decline of privacy and autonomy.
But even on the absurdist front, does Eggers add value to what’s already out there? Keep in mind that the last time Eggers served up Big Tech parody, it spawned a terrible cinematic adaptation. That legacy might urge caution. In addition, if we’re looking for clever, ironic takes on the social impact of the internet, there’s no shortage of options across media. Bo Burnham’s musical comedy, Inside, even leaves the audience with a lasting earworm. Then, there are those academic nonfiction books, like Re-Engineering Humanity, which I co-authored with Brett Frischmann. It addresses Eggers’s key question: Are human beings increasingly being engineered to behave like simple machines, programmed to desire easily obtainable satisfaction? Aside from writerly hubris, what exactly justifies, in other words, this unwieldy book, which runs nearly 600 pages, breaking Eggers’s made-up rule of maximum length? I’ll show it does two things tech critics like me can’t do, and the absurdists haven’t quite managed either.
1) Fiction like Eggers’s can show how socially destructive technology is normalized.
First, some summary. Delaney Wells, the book’s idealistic protagonist, hopes to dismantle “The Every” from the inside. The Every is a powerful Big Tech conglomerate that creates trendy consumer technology, secures lucrative government contracts, and contributes to social ruin by cloaking its destructive products in progressive-sounding ideas about caring for the environment (e.g., branding proprietary virtual reality tours of tourist destinations as morally superior to traveling in person to these places), personal well-being (e.g., creating an app that evaluates the quality of our friendships, so we don’t waste time on duds), and social well-being (e.g., creating a filter that helps users sound like their “true” sensitive selves by sanitizing their messages).
To accomplish her goal, Delaney strategically disguises her subversive motives to look like the ideal tech-enthusiast The Every should hire. Her contrived college thesis, for example, was “on the folly of antitrust actions” against The Every (at that time called The Circle); it coined the corporate-friendly term “Benevolent Market Mastery.” Once Delaney becomes an employee, she partners with Wes, a co-conspiratorial friend. They propose new apps that are so odious the public should swiftly reject them and turn against the company. Obviously, this is a ludicrous strategy for sabotage. In the real world, someone like Delaney might become a whistleblower or engage in corporate espionage. But Eggers has good reason to ask the reader to suspend disbelief.
Delaney believes she can convince The Every to release bad products because the company has already displayed poor taste. For example, there’s “FictFix,” a program that “fixes” old novels by making “[u]nsympathetic protagonists […] likeable, chiefly through aggregating online complaints and implementing suggestions,” updating “outdated terminology […] to reflect contemporary standards,” and deleting “superfluous chapters, passages and anything preachy.” Once the public accepts the historical revisionism, it becomes easy for The Every to roll out an extension that allows “group editing, wiki-style” changes to improve “all texts, from 20th-century newspapers to 16th-century treatises” by eliminating offensive passages and altering unclear ones.
A great deal of The Every describes the company greenlighting all of Delaney’s ideas and the public happily embracing every cockamamie invention sans buyers’ remorse. This dynamic goes on long enough for Delaney to become disheartened: “Nothing goes too far. Nothing breaks,” she laments.
Given today’s heated controversies around issues like removing Confederate statues and schools teaching the history and legacy of racism, it’s disingenuous for Eggers to postulate that very few people will care about historical revisionism in the near future. Likewise, it’s unduly patronizing to imagine people won’t tire of being bombarded with formulaic stories. Eggers, it seems, needs to caricature the public, painting it as an easily manipulatable group, in order to tell his story. It’s a familiar move: an “enlightened” critic rails against the alienated false consciousness exhibited by the masses. Even when Eggers describes a few anti-tech holdouts and a small geographic area of resistance, he doesn’t break from this mold of painting the majority in absurdly broad strokes.
And yet, to be turned off by Eggers’s unrealistic scenarios is to misunderstand how the layers of mockery and condescension enable him to do something brilliant when he describes the public accepting ever more disquieting products. For example, inhabitants of his world go from getting hooked on an app that tells them whether they genuinely enjoyed the food they just ate, to embracing one that lets them know if they’re actually happy, to deferring to another that identifies their driving passion. “For those unsure of what their passion was,” Eggers writes, “PassionProject would scour all of the user’s social media feeds, searches, purchases, posts and real-world movements and determine […] the user’s favorite thing to do.”
Eggers uses fiction to make the often subtle normalization processes salient. He shows how Big Tech companies alter our sensibilities by starting with the foot-in-the-door technique and then exploiting newly formed habits, dependencies, and beliefs. By habituating people not to trust themselves, the Every eventually could roll out an app called Consensus that lets people crowdsource any decision. This includes “whether or not they should leave the house, eat lunch, talk to family members or friends, or breed.”
