(SINGING) When you walk in the room, do you have sway?
I’m Kara Swisher, and you’re listening to “Sway.” My guest today is Dave Eggers, the literary icon, publisher, and McSweeney’s founder who writes some of the sharpest satire about our tech-obsessed world. In his latest novel, he tackles a scary question. What if the world’s most powerful search engine and the world’s most dominant e-commerce giant decided to merge? Eggers calls this fictional conglomerate — which, by the way, looks a lot like a Google-Amazon mash-up — “The Every.” It’s also the title of his new book. It imagines a future in which technology dictates how we shop, how we speak, how we have sex, and even how we treat and score our friendships. So I wanted to talk to Eggers about the novel and how far we may actually be from such a dystopia. Dave Eggers, welcome to “Sway.”
Thank you. Good to be here.
So the last time we talked — we talked at length in person, actually, before the pandemic — about tech and your aversion to it. You were off the grid. You showed me your flip phone, et cetera, et cetera. And I wanted to sort of get where you are now.
You know, I’m always struggling. I wouldn’t say it’s an aversion, but I’m cautious, I’m skeptical, and I’m a slow adopter. But I have to use it every day. And I think it’s always been for me a matter of moderation and sort of a back and forth and kind of a very conscious, ongoing struggle to maintain the core of what you want to be and not be used by the technology that you’re ostensibly using.
Which of course your books are about. But you still use a flip phone or did you get yourself a feature phone since last we talked?
Oh no, I still have the same flip phone. I have modified it a bit with some duct tape on the back to keep the back cover. So it has a little bit of aftermarket modification, but otherwise it’s the same flip phone. This thing is a classic. It’s indestructible. It has all the features I need. It has a calculator.
Oh, how exciting for you.
So let’s start talking about this book, “The Every.” So it’s a sequel to your 2013 book “The Circle,” which is about a search company that bears — it’s Google, essentially, or possibly Facebook. Tell me why you decided to write this sequel in which The Circle gobbles up an e-commerce company named after a South American jungle, so basically Amazon, and creates The Every, which one character called the most monopolistic, control-hungry corporation ever to plague the world. So why do the sequel? Tell me how you thought about this.
Well, I think when I was done with “The Circle,” I had never thought about a sequel. I’d never written a sequel to anything. But I kept taking notes, and I sort of would jot things down over time. And I remember at one point a friend of mine who — she treats students at a college. She was the on-campus psychologist. And she was saying that the thing that her students came in with more than anything, the thing, the problem that plagued them was choice. They were anxious about a lot of things, but more and more students needed help. More and more students were plagued with unlimited choices, unlimited input, too much to think about on a given day and too many choices to make on a given day. And I thought that was really interesting, because we would think that at this sort of apex point of human evolution, we would want all these choices and, sort of, that would be some sort of glorious place to arrive at, that we could order anything and have it arrive at our doorstep the next morning. But these kids were far more anxious than they had been ten years before and 15 years before. And I thought, well, that’s an interesting starting point. And what if there were a monopoly that would not only sort of tell you which choices are correct, which ones are the most beneficial to the environment and progressive in different ways, and they would help you, given your preferences and algorithmic sort of determined personality, they’d help you become the better version of yourself and the ultimate version of yourself as a personal person and a member of the broader community.
So you’d be more useful. You’d be more useful because you’ve been categorized or measured.
Well, if you stay true to your profile, you’re a more useful citizen to everybody, I think. And there’s a part of this company called PrefCom, called Preference Compliance, and they make sure you stay within your preferences. Because when you deviate, it creates trouble for everybody. But if you stay within your preferences, then the economy can move along a little bit better and you don’t gum up the works.
And you have a character saying this. There’s an exchange between the main character and the head of the company. “People want this. What, exactly? One number that includes everything, cradle to grave, grades in school, childhood behavioral issues, missed days, college records, test scores, any criminal behavior, workplace demerits, traffic tickets, suspicious travel, anomalous walk patterns.”
That’s called the SumNum. They wanted the most sort of lyrical and all encompassing way to summarize all that is human. And so they came up with SumNum. And it’s the number that sort of defines all that you are and your worth as a member of society.
And you start off at 500.
