In 2013, Dave Eggers’ techno-dystopian satire The Circle described a sinister social media company that aims to abolish privacy for good. Its devotees aspire to “go transparent” – allow every moment of their lives to be captured on camera and beamed to the world. After his debut memoir, it is probably his best-known book, spawning a Hollywood movie.
Nearly 10 years on, Eggers has written a sequel. The Every returns to the world of The Circle and takes its premise even further. The titular social media/search company of the first novel has swallowed up a competitor – “an ecommerce behemoth named after a South American jungle” – and created the “richest company the world has ever known”.
The company continues to believe that privacy is theft; and it adds to that a growing insistence that human decisions in practically every area of life can and should be outsourced to the firm’s proprietary algorithms. A few “trogs” still refuse to share their data, but the drift of society leaves them increasingly ghettoised. The book’s protagonist Delaney, rather like Mae in The Circle, starts out as a recruit to the company – but her notion is to destroy the Every from within. (Mae, readers of the first book will remember, had a potential shot at that. She returns in this book as the chief executive of the whole company, from which readers can draw what conclusions they will.)
Eggers is admirably, well, transparent, when I ask what sent him back to the themes of that earlier novel: “I had, you know, a few hundred pages of notes that I didn’t put into The Circle. There were some ideas there that I couldn’t squeeze into the first book … ” But there was also what he calls “a catalyst”: “I saw this really widespread change happening, where it seemed to me that nobody ever wanted to make a decision any more.”
He adds, by way of example: “In California there’s a movement to get rid of human decision-making” – to dispense with umpires who call balls and strikes in baseball “because sometimes there’s the possibility of error”. Already, algorithms are being used to grade college essays. “Everybody is having the wool pulled over their eyes, collectively, and nobody really seems to care. [You’d think] we would raise the alarm that essays were being so devalued to the point where non-thinking machines were reading and determining the fate of the students – [but] you find a protest and it’s maybe six people, lunatics like me and a few old hippies … This is the water that everybody swims in now.”
The world of The Every is heading rapidly towards a sort of voluntary totalitarianism, described by one character as a “species-level evolution”; Eggers endorses that. “I think it would qualify as radical speciation,” he says. “The vast majority of humanity is now tethered to a device. There’s never been anything remotely like that, in terms of how quickly we changed. The closest thing would be the advent of radio or TV, but in both of those cases, those were not with us. Most of the time we disconnected from them. Now, we’re always accompanied by one device. We direct most of our life’s experiences through that device. We’re willing to be surveilled, 24/7, without discomfort. And we’re willing to give up most of our power to a handful of monopolies.”
Surveillance and sousveillance is woven into all manner of human interaction. Pre-Googling, or its equivalent in The Every’s post-Google world, is routine etiquette: if you meet someone at a job interview or a party and you don’t already know all about them, they regard you as quaint. “You didn’t pre-search me?” one character says to the protagonist. “Oh god. You’re worse off than I thought.” So it’s a bit disconcerting when, while we’re making small talk ahead of the interview, Eggers says: “I read about your car getting stolen. Did you ever get a new one?” He must have pre-Googled me and found me whingeing in print.
As an adoptive Californian, Eggers has lived for three decades at the centre of this shift. He describes himself as having been “beyond an early adopter of the Apple stuff” – all those early products, making the power of computers available to the mathematically challenged, enabled his first career as a graphic designer and publisher. But having been in San Francisco since 1992, he says, “I saw the internet change from, you know, cool toys and tools – as dorky as so many of [the tech entrepreneurs] were, it was really just about gadgets, and access – and then the switch was flipped and it became about wealth, and control.” That change was the germ of The Circle.
The 51-year-old Eggers of today is a late or non-adopter. He doesn’t have social media, he doesn’t use a smartphone – “if I did, I would be watching baseball highlights all day” – and talks to me down an audio line “from an old fishing boat on the San Francisco Bay, where I work because it has no wifi going in or out and no possibility of a signal”.
He is also refusing to sell the hardback edition of his book through Amazon in the US, “to highlight the vital importance of independent bookstores”: “Amazon is a monopoly that uses unfair business practices to drive out competition. They do not play by the rules and they do not pay anywhere near their proper tax burden. Meanwhile, you can bet your local indie bookstore is paying taxes. Amazon loses money on book sales because they can make up those losses through other revenue streams. That’s the essence of predatory pricing, and it should be illegal under existing antitrust laws. Because The Every is about an all-powerful monopoly that seeks to eliminate competition, it seemed like a good time to remind book buyers that they still have a choice.”
In the US Eggers’s stand was made possible because the book is published by his own McSweeney’s imprint – “while there was a vigorous debate, in the end I agreed with myself and we went ahead” – but he’s realistic about the unlikelihood of his sparking an Amazon spring. “I’ve heard from two authors just yesterday who said they’re going to try to do the same thing, so that’s good. But listen: not everyone can do this. Amazon’s tendrils are everywhere. It’s mainly because McSweeney’s is a small independent company that we could cut Amazon out of the loop.” It’s a different story with UK publication. “Most companies, and distributors, are locked into contractual obligations with Amazon that preclude them from having a choice. Which is part of the problem.”
