“The Every,” Dave Eggers’s new novel, presents a remarkably thought-provoking dystopia that follows technology-resistant protagonist Delaney as she infiltrates the headquarters of the Every, a monopolistic company set in Silicon Valley. Though set in the same universe as “The Circle,” Eggers’s 2013 dystopian fiction hit, prior knowledge of the fictional world is not necessary. Like any dystopia, it is clear the novel is a direct commentary on our modern world — specifically our relationship with technology and capitalism — so the reality is fairly recognizable and the characters relatable. Eggers utilizes the genre of science fiction and dystopian fiction elegantly to criticize our world while maintaining distance to prevent reflexive defensiveness.
Eggers describes things that are ostensibly true in the fictional universe he’s created, yet his matter-of-fact and fatalistic style forces us to realize their resonance with the real world. This includes technology that is eerily familiar, like “the oval,” essentially a modern smartwatch, or “FaceMe,” an exact replication of Zoom or FaceTime. There are other familiar ideas that explicitly point to things in our world too, including an “e-commerce giant” with a “half-smile” logo that none of the characters ever explicitly name but refer to as “the jungle,” a not-so-subtle dig at Amazon. There is also some ramping-up of “cancel culture” in the society he describes that seems to echo current debates. The familiar technology and ideas, described without the normalcy and recognition of their brand names (no one bats an eye if you say, “My FitBit just told me to move” or “I’m going to FaceTime my parents”), allow the reader to see what our society might look like from the outside.
Eggers’s writing often sounds like modern commentary in a way that sort of winks at the reader, as if to say, “We both know what’s going on here, yes?” In this way, he can get away with criticizing today’s technology without sounding like an out-of-touch, anti-progress Luddite, simply because he’s writing about a future/dystopian world. Even to people wary of various privacy infractions and monopolizing, criticisms can often come off as elitist or undemocratic. It’s difficult to criticize technology in a meaningful way that doesn’t end up sounding like “Kids these days and their phones!” This novel democratizes technology addiction to every generation and emphasizes how it doesn’t just affect younger people, and places blame on adults and not their tech-addled children. Specifically, it criticizes people who allow personal technology to double as a surveillance method for children.
The future presented is seemingly desirable — most people are gainfully employed and polite and kind to one another, tech is used to democratize elections and encourage non-bigoted speech and, most importantly (and where the moral conundrum comes in), clean energy and environmentalist practices are the norm. People simply choose the convenience afforded by tech in everyday life over the privacy it violates through surveillance.
Delaney is plagued by letters from an old college professor, Dr. Agrawal, who repeatedly pleads with her to quit her job at the Every. These letters are a recurring motif throughout the story and function as a useful, if stunted, way to explicitly articulate statements that criticize this society’s technology, which is essentially just a more advanced version of what we have today. They also establish Dr. Agrawal as a bastion of sanity and morality, trying desperately to make others see how technology is blatantly stripping them of their freedom. She is Delaney’s moral backbone, so when she crumples and is willingly subsumed by the Every near the end of the novel, feeling useless at her teaching job and succumbing to the mostly empty desire to make structural change from within, we as readers feel just as betrayed as Delaney does.
This book leaves no moral dilemma untouched. Midway through, there is a dramatic and horrifyingly slow death on camera. A founder of the Every, Eamon Bailey, sensorially connects himself to his physically disabled son, Gunnar, and then dies an agonizing death out at sea, broadcast live for many hours until he is finally found. Mixed in with cursory condolences from most people and heartfelt eulogies from a few, there are brief smatterings of wonder among the characters about whether Bailey’s son could have actually experienced the physical feeling of death. Like many moral dilemmas in the book, this one is left open-ended. This death experience also connects to Jenny, an interviewer for Delaney’s job, who casually mentions that she had developed an app to calculate exactly when you will die. Death, so sacrosanct and personal, was a line that technology was (and is) beginning to cross.
The sense of coming too close to an edge that can’t be crossed is prevalent throughout the novel. Delaney and her roommate Wes refer to some technology as “species-ending,” and characters often talk of concepts such as accelerated evolution and adaptation for efficiency. The use of the word “species” is significant; it is simultaneously animalistic and clinical. It feels aggressively over-scientific in the context of technology that tells you what kind of butter to buy or whether your sleep was satisfactory, but it adds to the overall ominous tone of the novel.
Delaney isn’t a particularly interesting character; however, that may make the book better. Thankfully, she does have some background that gives her a little spice, like her technology-fraught relationship with her parents, her stint in academia and her time as a park ranger. These things make her intent to sabotage plausible and make the reader sympathetic to both her cause and her person. But she is, most importantly, our eyes through which we can see the world Eggers has created in all its glory, complete with her tech-skeptic good-guy sarcastic commentary. And truly, Delaney is exactly how we have to see the world of Eggers’s novel to truly understand it: as both an insider and an outsider. Through Delaney, we get an insider’s look at the very heart of the Facebook- or Amazon-type company that has become an absolute monolith. We also get snarky commentary on that company and the reality it has created through a narrator who hasn’t “drunk the Kool-Aid” of the Every, so to speak.
Delaney’s position as insider-outsider very much parallels the reader’s experience with the book, as we are both inside and outside the reality Eggers has built. It is clearly not exactly our society — it is further into the future, company names and fashions are different, there is reference to “the second pandemic” of the 21st century — but it is close. After all, dystopian realities are commenting on the reality we currently live in. Science fiction, horror, all of it reflects the culture that it comes from. So while we are on the outside — we do not live in the exact world of “The Every” — we are also on the inside because we are a part of the very society being satirized and commented on in the first place. It leaves the reader with an eerie feeling and a warier eye towards the everyday technology of today.
Daily Arts Writer Emilia Ferrante can be reached by firstname.lastname@example.org.