You start off at 500. Right. Sort of like in the natural state of being. And you can dip below with demerits and stuff. The social credit score in China has — I don’t think it’s anywhere near as complete and all-knowing as this would be. But I think that given that we’ve lived with credit scores that are maintained by three opaque companies that are for-profit and the gatekeepers to almost everything — you could never make it up in the worst dystopian nightmare that these three companies, they create and maintain access for people to be housed, for people to rent or own homes, to get jobs, all of these things. And we have no answer to them, to fight them or hold them accountable. And we live with it. And so it struck me as not a big stretch that at some point, there would be a far more encompassing figure, number, that would sort of give us and everybody a bit of certainty. And I think that we’re in this weird era that I try to treat comically, that any number that gives us a little bit of certainty, whether it’s how much we slept the night before or how many steps we’ve taken or what the right heart rate is for a given time of the day or caloric intake or the worth of a film or a piece of art or poetry, all of these things, anything that gives us that temporary sense of certainty we will adopt instantly. There’s just never any resistance.
Your main character, Delaney Wells, she’s a former park ranger. She plans to infiltrate The Every, get a job there, destroy it from the inside. She writes a paper on benevolent market mastery, which is sort of — she’s sort of the anti-Lina Khan. So talk about benevolent market mastery, because I think that’s how the tech companies today try to put themselves out there to most citizens.
Yeah. I think that Amazon is, to most people, it is a godsend and they know it’s a monopoly and they know how much control they have over the market overall, I guess, and they know that they probably should shop locally if they want to maintain any sense of sort of retail community or a public square. But instead, they order most of their stuff online. And the convenience is incredible. The efficiency is stunning. You can just kind of look away from the workplace realities and the treatment of the employees and the predatory pricing and this sort of hollowing out of the publishing world, all of these other aspects of Amazon’s power. And no matter what happens, they only continue to amass more market share. And we’re seeing it sort of in the publishing world by 8 percent more every year without end, it seems. And no matter how much awareness people have about the impact.
Because it’s benevolent. Meaning, it doesn’t appear to hurt the citizens, correct? That’s what you’re essentially saying.
Right. Yeah. And one of the antitrust tenants is, do they control the market such that people have to pay more for goods? But of course, Amazon only drives down the prices of things. And so in that way, it’s been very hard to sort of — for the average person to raise any kind of antipathy toward this company that’ll send you a bunch of masks the next day when you can’t get them at the local store, and all of these other things. And so I think that the pandemic hugely accelerated their control and their power. And I think that people overall have no problem living under sort of what would be called a benevolent monopoly.
Right. So talking about monopoly power and trust, how close do you think we are to the plot of “The Every“? Because we have an antitrust trifecta right now in the Biden administration with Lina Khan, Tim Wu, and Jonathan Kanter, who has to be approved to be at the Justice Department. How close are we to that idea of this Every?
I’m not encouraged by any signs that we wouldn’t go there, because it seems that’s what consumers want. And I think that the Lina Khans of the world — I’m glad that she’s where she’s at. And I really have more hope for possible action than I’ve had in many, many years. But it’s hard to fight what consumers clearly want. And so it takes quite a bit of effort and regulation that sometimes cuts against consumer desire to make something right.
Do you think there’s a real-life character like Delaney out there to do this? Because I know a lot of tech people that say how much they hate it as they drive their Tesla to their House in Tahoe. You know what I mean? That kind of thing.
Yeah. You know, every tech person that I meet, because I meet so many young people that are in tech, are like the nicest, most idealistic, wonderful people to talk to. And they say, well, what do you want me to do? You want me to — how do I maintain my job when I’m trying to unravel things from within? There’s no way to do that. How do I tell my company to slow down or not go deeper or track less or surveil more minimally? None of these things are good ways to move up within a company. And so I think everybody’s stuck, to some extent. Once you’re in there, the machine is only going in one direction. So all you can do is, I guess, cash out at a certain point and try to do good with the money that you’ve made. But once you’re in there, I think that individually they are aware of but usually helpless to stop what the company collectively is doing to destroy so much of what matters.
One thing about this book, which is — it’s a little funnier than “The Circle,” which was a slightly more malevolent and menacing, although it’s the same company. Right? You seem to have gotten a little more of a sense of humor about it. One of the quotes was, “You’re disobedient and we strive to be too. Disobedient was a recently favored word replacing mutinous, which had replaced insurgent, which had replaced disruption, disruptor, which is, of course, the one they use now.”
Yeah, I love the language of Silicon Valley. There’s always a word that is the word of the month or the word — and I can’t believe “disruption” is still out there. It’s been there for six, seven years or something and people are still using it. And everything for that period of time is measured against that word. Is it disruptive or is it not disruptive? Is this taco that I’m ordering, is that disruptive? I don’t know. And so — I had a lot of fun trying to think of not just the words that exist now but what would they invent or use in the future. And if you’re on the bleeding edge of that next word, the next “disruption,” you are seen as, I guess, a visionary in some way. But the words are kind of, they’re always — nouns used as verbs is always an easy thing to go for. But they’re always kind of awkward words. A little bit muscular but awkward and ungainly. And so it makes conversations so clunky and strange, almost like you’re talking in a second language in translation. Because so often you’re like, well, that word doesn’t at all belong there. It never meant that before, but here we are using it.