When I mention that Sally Rooney has also used the publication of her book to make a political stand, refusing an offer from an Israeli publisher to translate Beautiful World, Where Are You into Hebrew due to her position on the Israel-Palestine conflict, Eggers is positive: “I think it’s a very reasonable way to protest peacefully, and I’m always in favour of peaceful protest.”
One of the things that adds shade to Eggers’s novel is that the creeping totalitarianism he describes is a totalitarianism, at least ostensibly, of the left rather than the right; or, at least, of mega-capitalism monetising progressive concerns. “Silicon Valley is liberal politically,” he says. “So you do have most innovation wrapped in the cloak of liberalism and progressivism, diversity, equity and inclusion: they know how to sell an innovation that to them is profitable, gives them more power and control.”
The idea that governments and big companies should have access to our data – that privacy is not an unqualified good – runs through the novel as a counterargument. Eggers says he has no problem with the idea of vaccine passports. The question is where you draw the line. “The one that keeps me up at night is surveillance cameras in the home,” he says (touching on a late plot point). “I don’t think that there’s any possibility that in two years, we won’t have surveillance cameras in the home. It’ll start voluntarily – in hotels and Airbnbs, and other sorts of semi-private places – and then there will be community spread, like the Ring cameras that are in most homes now, and partnerships with police departments.
“The justification will be: there’s 10m cases of domestic violence in the US each year. Surveillance cameras would put a dent in that. How do you justify not having it? You could make an argument, well, OK, sure, domestic violence is catastrophic but privacy is more important. I don’t think it’s a powerful argument for most people. The more compelling and emotional argument is: save some lives.”
One driver of the plot is the way in which the power and potential of the Every tends to quietly co-opt resistance. That comes from life. The big tech people he knows socially, he says, “recognise some of the problems they face”: “They’re not blind; they’re usually fairly idealistic people, and they’re definitely smart. They feel like, on balance, the good that the company is doing outweighs the evil.”
The climate crisis is an example much on his mind (our first conversation was delayed by a week because Eggers’s kids were at a summer camp in an area hit by wildfires and he had to go and rescue them). “When I was in the middle of writing it, the sky was red, we had to stay inside, our air was unbelievable. We’ve had fires again this summer, a little further north. And, well, what if, you know, what if one of these companies was given more powers – maybe climate change would be better addressed if it was more of a command economy on a worldwide scale … ”
One of the book’s central themes is the seductiveness of moral purity. Eggers takes a swipe at millennial sensitivities – and in these sections, you might be surprised to be reminded of Bret Easton Ellis’s broadsides against Generation Snowflake. One character denounces the environmental and human cost of exotic fruits in the staff canteen, and soon they are banned; with the inevitable catastrophic consequences for growers and hauliers. When Delaney organises a company visit to the beach to see elephant seals, most of the employees are so triggered by exposure to dirty, smelly real creatures in a natural environment that they daren’t leave the bus (those few who weren’t already boycotting the trip because they’d discovered a photograph online of the packed-lunch supplier posing with an Israeli flag).
Eggers says he doesn’t see that hypersensitivity as “a generational thing”, though; it’s rather that “across the board, people of every age are getting more expectant of perfection in their lives, partly because they spend less time interacting with people”. Is he worried about “cancel culture” affecting what novelists can and can’t write? “I don’t know if, you know, five people tweeting about something really has the power to change a publisher’s mind? I certainly hope not.”
In The Every, even art is seen as a problem to be solved by big data. The idea that machines are more “objective” than humans induces the company to run a series of projects designed to judge painting, literature and music by algorithm. One of Delaney’s more purposefully outrageous suggestions – the running joke is that like all her outrageous suggestions, which she hopes will prompt the populace to rise up in revolt, it is promptly and enthusiastically taken up – is FictFix:
Eggers is, to my surprise, unaware that five years ago Stanford University’s Literary Lab’s “bestsellerometer” used “cutting-edge text-mining techniques” on 20,000 novels and declared The Circle “the single most paradigmatic bestseller of the past 30 years”. Since the researchers aimed to show that the elements of theme, plot, style and characterisation that appeal to readers are, essentially, formulaic and predictable, this is a distinctly qualified compliment.
“It wasn’t a joke?” he says. “I’ve never seen anything [about that]. Like, I never know anything once a book comes out: I don’t read anything about it. So the starting point is that I’m just blissfully unaware. But it seems like something that I would have made up as a gag or somebody else could have done as a prank.”If reality can anticipate dystopian fiction, how much does he think that a satirical novel can put the brakes on? “I’m trying to present a fork in the road where we might still have a choice to take one path rather than the other,” he says. “If you present the darker, sillier path, you can illustrate it vividly. You might convince people that that’s not where we want to go. That’s the best we can do with dystopian fiction to some extent.”
“If I had one hope that would be, well: you know what? There’s going to be things that we aren’t going to measure, we’ll never be able to measure. Somebody sent me an article about some type of imaging to measure awe. There’s a bunch of smart people that are trying to do this, Lord knows why. Putting a pin into a butterfly and sticking it in a box: it’s a strange human impulse.
“I would hope that we get comfortable with a little bit of discomfort, and be OK with a little bit of uncertainty, and embrace a little bit of the remaining mystery.”
The Every is published by Hamish Hamilton. To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.