Dave Eggers' new book depicts a dystopian future and an all-powerful tech giant
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Dave Eggers' new novel "The Every" is set in a not-so-distant future where a ubiquitous tech giant called The Every is reaching deeper and deeper into people's lives. To publish and distribute the book, Eggers said he tried to skirt one of today's giants, but that was no easy feat.
DAVE EGGERS: You can print a book, and then you got to distribute it. And the distributors, almost all of them have deals with Amazon, where any book that they distribute, period, is distributed on Amazon. So to work outside of them is like taking not just the back roads, but taking the dirt roads off the back roads off the highway to get goods to your customers. And so this is being sold at maybe a thousand or so independent bookstores.
CORNISH: And even then, it's just the hardcover.
EGGERS: Just the hardcover is being sold that way. And that's the only thing that we could really control.
CORNISH: It's interesting. The book - there's sort of Easter eggs and jokes about tech throughout, including even the length of the book, right?
EGGERS: Well, it was funny. I wanted there - you know, there's all these things that are determined by algorithms there, like what's the ideal type of movie? So I said at some point that the ideal length for a book is 577 pages, which is the length of this book.
But, you know, I do think that we're in this time where we're so comically addicted to numerical assessments of things. Like, well, you know, this movie is a 78.3. And I just saw a kid's essay the other day that had been given an 82.19 by their teacher. And I don't know how this is determined, but I think that, you know, I try to sort of treat it with a light touch and sort of point out the comedy because I do find, on a daily basis, it's 85% funny and 15% terrifying.
CORNISH: (Laughter) The plot of "The Every" is a character who is trying to infiltrate the company in order to try to destroy this company. One of the ways this character does it is to find a way to pitch ideas; ideas that are so outlandish they could never possibly be put out in the marketplace because they think like, oh, well, someone will rebel.
CORNISH: And there's a couple really fun ideas here (laughter). I don't know if you remember any of them, but do you mind mentioning one or two?
EGGERS: One of them is there's an app that tells you if you enjoyed the food that you just ate. Instead of trusting one's own gut and - you know, so to speak, this third-party app will tell you what you just experienced. And I think, you know, that started when, you know, I had a friend that introduced me to a device that told him if he was meditating properly. So it was like - somehow a bell rings when he's meditating to the satisfaction of the device. And I think that we've gotten away from maybe trusting ourselves and trusting our bodies or trusting what we know about ourselves.
CORNISH: Well, through the book, it's pretty clear you believe that we're grasping for certainty.
CORNISH: And so we'll almost give away the farm, so to speak, our rights or our privacy...
CORNISH: ...If it means that we can get a number that gives us confidence that we're doing it right.
EGGERS: Right. And in the end, it's totally understandable. We all struggle with the uncertainty of the world and all the chaos around us. And then it ends up with - this monopoly promises, in the end, that they will tell you whether you are good. And they will boil it down to a three-digit number called the SumNum. And that does hold a certain appeal. You know, am I good? Yeah, you're a 893, which is - you know, anything over 780 is pretty good. I mean, it's very similar to our credit scores already that we don't push back against, even though they are dystopian, terrifying in their power and completely opaque and unfair. We do embrace anything that gives us that comfort of faux certainty.
CORNISH: To come back to the book, there's another example here where this character, Delaney, the hero of your story, has a welcome presentation that she's supposed to give. And she has a field trip that involves mating elephant seals (laughter), and everything goes wrong, so to speak. But what's interesting is what happens after, where people have so many complaints about what they experience that she has to participate in something that you describe as a cross between a judicial hearing and an encounter group.
CORNISH: And I just want to read this one clause where it says, each time a new person spoke, that person felt it necessary to be more emotionally maimed than their predecessors; to reach deeper into history - theirs personally or that common to humanity - for comparisons to what had happened or how they felt about it.
EGGERS: Yeah. They go on this trip, which is just a beach down near Point Reyes, and she thinks it's going to be this beautiful, joyous encounter with nature. But the folks on this bus trip, I think, are so maybe neurotic about, you know, their impact on the world. Like, is it OK to step off the buses? Is it OK to be in this place in relation to the elephant seals?
I think that there is - especially out here in California and in the Bay Area, I run into it a lot and this is a group dynamic gets so sort of neurotic about things together. And all of these different judgments and fears and worries and anxieties all come together and make everybody sort of miserable because they're maybe overthinking certain things and not allowing themselves to just sort of enjoy something that I think at their gut level they know that they want to.
CORNISH: It also sounds like the criticism, though, that especially, like, conservatives make about liberals or progressives specifically. Like, it does smack of that kind of like snowflake, too sensitive, moral injury Olympics. Like, there's a way where your criticism actually, like, falls in line maybe with people that you don't consider yourself aligned with. And do you actually see some value in some of that critique that people are too sensitive?
EGGERS: Well, I think that surely, sometimes we can get ourselves a little bit boxed in. So I'm taking on that, which is, like, something that I think we all deal with, which is like, how do we live more virtuously in relation to the environment without having to sort of, you know, drop everything and change our, you know, lifestyle completely?
At the same time, like, to answer your question, yes, I think that sometimes these group dynamics - it becomes, I think, an infinitely bigger issue than warranted. And I think that sometimes - I'm always about - you know, I believe that people should really start from a place of mutual love and forgiveness, as corny as that sounds. You know, this is like an old hippie idea, and what attracted me and kept me in San Francisco all these years is just this presumption of love, I guess, be - for our fellow human. And I think when we embrace and enact sort of biblical judgment upon each other for something like an elephant seal field trip, it - it's not coming from that place of, like, mutual love, respect and the assumption of goodwill on each other's behalf.
CORNISH: Well, Dave Eggers, thank you so much for speaking with me.
EGGERS: Thanks so much, Audie. It's been great to talk to you.
CORNISH: Author Dave Eggers. His new novel is called "The Every."
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