So there are also outrageous apps you describe in “The Every.” It seems like you’re having a very good time. Some of them actually do sound plausible. A tracking app that dings you for overusing certain words. Did someone come to you to try to start a company with any of these? [LAUGHS]
An app that tells you after you had an orgasm whether it was an orgasm and how good it was. An app that tells you after you ate something whether you enjoyed eating it. Both of those could exist tomorrow, you and I know, and they would be wildly popular because they would present at least the illusion of certainty where there was a little bit of ambiguity. And any time we can stamp out ambiguity, we will, and put a number to it instead.
The quantified self, really, is what it’s about.
Weirdly — I don’t even know how I got on these things, but I get certain email newsletters that are all about self optimization. And so all of them are just a tiny bit less absurd than the stuff I put in the book in terms of — and if you observed or followed even 10 percent of these things, you’d be driven crazy with the number of measurements and metrics and tools. And here’s the new way to live your best life and forget all the other ways until tomorrow when we’re going to throw it all away and start over.
Yeah, I was at a dinner with someone who was telling me all their eating patterns in detail, in excruciating detail, and I turned to them and did a line from “Moonstruck” where I said, “No matter what you’re going to do, you’re going to die. And soon, relatively soon.”
That’s your dinner conversation. Well done, Kara. I’m sure you’re popular with everybody.
Well, after a while, it’s like, I don’t care about your whatever, glucose. But one of the things — part of your book describes something Silicon Valley-types might think of as the metaverse. There’s a travel app, Stop and Look, which is a VR for people who want to travel to Venice without ever having to get on a plane. But techies are very serious about this metaverse. Zuckerberg just made a speech about it. How do you look at that idea?
Yeah, you know, that hit — I finished the book maybe three or four months ago, and then everyone’s been talking about the metaverse and all the money’s been raised. But that’s been around for a while. Like every eight years or something, they start talking about the metaverse. I was shown an early version of it, I want to say, back in 2000, where you could walk around with sort of a Dire Straits “Money for Nothing”-type of animation avatar and go to a store and buy fake animated flowers. And I just thought it was the most ludicrous thing. I mean, it was Atari-level experience. But this very smart friend of mine really thought it was the future of the world. And I don’t know. I think it appeals to people that are not super comfortable leaving the house if you’re interested in the outside world. But I think if you’re not, then it was super fun. But yeah, The Every keeps inventing things, or Wes and Delaney keep inventing things that want you to stay inside and on your screen more. So anything that says, you know what? Your environmental impact could be catastrophic any day. Your personal carbon impact, which is another thing they measure. Why leave the house? You could be damaging the world irrevocably. So The Every sort of amasses more power by appealing to one’s personal anxiety about having impact.
And they do want you to stay within their universes, whatever they happen to make. And they have benefited from the pandemic. It’s very clear from a financial point of view, from a wealth point of view. I see some glimpses of big tech figures in your books. Eamon Bailey, it feels a little like I guess Steve Jobs, maybe one of the Google founders. The one obsessed with space probably is Jeff Bezos. Could be. I don’t know, because he just went up into space, for example. Is that where you get your inspiration?
I mean, I borrow a little bit. There’s definitely little winks toward Bezos and a few other people. But I really want to just create my own amalgams and have them not be beholden to what this person would actually do in real life or their actual life story. So there’s a few people that I sort of borrow a moment or a characteristic or two. But overall, I mean, when it comes to the company itself, I’m a journalist by training. I usually go out and I do a lot of research. And for this and “The Circle,” I never went to any tech campus, and I didn’t read any histories of any of these companies, because I wanted it to be more just something, I guess, sort of driven by what we all know through osmosis rather than any really granular detail about how things actually work at these companies. I wanted to create it out of whole cloth but we could recognize similarities from what we do know as just generalists.
Right. You just said I’m a journalist by training, and last time we spoke, you talked about “working as a journalist on the side,” and you were writing about Trump, as I recall. You were vacillating between writing satire and covering the Trump rallies journalistically, which you did. Why not write a non-fiction warning book about tech monopolies? Or do I just have to do that for you?
