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The Every: When Big Tech rules all, don’t say Dave Eggers didn’t warn us

Enlarge / The TL;DR: A book so enjoyable, it even stands out when surrounded by tacos and Texas libations.
Nathan Mattise (via his Pixel 3a)

The Every, a new near-future tech dystopia novel from author Dave Eggers, marks the first time the famed writer has penned a sequel in his two-decades-plus career. In the seven years after Eggers published his tech-obsessed bestseller The Circle, the author found himself still taking notes on things that could take place in that world. He soon understood why some of the writers he admires most (Margaret Atwood, Colson Whitehead, Philip Roth, etc.) revisit worlds, characters, and ideas they’ve already built. The evolution, he told Ars Technica, can be fascinating.

“When you establish the foundation and build a world, after the book comes out, you still have ideas about what happens next—I see the attraction,” Eggers said in an interview with Ars. “[When I’m going to write a book] there’s usually a catalytic moment: ‘OK, all these notes I’ve compiled might be something.’ For me, it was thinking about the way we cede control over our lives to algorithms and rely more and more on numbers to determine our own worth and the worth of other things, whether it’s art, humans, restaurants, or basically anything we interact with on a daily basis. Where is this going if we’re uncomfortable with ambiguity or something that can’t be reportedly measured? Why are we so happy to cede decision-making and value assessment to algorithms? What’s it say about us?”

Published in 2013, Eggers’ The Circle centered on surveillance and eventually inspired a Tom Hanks/John Boyega/Emma Watson film. In it, a company called The Circle develops an always-on streaming camera small enough to be unnoticeable, and the device becomes wildly popular. The central character, a low-level employee named Mae, eventually helps the device reach those heights by adopting a totally transparent lifestyle. She allows virtually all of her day-to-day interactions to be live-streamed on this Twitch-like ecosystem, complete with running comment threads and DMs. As you might expect, it’s not always smooth sailing, and the ramifications can be dark.

The Every quickly asserts itself as a logical progression from its literary forebear. Moving past simply recording everything, this world now revolves around measuring everything so that technology can spit out directions. Prior to the events in the novel, The Circle was part of a mega-merger and evolved into The Every, a company with its hands in seemingly everything: consumer tech, media, digital storage, space, food, etc. (If this sounds like a reference to a certain real-life analogue, that “e-commerce giant named after a South American jungle” was acquired by The Every ahead of the events in the new book.) Mae has risen to CEO and oversees an empire driven by numbers and ruthless efficiency. The Every’s health app tells you when to get up and jump at your desk. The Every’s storage solution will digitize all your belongings as 3D-printable files so you can incinerate your waste and lower your carbon footprint. Media from The Every is driven by data-tracking technology that can tell when readers/viewers/listeners tend to abandon ship; it then tells creators how to improve.

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Eggers’ new tale focuses on a young woman named Delaney. She’s a Trog, or someone who sets out to live a low-tech lifestyle, including opting out of having smart devices in her home and staying away from certain public places that require people to check in. Along with her tech-savvy (though still Trog-y) friend and roommate Wes, the two aim to take down The Every before every public space and natural area is leveraged for data gathering. But how can you solve a problem like The Every? The duo has a plan, and suddenly Delaney finds herself going through a complicated interview process to become an Everyone (yes, that’s what employees at The Every are called).

The Circle was more about surveillance and whether privacy is possible,” said Eggers. “This is more about whether we want to exercise free will on a daily basis, or are we happier to have these algorithms feed us and free us of all these decisions and anxieties? What if there was one monopoly who promised to make you your best self so long as you basically gave up control over every decision?”

The trailer for 2017’s adaptation of The Circle.

Scary story, fun read

Though its themes are no laughing matter, The Every is littered with the smirk-inducing ideas you’d expect from Eggers. Each matter-of-fact aside about how life has evolved from our present day into this book’s near future is a comedic dystopian gem Don Delillo could love. The over-the-top tech culture characteristics present in office life at The Every would make writers on Silicon Valley jealous they didn’t think of it first. (Prepare yourself, dear reader, for a multi-chapter arc of employees being required to present to colleagues they’ve never met on a subject that has nothing to do with work. Seals are involved). And Eggers consistently comes up with app and product ideas that hit the sweet spot between “so wild it’s laughable” and “not so far-fetched it couldn’t happen.” An entire chapter recounts our two heroes trying to come up with product ideas they think are so outlandish they could damage The Every’s reputation, and yet… each bonkers concept quickly becomes loved at the company and is adopted.

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“I went on a flight one day and wrote most of those in a sitting because I was trying to out-silly myself. I eventually cut a few because I or a fact checker realized they existed or something close existed, and that always happens during or after a book like this. People have gone and invented the thing you thought was too absurd to exist,” Eggers recalled. “But I do think most of the apps in that chapter will come to be; I don’t think they’re too silly to exist. Anything that offers even the vague possibility of certainty to something that’s otherwise ambiguous or unmeasurable will be embraced. If you had a chance to use an app that tells you whether your parents are good parents—not by some subjective standard but as a supposed mathematical certainty—it’d be wildly popular tomorrow. Everyone would use it.”

You don’t have to go far these days to see how tech-reliant society has become; it’s painfully evident that our world is quite comfortable with outsourcing decisions and plans to the algorithm. In this light, The Every isn’t blazing new trails with its central themes, but few works will so reliably stop you mid-sentence or post-chapter for a moment of reflection.

And that’s because Eggers has a gift. Consistently, his ideas are amusing and laugh-out-loud funny, but there’s also a deep sense of reality beneath them. When that clicks for you during a reading session, you arrive at the realization that the real world isn’t so far behind the Every world. Comedy can turn into horror quickly. It’s a sensation captured in one of the most accurate book-jacket quotes I’ve come across (from New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo): “… The true horror here is how closely Eggers hews to our daily reality of tech-dependence and how often The Every feels more like documentary than dystopia.” If that’s the reaction Eggers can spark in at least a single reader, I think he’d consider his first stab at a sequel quite the success.

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“I’m always trying to think of the most terrifying next step. And more than that, more than the tech itself, I’m trying to think of how we’ll react. Why do we embrace it? Why are we so ready to turn from a free and idiosyncratic animal into something more machine-like?” Eggers said. “But I’m always trying to make things plausible, even if it’s silly. The best way to hold a mirror up to the way we live now is to turn the absurdity up just a little more, and we can reflect back on how we’re living now. Then, maybe, there’s a fork in the road where we say, ‘Well, we actually don’t want that, if that comes to fruition, maybe we’ll fight back.’ That’s about the only hope you can have writing something like this.”

The Every was released as a hardcover through independent book stores on October 5, and it will be available in paperback on November 16. Eggers and publisher McSweeney’s took extra care to sell through places beyond Amazon. “Amazon’s market share has more than tripled since the last time [we took this distribution approach],” Eggers said. “It was extremely hard to think through this in a way to avoid them, but it felt like a book about the increasing saturation and reach of a monopoly was a good opportunity to make a bit of a point: We still have a choice for the time being. You can go into Book People and buy a book there and support the local economy as opposed to giving money to the apex predator. If we want retail diversity, we need to feed smaller operations.”

Note: Ars Technica may earn compensation for sales from links on this post through affiliate programs.

Listing image by Nathan Mattise