It used to be called the Circle, back when Dave Eggers wrote his first, hugely successful, day-after-tomorrow consumer-tech dystopian novel of the same name in 2013. Now, however, his Facebook proxy has swallowed up an Amazon proxy — referred to disparagingly by its ever-loyal employees as “the jungle” — to dominate all commerce and communication across the globe under the new name the Every. Humanity, for the most part, has accepted that domination gladly.
And that is part of the genius of this remarkable piece of satire, riven as it is with horribly plausible ideas and horribly good jokes. It’s one thing to sound a warning about how we are on a slippery slope to a kind of consumerist fascism where we exchange liberty for convenience. What Eggers does so well is make the Every alluring as well as alarming.
In The Every the freethinking heroine Delaney plans to destroy the company from within, so she insinuates herself into the company’s campus HQ on an island in the San Francisco Bay. There she hopes to bring the company into disrepute by devising technology that is outrageously invasive of privacy or submits every human interaction to algorithmic inanity.
There is Friendy, the relationship-wrecking app that can detect whether your friend or partner is being truthful. There is OwnSelf, the digital friend that guides you through how to live, eat and exercise right through each moment of each day.
How can we justify the carbon impact of tourism and travel as the world heats up? We don’t have to: Stop+Lük technology enables us to be personally guided around a foreign city in virtual reality by a local guide. Oh, and if having cameras everywhere means no more nasty air flights, it also means no more crime. Eye-tracking monitoring means no leering in public goes unpunished. And tapping into everyone’s smart speakers means that domestic abuse can be detected and thwarted in a trice.
So how can a fancy-pants ideal like liberty compare with measurable advances like those? “You have to acknowledge that they get stuff done,” says Wes, Delaney’s co-conspirator. “They bring order.” Any resemblance to fascism is purely coincidental.
It’s one thing to sound a warning about how we are on a slippery slope to consumerist fascism. What Eggers does so well is make the Every alluring as well as alarming.
This is great satire, a thought-provoking novel of ideas rather than a great novel per se. Without characters that do much more than reflect their attitude to the Every, it’s far too long. And Delaney’s scheme — to destroy the Every by introducing such illiberal innovations that the world will surely rise up against it — is implausibly harebrained.
Yet Eggers scores many more hits than misses. There is a central set piece, in which Delaney guides a bus trip of colleagues up the coast to see seals mating, that is a particularly outstanding piece of comedy writing. Everything Delaney does causes offense to her overgrown-child colleagues, from driving vegans through dairy farming areas, to ordering sandwiches from a delicatessen with links to Israel, to supplying sunscreen from a company founded by a former Scientologist. Heavens! How can we live with so many strictures?
As with The Circle — whose antihero, Mae Holland, is a spectral presence now leading the Every — Eggers kits himself out with a character who can articulately voice opposition to the new status quo. “We sit in constant judgment of each other,” says Delaney’s former college professor Meena Agarwal, “and thus we are a species in decline. Nothing great can be created in such a climate.”
As Agarwal notes, what marks out this tyranny is not the furiousness of its imposition, but the readiness of its adherents to sign up for its comforts. And Eggers provides a speciously persuasive argument for the moral necessity of each and every curbing of human freedom. Eight years after The Circle was published, there is all too little that rings false about its predictions about social media. If the same is true of The Every, we are in even more trouble than we thought we were.