His exquisite portrayal of how this dynamic builds over time complements scholarly descriptions of toxic technologies becoming normalized. Judy Hyojoo Rhee and I identify the primary causal dynamics that allow surveillance technologies to become widely perceived as favorable. To explain these influences and clarify how they leave lasting impacts, we discuss philosophical, sociological, psychological, and legal concepts and supporting examples. What we don’t offer is a character-driven narrative that resonates with readers’ lived experiences. As a result, our paper may be analytically rigorous and helpful for policy-makers, but it is assuredly dry, written for a limited audience of specialists. Relatedly, Darrin Durant and I have argued that Amazon Ring surveillance technologies are becoming normalized at such a rapid rate that a pernicious slippery slope dynamic could shortly undermine civil liberties without much pushback. As an academically sourced structural analysis, it’s also written for a specialized readership. Furthermore, to avoid undue speculation, we deliberately don’t offer a detailed description of what daily life might be like once Ring products are ubiquitous. For the same reason, we limit opining about the new strategies Amazon will deploy to win over Ring holdouts and expand the purchases of existing Ring customers. Eggers treads where we can’t, and, unlike us, he has the expressive writerly talent to ground speculation.
Even when I tried to publish an accessible account of normalization in a newspaper opinion piece that addressed Facebook’s approach to designing and marketing smart glasses, a technology society previously rejected as only fit for Glassholes, I could only vaguely gesture to what life might be like in the future. When you’re writing nonfiction, perhaps the closest you can come to offering a window into tomorrow is by constructing thought experiments. Frischmann and I invent some in Re-Engineering Humanity. But, per genre convention, they’re brief, and they require readers to fill in many blanks with their own imaginations.
By contrast, Eggers highlights iterative strategies for normalizing disturbing technologies in a way that captures the errant reader. Even with his satirical distortions, he can give real flesh to psychological, social, and economic dynamics — “showing rather than telling” how these influences set people up, step by step, to accept situations that earlier versions of themselves would have rejected, whether it’s informing someone about the death of a close family member over an emoji-infused text message or embracing AI-infused devices that monitor our conversations at home for signs of hostility and notify the police if we use the wrong words or speak in the wrong tones. In other words, Eggers reveals something most of us can’t perceive in real time when we start using a new gadget promoted by a Big Tech company: the big picture and the likely endgame.
2) Fiction like Eggers’s can show the transformation of critic into believer.
One outcome of normalization is the transformation of a staunch critic into a true believer. This can have auspicious outcomes (a climate skeptic turning into an advocate) and tragic ones. In a depressing scene that vividly captures the conversion process, Wes embraces ideas he previously scorned, momentarily getting Delaney to do so, too. We learn that Wes’s girlfriend Pia changes her mind about how attractive she is after using the app FaceIt, which calculates the extent to which faces deviate from an ideal mathematical standard of symmetry and proportion. Once the app disconfirms Pia’s longstanding belief that she’s gorgeous, her self-esteem plummets and she doubts her ability to determine what’s alluring. Wes, who used to believe Pia was a rare beauty, also comes to accept FaceIt’s measure of comeliness. When Delaney begs him to reject this overly reductive measurement, Wes replies that disagreeing with the “definitive” rating is tantamount to dismissing science, something he, an engineer, is unwilling to do.
In yet a further twist, Wes reveals he scanned Delaney with FaceIt, and she got a higher score than Pia. Eggers provides a masterful description of the adaptive response: ambivalence gives way to a powerful driver of normalization: rationalization. “Delaney’s mind cycled. She was happy hers was higher than Pia’s, then ashamed that she cared — that she believed for a moment that a machine could judge her beauty or anyone else’s. Then happy again hers was higher than Pia’s.”
Contemporary tech criticism tends to be depressing because Big Tech companies wield massive power that markets and regulation can’t seem to temper. However, fiction writers like Eggers have the freedom to imagine dystopian spin-offs and better worlds. Some of the latter may give us something to aspire to, or at least new ways to think about alternatives. Certain readers might be disappointed that Eggers didn’t use The Every as an opportunity to explore social resistance strategies through collective action, emancipatory possibilities for data science, and clever routes to breaking up monopolies. Perhaps that will be his next book. Given the dangers normalization poses and the difficulties of understanding how the spell of normalization takes hold, this one certainly shouldn’t have been any shorter or written any differently.