An Interview with Dave Eggers - Believer Magazine
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An Interview with Dave Eggers

by Daniel Gumbiner
September 15th, 2021

Dave Eggers is the author of numerous books, including What is the What and A Hologram for the King. His latest, The Every, is a follow-up to his 2013 novel The Circle, and a startling satire of our tech-drugged existence. It has a few alternate titles, including “The Final Days of Free Will” and “Limitless Choice is Killing the World.” Set in the near future, The Every explores what happens when the world’s largest social media company merges with an e-commerce behemoth, creating a massive monopoly that seeks to meet all human needs at the lowest possible cost. The Every does meet these needs, but it also, through relentless surveillance and the numerification of behavior, develops a culture of stifling conformity. As one character comments, “Each year we spend more time examining each other, judging each other, mentally murdering each other. And we wonder why the pills continue to get stronger.”

Enter Delaney Wells, a former forest ranger, intent on destroying the Every and its toxic machinations from within. Along with her friend Wes Makazian, she plans to get hired by the Every and then develop products that are so invasive and repulsive, they will lead to a global revolt. They build apps that algorithmically determine the quality of a friendship (AuthentiFriend), whether a meal was enjoyed (Satisfied?), or if you experienced an orgasm during sex (Did I?). To her dismay, the customers of the Every embrace these new developments. Overwhelmed by the choices of modern life, they seek greater certainty and ease, regardless of the privacy and freedoms they must sacrifice to get it. As more and more of their lives become public, they police each other with increasing severity, until the world of the novel begins to resemble a terrifying fascist surveillance state.

Strangely, this is a hopeful book. Though it often feels like our technological straightjackets are inevitable, non-negotiable accessories of modern life, The Every reminds us that they are not, that we are born into this world every day with choices, and that collectively, we have been choosing one way of being, and continue to choose it. What would it look like to continue on this path? What would it look like to choose something else? These are the questions at the core of The Every, a book which makes a real argument, and serves to remind us, as all great books do, of something we already knew, ourselves, to be true.   

The Every will be released by McSweeney’s October 5. This interview was conducted with Dave over email. Weeks earlier, when we spoke by phone, he told me that he had recently purchased an old sailboat—a vessel of freedom if there ever was one.    

—Daniel Gumbiner

I. Faith in Numbers

THE BELIEVER: I want to start by asking you about the origins of this book. At what point did it start to emerge? When you were working on The Circle, did you feel, at the time, like there was a thread you wanted to return to? 

DAVE EGGERS: The Circle was, in part at least, a response to the pretty alarming evolutionary pivot the human species had made around that time—when we decided that surveillance would be acceptable as an element of everyday life, and that we’d become uncomfortable with any moment of life going unrecorded. I didn’t think of doing any sort of follow-up, but then something else happened. 

BLVR: The rise of Amazon?

DE: Not just that. I mean, there’s that—our troubling comfort level with the overwhelming power of that and other monopolies. But I’m always a bit more interested in how individuals react to these developments in tech—and the thing that most interested me in the last five years is seeing how uncomfortable we’ve become with ambiguity and subjectivity—or anything remotely mysterious or unknown. I know you don’t do this on The Believer website, but most websites now will tell you, before you start reading an article, how long it’ll take to read it.

BLVR: You parody that in the Table of Contents for The Every.

DE: When you see the words “6 min read” before an article—is there anything more infantilizing? It’s assuming that the potential reader is so important, that their time is so precious and valuable, that a sort of reader MOU has to be established before they undertake this major endeavor—the reading of an 800-word article. But that kind of thing is everywhere—people are demanding to know “What’s about to happen? How long will it take? Can I know ahead of time how I will feel when it happens?” 

BLVR: And if possible, there’s a numerical rating attached to it before you begin. 

DE: I love the “74% Match” language on the streaming services. What is being matched to what? We don’t know. But that percentage is meant to give us some kind of comfort. If you were to go to get a burrito, if you put “88% Match” next to the carne asada, I swear more people would order it. Picture it: “Carne asada—87% Match.” No one would ask what was being matched, or who came up with that percentage. There’s this strange faith we put in any number, no matter how meaningless.

BLVR: We meet Delaney Wells, your protagonist, as she’s attempting to infiltrate and overthrow the Every. She views the Every as an existential threat to all that is “untamed and interesting about the human species.” But most of the people in the book don’t view it that way. What is the appeal of the Every, to those who like it? 