I think you need to do that and can do it better than me. There’s folks like Jaron Lanier and Cathy O’Neil and Shoshana Zuboff. And there’s so many people that I found when I was starting to take notes back in like 2007, already there were so many people writing more knowledgeably from a non-fiction perspective than I could. And I thought, well, that’s taken. But the satirical sphere really hasn’t been explored as much as I thought could. And so that was maybe a spot where I thought I might be able to do something a little different. And especially with this second book where I really did try to have a little bit more fun, I’m always seeking to terrify myself about what could happen. But I do find daily life in the Bay Area so often so absurd and so many conversations just jaw dropping that I thought the comedy comes kind of easily.
Well, there’s not a lot of satire here. I’ve heard most everything in this book, which is some of the stuff you’re saying. Let me ask you a question. When you think about any of these leaders right now, do you admire any of them? What would you do if Jeff Bezos offered you a seat on his rocket ship, for example?
I’m always a fan of space exploration and I’m the biggest NASA geek. And so anything that moves the ball forward a little bit there — I think that the absurdity of Bezos spending what could have been people’s wages on a rocket is, no one could have satirized that, especially the phallic rocket. It’s so far beyond Mike Myers or anything that — Kubrick — But overall, when Richard Branson does his rocket, I want to see it. I want to see what Elon Musk is doing with his rocket program. I think that there is a way to do it that is valuable to humanity. The Bezos way, paying people $15 an hour, a sub-living wage, they hold on to that like it’s such a badge of honor. You know, when they were sort of tweeting back at a possible regulation. Well, health care from day one and $15 an hour. I don’t understand how that is such a point of pride.
But we could see you someday on the Bezos phallic rocket.
You know, that is a tough one. Probably not. But one of these other eccentrics — I would love to go to space in some way. Yeah, if it were offered I’d be there. Not on the phallic rocket, but anybody else.
Anybody else. O.K. We’ll be back in a minute.
If you like this interview and want to hear others, follow us on your favorite podcast app. You’ll be able to catch up on “Sway” episodes you may have missed, like my conversation with Lina Khan, and you’ll get new ones delivered directly to you. More with Dave Eggers after the break. [MUSIC PLAYING]
Let’s talk about the book release. You have a unique publishing arrangement for this book. The hardcover comes out October 5th but only in independent bookstores. That will be for the first six weeks. Then the paperback comes out everywhere. Talk a little bit about why you decided to do it this way.
Well, we have a little publishing company called McSweeney’s. And so we’ve been around since 1998. So we have the, I guess, know-how about how to release a book on a scale like that. We had to go through unbelievable hoops and an obstacle course to try to get a book out without it touching Amazon. They’re everywhere. They’re everywhere in the distribution, the metadata, you name it. It goes so far as to, in our warehouse, the people shipping boxes have to check each label to make sure none of them are somehow Amazon affiliates. And so it’s a lot of hassle to get around them these days, more so than back in 2002 when we did it one other time. But I thought a book about the future of monopoly, we really had to make at least a tiny statement about, that we still have a little bit of power to resist. And maybe we can drive a little bit of traffic back to independent bookstores.
Did you look into whether it was possible to completely circumvent Amazon?
Oh, well, I have a long standing arrangement with Knopf-slash-Vintage to publish. This was supposed to be a Knopf book when I started writing it. And they can’t publish a book without going through Amazon. So we made this sort of hybrid deal where we asked them for a set aside, basically. Like, can we just do the hardcover? Can we do it this way? And they were kind enough to sort of let us do that, adjust the whole arrangement and backtrack. And I’m in a position where I can sort of make an experiment like this. An average author starting tomorrow with their first novel, it would be near impossible to do it and to make a living wage off of it, because they’ve got 60 percent of the market, which is a real shame.
So where do you see publishing going then? I’d love you to talk a little bit about where you see publishing going for most people, not just yourself.
I hear some really dire stuff from young authors working on their first book and talking about how they have to have this kind of platform and this kind of digital presence and they have to play ball with the monopoly. And I find it really dispiriting. At the same time, to some extent, it’s a very easy time to at least write and self-publish a book and make people aware of it through digital means. That’s the double-edged sword of the digital world is that you could, like Andy Weir, self-publish a book and people can become aware of it and the distribution channels are more democratized to some extent than they used to be in terms of getting them out there. But I think if we do not hold back this market share that Amazon keeps growing, I think we’re going to have — the same way that we have this climate crisis where it’s 1.5 degrees Celsius. And if we’re over that threshold, we get a cataclysm. And I think it’s the same thing if Amazon continues to amass power. If they get up to 75 percent, what does that say? What control will they have? They will be able to determine what’s published and what’s not. The books that aren’t algorithmically favored will disappear. If they drive out Barnes and Noble, that would be a problem too. Barnes and Noble actually, in so many communities, it serves a valuable purpose. It is still the library of the town in those places where they might not have an independent bookstore. So these physical spaces need to exist.
