“Funny, astute, absolutely terrifying” – The Every by Dave Eggers

IMG_12Nov2021at134831Have you read The Circle? If so, you know the world Eggers’ diving back into with this new book; if not, you’ll pick up pretty much all the relevant info as you go along – while The Every is a follow-on, it’s not a sequel-sequel in a very technical sense, in that you won’t be particularly disadvantaged if you’ve not read the first volume, which acts more as a prequel than a proper Part One. If you’re coming at it/them cold, though, you should know that both books are satires of the good old great big capitalist and ideological sinkholes that we know as Facebook, Amazon, Google, and their subsidiaries, and the Lemmings-like way we’re signing our lives over to them.

In The Every, Eggers sets us up with the following (not very challenging) thought-experiment: take Facebook (‘The Circle’) and imagine it takes over Google and Amazon (‘the jungle’) and runs with things from there, buying up companies willy-nilly (tech start-ups, grocery stores, shipping firms, app developers, airlines, you name it) in order either to suck them into the growing Every behemoth or to kill them dead in order to stamp out all competition. Imagine an online monopoly so extreme that it’s killed out paper-based industries almost completely; imagine a monopoly so powerful it’s defeated every legal antitrust challenge thrown at it. Imagine cameras everywhere, Orwell-style, but unlike our current terrifyingly securitized high-streets (check out Anna Minton’s Ground Control for a chilling account of how that’s all well underway already in the UK), imagine those cameras are all owned by Facebook-Google-Amazon. Imagine that people not tied into The Every’s way of life live in despised offline ghettos; imagine that only one country worldwide (Liberia) is still just about holding out.

In Eggers’ vision of our near-future, all human decision-making is being eradicated by the Every because ‘subjectivity’ is considered suspect by a consumer community for whom the anxiety of choice is too much to handle. Algorithms, or algos, are less problematic, goes this way of thinking, and if they can, for instance, determine the quickest way from A to Z, they should also be able, say, to grade our papers in school, to determine what constitutes good art, to definitively determine what is or is not beautiful. Where do we end up? In a place of total servitude, of course: in The Every, people are so reliant on tech that they can’t navigate across the road without location confirmation from mapping software. What if your phone told you that your friend was bored by your conversation? Do you believe the crazy-sophisticated facial reading technology or your liar of a former pal? But The Every isn’t just playing with gadgetry and social anxiety: it’s also heavily invested in the Left’s exponentially growing worry and guilt about everything from climate change to animal welfare and sexual exploitation. Nothing wrong with striving to create a world free of lechery, assault, animal cruelty, right? And we’re all looking to slam down on carbon emissions. But would you let Mark Zuckerberg and a bunch of Silicone Valley hotshots take charge of all this? One way, of course, to ‘curate’ responsible consumption is to systematically put out of business traders who aren’t sufficiently sustainable; one way to promote ethical behaviours is to share and shame apparently problematical behaviours. The Every flogs apps (and monetises them via advertising) that allow its global users to snitch on each other. And transparency is essential: why refuse to be filmed at all times if you’re not doing anything to be ashamed of?

As Eggers notes on his copyright page, ‘This is a work of fiction. Nothing described herein actually happened, though much of it likely will. At that point, this will be a work of nonfiction.’ None of this is too far from where we actually are; it’s how some of us already live, live-streaming our days, outsourcing our wardrobe choices to Insta-polls, asking Alexa if it’s raining rather than looking out the window, piling on the writer of badly-worded tweet as if they’d masterminded a genocide. What Eggers is good at is the 360-view: while homing in on the rampant and addictive techno-consumerism that has allowed Bezos and his cronies to launch themselves into space while his employees collapse on the warehouse floor from exhaustion and hunger, he’s also attuned to the moneyed liberal classes who can virtue-signal their way to heaven while evicting the homeless from the very pavements by installing spikes on the ground.

The actual plot of The Every follows a new employee (an ‘Everyone’), Delaney, who’s determined to take the company down from the inside: her plan is to seed ideas for apps and technologies so egregiously invasive that the public will revolt in disgust. Will it work? Well, what do you think? Zuckerberg’s already halfway there with the Meta launch announcement; how many of us shake our fists at Bezos on Twitter while we’ve got Amazon open on another browser so we can get ahead with the Christmas shopping? Eggers is, in one sense, going for low-hanging fruit: Facebook is obviously, blatantly, Bad; we know we need to put down our phones and at least occasionally make eye contact with our families and colleagues. But as easy a target as this culture is, it’s also important to remind us, via comic exaggeration, exactly how terrible it really is, and this is what Eggers does very well. It’s not just that he pushes the applications of social media and e-commerce tech to its furthest extremes, it’s how he explores the possible trajectory of the conscientious objector. What do you do when the evil corporation supports, or at least draws into its circle of influence, the ethical causes you also espouse? It’s obvious, it’s easy, but it’s painfully credible. And, as it is, after all, Eggers, it’s very funny (for a darker take on how online tech rules us, see Dan Malakin’s thriller, The Regret) and very readable: even its heft, at 577 pages, is flagged up as an in-joke: the algos tell us that this is as long a book as the reading public, scant as it is, will tolerate.

Any Cop?: Funny, astute, absolutely terrifying. Read it before you do the Christmas shopping, and maybe switch your phone off a bit more?

Valerie O’Riordan

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