The Road to Hell

In his new novel The Every, Dave Eggers frames technology as threat.

the every, dave eggers
Em-j Staples

Dave Eggers’s The Every could not be more timely. The novel, which is a sequel of sorts to The Circle (2013), appeared less than three weeks after Facebook changed its corporate name to Meta, a rebranding effort directly echoed in the opening of the book. “Five years earlier,” Eggers writes, “the Circle had bought an ecommerce behemoth named after a South American jungle, and the acquisition created the richest company the world had ever known. The subsummation necessitated the Circle changing its name to the Every, which seemed to its founders definitive and inevitable, hinting as it did at ubiquity and equality.” The description is both knowing and ironic, revealing the pointedness of The Every and its capacious wit. The Every is bigger than either Facebook or (the unnamed) Amazon; it creates and markets apps as Apple does while providing, in the vein of Google, a variety of data services and platforms. Eight years ago, this might have been the stuff of caricature; now it feels all too real. As such—and whatever else it may be—Eggers’s novel represents an attempt to write a dystopian satire of an already dystopian world.

In The Every, after all, humanity has been to hell and back, suffering a pair of pandemics, the reordering of the global economy, and the constant scrutiny of living online. People can be canceled for anything: a raised voice or an untoward glance. An app called Friendy rates relationships using keywords and facial-recognition software. “Think of how much more genuine and authentic our friendships could be,” its developer asserts, “if we just apply the right metrics to them.” Another app manages people’s time so aggressively, telling them when to eat or sleep or exercise, that users are driven to collapse. On the other side, a loose network of anti-technology “trogs” resists the digital encroachment that most of humanity considers the necessary cost of convenience and security. “The decline of God and the imminent collapse of so many faiths,” observes one such figure, a professor named Meena Agarwal, “seems tied directly to the rise of surveillance, and the collective enforcement of social norms through instant global shaming.”

Agarwal is a ghost in the machine of Eggers’s novel, which is centered by her former student, Delaney Wells. Along with her roommate, a programmer named Wes Makazian, Delaney is out to bring down the Every by getting a job with the digital colossus and contaminating it, like corrupted software, from the inside. The plan is simple: to seed the Every with ideas so bad that users will turn against it. (Friendy is one such initiative.) “We make everything more diabolical and ridiculous,” Delaney tells Wes. “And finally someone will say, ‘At long last, have you no shame?’ ” When Wes asks who will say this, Delaney responds, “The citizenry!”

“Ah, the citizenry,” Wes says. “I like them. They always do the right thing.”

Eggers, of course, is writing with his tongue firmly in his cheek, as he makes explicit throughout the novel. It’s no surprise, for instance, that Delaney’s plan to destroy the Every only makes it stronger, with each proposal yielding a more popular product than the last. Meanwhile, a field trip she organizes for fellow Everyones (the term for employees of the Every) becomes a parody of wokeness, with tour members traumatized by the sight of livestock on the farms they motor past in Petaluma. (“For a vegan, this is the Holocaust,” one messages.) Back at the Every campus, sequestered on Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay, the participants begin referring to themselves as “survivors” and stage an elaborate public reckoning.

It’s a moment worthy of Terry Southern, absurd and at the same time recognizable. That makes sense, for like Southern, Eggers is at heart a moralist, and in The Every he is exploring a complicated ethical conundrum: What happens when our humanity, our desire to do the right thing, is turned against us by an entity such as the Every, which weaponizes shame—and, more important, shaming—as a mechanism of control? For Eggers, this is an existential matter as much as it is a social one. “We are a species in contraction,” he writes, in the voice of Agarwal. “…A species that sits still, in a circle, staring at each other, cannot survive. We sit in constant judgment of each other, and thus we are a species in decline. Nothing great can be created in such a climate. An authentic human life cannot be lived this way.”

Here we see the issue all of us are facing in a world that feels increasingly constrained. The Every doesn’t offer much of a way out, but then, this is not the novel’s job. Art exists—it must—only on its own terms; it has no other purpose, no other point. Eggers highlights this in the middle of the novel, after Delaney goes to work on a project called FictFix, which corrects books that are too long or feature characters who behave in unsympathetic ways. “The main thing,” a tech named Alessandro tells her, “is that the main character should behave the way you want them to, and do what you want them to do.” Consumer-based metrics, in other words, which extend not only to content but also to style (“For instance,” Alessandro continues, “people don’t like epistolary novels”) and length. “We found so many things!” Alessandro concludes. “…No book should be over 500 pages, and if it is over 500, we found that the absolute limit to anyone’s tolerance is 577.” It’s hardly a coincidence that this last number, which Delaney, playing along, mocks as “undisciplined,” is the page count of Eggers’s book.

What Eggers is saying is that freedom is undisciplined. Creativity, identity, humanity—they are unmeasurable in the most essential sense, and we lose something of ourselves if we believe or function otherwise. “When everything is seen,” a character assures Delaney, “nothing bad can happen.” Isn’t it pretty to think so? But in The Every, Eggers effectively takes the opposing point of view, portraying big tech, and our complicity with it, as a soul-destroying threat. •




David L Ulin is Alta Journal’s books editor.
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