This is a sign of how quickly the public debate over the big technology companies has soured that Dave Eggers’ best-selling 2013 dystopian novel The Circle has already gone from prospect to pass since it was published eight years ago.
To surpass our fast-changing times, Eggers once again had to press the fast-forward button to write his sequel, Die Elke. His latest novel presents a more extreme version of our near future in which the giant internet company in the midst of The Circle expanded further and built up an alarming degree of profit and power. This almighty technological monopoly, renamed The Every, dominates every aspect of human activity and displaces politics, capitalism, religion and human choice. The result is a highly captivating, deeply disturbing and yet irritatingly imperfect book.
The lightly disguised Google / Facebook mash-up, now run by Mae Holland, the one-time ingenious idealist in The Circle, named a struggling online retailer after a jungle (any guesses?) as well as devouring food and transportation companies and movie studios in abundance, expanding its empire from pieces to atoms.
In the words of the main character, Delaney Wells, a free-spirited liberal arts graduate and one-time ranger who joins the company to destroy it, The Every has become so powerful that it has the East India Company looks like a lemonade stand. But in the eyes of its apologists, the company’s benevolent form of corporate totalitarianism helps to correct humanity’s imperfections by taming the “reckless freedoms and thoughtless whims” that have brought the planet to the brink of environmental catastrophe.
The Every has the ability to run a Soviet-style planning agency that really works, a social credit point system that overshadows the Chinese Communist Party’s efforts to control its people, and a computer deity in whom everyone can believe and trust. Deliberately blind humanity can now be upgraded by neutral and omniscient algorithms. Chaos and uncertainty will evaporate like dew in sunlight. Homo sapiens will be replaced by male number.
Despite these oppressive themes, Eggers’ writing is surprisingly fast and zealous, which Die Elke easy to read. George Orwell’s terrifying, doomed 1984 it is not. The story revolves around Delaney’s attempts to infiltrate and undermine the company that robbed her of her childhood and shattered her parents’ existence and free will. Inspired by Meena Agarwal, a wise-minded university lecturer, Delaney is determined to resist, even though so many others have been co-opted or crushed.
The Elke’s tools of oppression seem harmless in intent, even if they are treacherous in effect. The company’s leading political enemy, Tom Goleta, a Democratic presidential candidate who argues that “a monopoly is an autocracy in business attire”, is humiliated by an unfortunate encounter with eye-catching technology during a visit to The Every’s campus.
The company’s TruVoice application scans texts and messages that use offensive, outrageous or colorless language, and in fact censorship of human speech. The company’s EiO (All in Order) system algorithmically sends down the bottom 10 percent of underperformers every quarter, removing human bias from the process.
No space is left unseen by The Every, nor is any data point recorded. Full transparency becomes his credo. Even its corporate toilets contain a cartoon skunk projected against the walls, providing ongoing commentary on hygiene and performance. “No deposit made. No flush needed! ” the skunk sings for Delaney.
By agreeing to convenience, human agency is constantly being stripped. “The Every, with the great complicity of mankind, wanted a different world, a watched world without risk or surprise or nuance or loneliness,” Eggers writes.
“Subjectivity is just objectivity waiting for data,” as Mae Holland tells Delaney. Or, as Agarwal reinterprets it: “It is the transformation of the species from a free animal to a persistent pet.”
The strength of Eggers’ book lies in his wicked extrapolations of current technological fads to expose their latent flaws, and his tearing of current cultural and political controversies. One scene in which Delaney unwisely takes her fellow Everyones on a disastrous nature journey to observe a seal-elephant colony is a sad satire of environmental and waking sensitivity.
But Eggers’ characters are sketched and often unconvincing. Delaney is an insignificant heroine whose motivations are never adequately explored. Agarwal is the book’s most intriguing and provocative figure, but has only a walk-in part. The Every’s unraveling is sudden and shocking, but strangely indecisive. Its main purpose seems to be to leave the narrative open for the third volume in the series that will presumably follow.
Browse between fiction and non-fiction, in works such as What is the What and Time, Eggers has often been involved in the pressing issues of our time, whether it be the fate of a Sudanese refugee or a victim of Hurricane Katrina. His writing always delivers a moral message in the most captivating literary form. But he has emerged as one of the West Coast’s most powerful technology critics, simultaneously enchanted and terrified by Silicon Valley’s latest wild inventions. His author profile records that he has lived in the Bay for three decades and has attended the Jet Pack Aviation Academy. “He and his family often consider leaving, but they do not go.”
Like the characters he enchants, Eggers clearly finds it difficult to resist the lure of technology. Yet, as he makes clear, it is the easy promise of a simpler and more idyllic life that makes technology so seductively deadly. It is not demonic dictators that we need to worry about, but our own unthinking cravings for comfort.
Die Elke by Dave Eggers Hamish Hamilton £ 12.99 / New Year $ 17.95, 608 pages
John Thornhill is the FT’s innovation editor
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