DE: Because there’s wraparound surveillance on campus, there’s a certain sense of safety. Nothing unexpected will happen—or can happen. All things are measured, and no one has to make decisions that might be better made by an algorithm. For most of the staff, it’s a little bit of heaven. When nothing unexpected is possible, stress levels go down considerably. But then there’s the question of how to fill the days while living in a fishbowl.

BLVR: Mae, the main character of The Circle, is back, and she is now the CEO of the Every. She was the Circle’s first person to go “fully transparent,” streaming her entire life on camera, and she has also not had a single new idea in years. This is no coincidence. I wonder if you can talk a bit about the relationship between surveillance and creativity in the book. What do we lose when we are watched?

DE: I don’t know if anyone’s ever studied it, and even then, if such a study would yield any reliable information, but my theory is that a human under surveillance can’t create. Not really, at least. The staff at the Every are judged on every movement, every keystroke and each thing their pupils land on. It’s all observed and recorded and measured, and this creates a low-level vibration of paralysis for everyone, for fear of saying the wrong thing or making any kind of mistake that will never be expunged. But to create, you have to tap into the anarchist part of yourself; there can’t be rules and there can’t be anyone looking over your shoulder, and you can’t wonder what a troll in Tallinn will think of your idea. Mae, for example, works in a glass box and broadcasts her every move. So there’s no time for private thought, no room for contemplation, and without that, you’re only able to react, minutely, to each incoming stimulus.

BLVR: Another theme this book explores is our culture’s infatuation with numerical measurement. The Every has assigned numerical value to almost everything, including works of art (the greatest artist of all time, according to their aggregate rankings, is Norman Rockwell). One of the characters comments that he will never again experience any kind of art before looking at the numbers. Why do you think, especially in this moment, numbers are so seductive? 

DE: For about ten years now, movies have been assigned a number, a percentage. If we step back, we should acknowledge that this is horrifying—to reduce a work of art to a two-digit number—but we accept it with a shrug. The number is the number, and it’s easier to understand than reading a bunch of conflicting 1000-word reviews. And because these numerical assessments are easy to understand and remember, they’re assigned to more and more aspects of life every day. If we can do it to film and books, what makes visual art so high and mighty? 

BLVR: Professor Agarwal, Delaney’s mentor, describes at one point how overwhelmed her students are: “They are taking a normal college courseload, which has been stressful enough for hundreds of years, but they have added a thousand messages to read, write, send, process.” Later in the book, another character suggests those who resist the digitization of culture will become like the Amish, excised from modern society. I think a lot of people will relate to this dilemma. They don’t want to be as wired as they are, but they feel it’s the cost of continuing to take part in society. What would you say to them?    

DE: I had a conversation about five years ago with a friend of mine, who for years was a psychologist for the students at a large university. She told me that her caseload was doubling every year, and the students were coming in, on day one, completely overwhelmed. Overwhelmed before classes had started. It was all the incoming messages, all the responses necessary, all the decisions to make. Before they could get to their schoolwork, they were processing a ludicrous number of exchanges—thousands a day. And it’s gotten far, far worse—and the schools, now, are a large part of the problem. The number of messages the average school—from kindergarten through college—sends to students and parents is just batshit. Every school knows that screentime is damaging to kids, but they send the vast majority of their messages via screens. It is absurd.

So I do think some lines need to be drawn. Maybe one student needs to tell the school, “You know, every medical organization on the planet has proven that more screentime results in reduced mental health for young people. So why are you, my school, requiring me to use screens to do my homework and communicate with my classmates, teachers and administration? Do you see the problem or is it just me?” That might be a start. 

BLVR: One of the things this book does extraordinarily well is to capture the feeling of spending too much time on a smartphone. You write, “Because their devices dinged them a few times a minute, their minds were reshaped to the jittery, needy psyche that ruled the digital realm.” It’s sort of like reverse meditation. What are some of the consequences you see for this type of diverted attention? 

DE: I see it in so many teens—this inability to be fully present. And it’s not their fault. A smartphone is technological crack. We give the kids crack, and we wonder why they become crackheads. 

