Dave Eggers has written an enjoyable follow-up to the sharp satire on social media: The Circle. Whilst there are frequent references to The Circle I didn’t feel the need to check back to it in relation to this sequel. This is as much a stand alone that uses broadly the same style of satire, dissection of tech and business speak, and a dive into the dark machinations of big tech. It’s focus on the use of apps to manipulate lives very much reminded me of how Apple promoted it’s iPhone with ‘there’s an app for that.’
Here, the back story of how the start up The circle merged with the teasingly referenced “the jungle”, rebranded as The Every, takes us into a journey that extrapolates how monopolistic and self aggrandising real world big tech corporations could become if left untethered by stringent regulations. What would happen if some of the companies like Amazon and Google were allowed to merge?
This is part dystopian tale and part satire. The light touch of the story and prose betrays The Every’s mission to pursue soft totalitarian order through mass behavioural compliance by way of surveillance.
The story is told through Delaney Wells, who, because of a grievance against ‘the jungle’ for causing her parents’s shop to go out of business, she seeks to infiltrate The Every and cause it to implode. There is much about our personal data and access that big tech has to it. Delaney has to build a social media profile that meets The Every’s principles.
A neat device is the use of her past university lecturer, Agarwal, to write to her acting as her conscience on her shoulder. Agarwal thinks Delaney has deserted her principles but Delaney cannot tell Agarwal of her under cover intentions.
Alongside Delaney, the creative one, is her housemate, Wes, the coder, are part of a society that reacts against big tech, called a “trog” in the novel. Much is conspired through their conversations where they create ideas for apps for The Every to build and then watch as they should then blow up in the company’s face. It’s a covert David and Goliath.
One app causes ‘eyeshaming’, in which those who ogle others are disgraced. This is presented as a successful yet damaging app but retaliation against the app doesn’t really figure, even though people start to stay indoors to avoid it.
With each outrageous app that Delaney and Wes put forward comes success to The Every and Delaney, although she actually wanted the opposite. Dave Eggers has an eye for app ideas that are both nonsense and addictive.
The plot is one of users’ willingness to humiliate and be humiliated by the apps, one that I found increasingly unbelievable. The argument is one of trade off for safety and manipulation of social norms. Some apps involve sharing, whilst are slightly fascistic in how they police language and behaviour.
Where it fails to convince are on the edges. The impact of intrusive apps on people’s lives is galloped through with casual references to divorce and suicide, yet these consequences are much deeper than just a sentence. The authoritarian nature of the apps is largely accepted rather than discussed as a dark invasion of our freedoms.
Delaney’s time at the company, like at the Circle, is subversively controlled by a constant barrage of self-improvement apps, automated reminders and feedback requests. They all come with names that unnerve Every workers and consumers: Did I? Are You Sure? The very thought of an app that can detect a fake orgasm should set everyone’s alarm bells ringing, just for the intrusiveness of it only.
The plot takes in climate change and economic disparity (homelessness) through its light touch. The very subtle references to woke issues in the politics and apps shows his reluctance to genuinely engage with a very toxic issue within the tech giants.
In the novel the apps are globally popular with a casual reference to the consequences. Yet, in reality, these apps are equally likely to cause a backlash from just as many non users who are wary of their creeping authoritarianism as new social norms, the literal acceptance of apps as objectively and scientifically true, and invasive use of data. Dave Eggers glosses over this as if it gets in the way of the main story.
The introduction of the living pods on the campus also lacked complete logic. Their communal set up may work for single young people but I couldn’t understand how they accommodated couple and what happened if a single person wanted to live with someone else. And surely the older workers literally had baggage from their own homes? Again, an ill thought out scenario that undermined my enjoyment of the unfolding farce.
This is an enjoyable farce with a dark twist at the climax that, like its predecessor, will likely make a popcorn movie. It’s not a thriller, not dark enough to be genuinely dystopian, but full of ideas and a satirical take down of our tech giants bullying and coercive behaviours. The plot is farcical both in how it is funny and unconvincing. Delaney’s time rotated through different teams is a broad scan of silicon valley that I enjoyed but other reviews find the story ‘baggy’. Ultimately it’s light tone was one that I enjoyed reading but felt the dystopian issues were equally treated lightly when there was more philosophical points to be addressed.