Dave Eggers takes on today’s tech culture — again — in The Every. No passwords required.
“Show me a hero, and I’ll write you a tragedy,” F. Scott Fitzgerald once cautioned.
In Dave Eggers’ prescient, sardonic and more than a little frightening new novel, The Every, his protagonist Delaney Wells sets out to destroy a behemoth social media tech giant — imagine the worst traits of Facebook, Google and Amazon combined — from within. It’s a quixotic quest, Voltaire’s Candide updated to meet the new challenges of the creepily invasive information superhighway, masking a Silicon Valley totalitarian business empire’s utopian vocabulary.
The Every is a sequel to Eggers’ 2013 bestseller, The Circle, which depicted the rise of Mae Holland, a relative innocent who joins “the world’s most powerful internet company” with the help of a college friend who’s a rising star there, only to be inducted slowly but inexorably into the tentacles of its ever-expanding reach.
In the new book, Delaney, a former forest ranger raised by hippie parents whose mom-and-pop organic food store has been forced out by the expanding FolkFoods conglomerate, is hired by The Every, the even-larger entity the Circle has morphed into, after paying her dues at a start-up that the Circle recently acquired. Also of interest is her liberal arts background, but more to the point, her college thesis, Benevolent Market Mastery, about “the folly of antitrust actions against The Circle, given whether it was a monopoly was immaterial if that’s what the people wanted … She posited that if a company knows all and knows best, shouldn’t they be allowed to improve our lives, unimpeded?”
It’s a false flag — she despises the company and everything it stands for — but hopes that it will induct her into its ranks without seeing through the subterfuge.
We’re a long way from Eggers’ blazingly original debut, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, a nonfiction account of the circumstances in which he was left, at 21, to raise his 8-year-old brother after the sudden death of both their parents.
He’s a resolutely quirky fixture in the Bay Area scene, as the founder of McSweeney’s publishing house and quarterly magazine, and co-founder of 826 Valencia, the Mission District-based nonprofit youth writing and tutoring center. And he has the courage, and moxie, of his convictions: The Every is initially being sold — are you listening, Amazon? — only at independent bookstores and through McSweeney’s online store.
The novel is a satiric, angry indictment of the culture in which we are currently swamped.
Delaney plots to kill The Every with kindness, flooding them with bad ideas like GenuPal, which measures the truthfulness of your friends through AI algorithms that analyze people’s “facial expression, eye contact and vocal contacts.” She’s trained by true believers who constantly monitor not just fitness and health, but even laughter — a minimum 22 minutes a day is recommended — and use TruVoice online communication filters to scan messages to see if they contain “any of the O’s — offensive, off-putting, outrageous, off-color, offbase, out-of-date,” so they can be duly excised.
George Orwell was right: Big Brother lives.
Eggers takes dead aim at all of the self-serving clichés and corporate talk you’ve ever heard. No spoiler alerts here, but let’s just say the good guys have a tough time of it here. He paints a convincing portrait of the ways in which Big Tech, like the sorcerer’s apprentice, has culminated in a series of unintended consequences. Mission accomplished.
Let the record also reflect that he’s no Luddite — the newest issue of McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern is all-audio, featuring audiovisual art, fiction and pamphlets by writers and storytellers and packaged in a special custom box.
It’s a far cry from the doomy culture Eggers has been chronicling. Nevertheless, at the risk of sounding churlish, I hope The Every marks the end of this particular dystopian story cycle. The author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius clearly has the talent, and the passion, for other tales. Can’t wait.