BLVR: This is a very funny book—many of the employees of the Every reminded me of Chelmites, the fools of Jewish folklore, who spend hours debating something rationally only to come to an absolutely absurd conclusion. At the same time, this book is dealing with deadly serious topics. Was it difficult to get the humorous qualities of the book to harmonize with its more critical and philosophical moments?   

DE: The conversations seem perfectly reasonable, like you say, until the end, when invariably these people arrive at a ridiculous conclusion—mainly because they assume the answer comes through a screen. So to solve the problem of teen depression caused by screentime, they invent a new app that will measure depression through the screen. This is the digital solutionism that’s ruled the tech realm for the last 20 years. There is never—ever—the thought that the solution might come from a non-digital source. This hubris and lack of self-awareness make for good comedy.

BLVR: An interesting tension in the book is the question of what to do about climate change. The Every invents tools to shame people into reducing their carbon impact—“shame was the internet’s currency and lever for change,” you write at one point. Do you think there are ever circumstances (a pandemic, climate change) when broad-based public shaming is necessary, or is it always a misguided strategy?  

DE: I just can’t stand public shaming in any form. It’s soaked in hypocrisy and totally lacking in empathy. The Bible put it well: “Let he without sin cast the first stone.” Anyone doing any kind of public shaming online—anyone, anytime—is a hypocrite, full stop. Are you perfect? No? Then don’t shame your friends or, even worse, total strangers. Meaningful change isn’t achieved with torches and pitchforks. It happens with reason, with evidence, with compassion and with long conversations.

II. No Surprises

BLVR: Toward the end of the book, the subject of religion comes to the fore. In a letter to Delaney, Agarwal writes that religion used to answer the question of “Am I good?” Now, she suggests, we have turned to algorithms to answer that question.  

DE: In the book, there’s something called the SumNum, an all-encompassing number that aggregates everything you’ve ever done—from school grades to good deeds to unpaid bills—into one number, which determines your human value. It’s tidy and it’s simple and is wildly popular. 

BLVR: Do you think it could become a reality in our lifetimes?

DE: There’s a version of it in China called the social credit score, and there, it’s a top-down system that rates citizens. But I think it will come to democracies, too, and will be willingly adopted. We already tolerate credit scores, which are maintained by three private companies that reinforce structural racism, answer to no one, and have god-like power over people’s ability to rent or own homes, cars or get jobs. These credit-score companies are challenged by no one—no legislators, no citizens, no one. Why? I think again, it’s because we have this weird, unshakable faith in numbers. We see a number and we assume it must be scientific, objective and true. But very often, that number is utter nonsense. 

BLVR: But in the case of SumNum, you explain that it’ll replace not just credit-score companies, but God, too. 

DE: Well, God is so subjective. And we don’t like subjectivity anymore. What gives a deity the right to say whether you’re good or bad? Where’s the data? So SumNum does two things: It provides more hard, numerical evidence, and it allows you to have access to the number at all times—not just at the gates of heaven. 

BLVR: Because no one likes surprises.

DE: Surprises are unscientific. And stressful. And when it comes to the fate of one’s everlasting soul, sort of unfair. With SumNum, your value as a human is objective and it’s out in the open—it’s not subjective or opaque, like the judgment of some invisible divinity. With SumNum, if you know you’re a 788 but you want to get to 912, the work ahead is clear. 

BLVR: For yourself, if it’s not a number, what do you turn to when it comes to these more subjective and challenging existential questions?

DE: I guess I’m comfortable with not knowing. As I get older, the sea of what I don’t and can’t know gets wider and deeper, and I’m OK with that.

BLVR: OK, for the last question, I have to ask you about the lycra outfits. Everyone at the Every wears form-fitting lycra outfits. One man wears an outfit that shows “testicular cleavage” which is a phrase that is now forever seared into my brain. What can you say about these outfits and why the Everyone’s wear them?

DE: I see these tight bodysuits more and more in daily life. I guess people exercise in them, then they go to the grocery store and don’t think much about changing? And maybe they feel like superheroes, too? Anyway, I thought a place like the Every would be overrun with this kind of outfit, worn by the super-fit and the not-so-fit. I’m glad you liked (or at least noted) the occurrence of “testicular cleavage.” If you take one thing away from the book, it should be the existence of testicular cleavage. I’ll write it again so everyone remembers: testicular cleavage. Once more: testicular cleavage. OK, one more time: testicular cleavage. Thank you and good night.

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