Of course, Amazon is going into physical spaces too with Amazon Books.
Well, that’s a terrifying prospect. I think that we do have to, in so many aspects of our lives, we got to be conscious of the effect of what usually is a fairly passive act, which is pushing the “buy” button and think about how do I preserve all of the retail biodiversity that I love. I think everybody loves going down Valencia Street and seeing all of the different retail. And a lot of it’s hollowed out at the moment. But like that old Adrian Tomine cover of The New Yorker where there’s a person living next to an independent bookstore and you see them reaching for an Amazon package. Instead of going next door, orders online, and the bookstore owner and this customer lock eyes in this tragic moment for both of them. I think that we have to make really conscious decisions to not feed the apex predator at all times. Because then you won’t have any of the biodiversity that everybody wants and values.
One of the things you wrote in 2008 in Esquire, you give a pretty optimistic view of reading and publishing at the time. You wrote, the primary problem is that we look for gloomy statistics. Books are more accessible and affordable than ever before. The technology makes it easier to publish works of students, and obviously self-publishing, people can self-publish on Amazon, intermediating the former powers that were, essentially. So you’ve changed your opinion of that, presumably.
Yeah. I don’t think anybody saw the aggregation of power, and I did not see it going in this monopolistic, sort of predatory direction at that time. I did think that and I still do think that the internet is a force for good for small publishers. But in the meantime, you have this apex predator that’s eaten everything in their way. And I don’t think that it will be sort of a benevolent, democratizing force when their power is at its peak.
When you see things like Substack where people are doing more of their own publishing, that is a version of self-publshing, how do you look at those things?
I just became aware of Substack two weeks ago. So somebody sent me an email. What’s really funny is my blind spots. Like, sometimes —Because I’m not online every day all the time, I see things when I — I just see them when I see them, I guess. But I definitely am not always swimming in the water. And so maybe that gives me a perspective where I can have a little bit of distance. But just literally two weeks ago, somebody from Substack emailed me about what they were doing, and I sort of checked it out. I mean, I think that we need more nonprofit, communitarian kind of platforms where people can get paid —
Did they want you to write a Substack, given that you’re one of the most important person in self-publishing?
Yeah. I think that was what they were looking at.
Was it the C.E.O.? Mr. Best?
I don’t know.
Let’s try it again. Hey, Dave.
It was somebody —
Interested in self-publishing? [LAUGHS]
Yeah. You know, I’ve got a website. We’ve been around for a while.
Well, Michael Moore is doing one.
Oh, is that right? Well, I’ll have to look at it. There’s been some interesting stuff.
I love that you don’t know.
Interesting experiments. But I still read mostly on paper. I have to work on a screen, because I write on a screen. I still do desktop publishing. And so any opportunity that I can go somewhere else or go outside and read or whatever, that’s what I do.
So you have paper and a feathered quill and you go to it, correct?
I print things. If I want to read something, I’ll print it. Like I was catching up on your columns. I print them, and then I go outside.
I’ll read them to you. How about that? How would you like that?
I cannot read on screens. I just can’t stand it. My eyes bleed.
No, I’ll read them to you. I’ll call you every week and read them to you.
No, I don’t want that either. I just want the paper. You could send them to me in the mail, if you’d like.
O.K. I’m going to. I’m going to print them and mail them to you. Anyway. So these predators always win. They always eat up everything in your books. I mean, they win.
I haven’t seen a lot of rebellion. And I’ve been here for 20 — well, 30 years now. And I don’t see the woman throwing the hammer at the screen like the first Apple ad. You don’t see that. And I make fun in the book of the utility of writing a novel about this, because it is a lunatic screaming from the woods. But I don’t see — whenever you see somebody that does have kind of a rebellious streak in these companies, they’re quickly made into product philosophers or some sort of — they’re elevated and made impotent and useless. And then maybe sometimes they leave and become semi-vocal apostates. But I don’t see a lot of pushback. If you take even surveillance, people during the pandemic now are being watched by their employers. There’s so many startups that help employers watch their employees at all times. Nobody is fighting this. It is horrifying to be surveilled 24/7. You are living in a state of submission. And a person under surveillance is not free.
Yeah. And believe me, there’s a lot of criticism in China that’s very well deserved, much of it is. But often I’m like, they’re surveilling people for sure, but it’s happening to you because they want to sell you more toilet paper. That’s really what’s happening. [LAUGHS]
Well, and I do think so much of it is accepted as a condition of, I don’t know, whether it’s safety, being surveilled in cabs and Ubers and on the street, but why an employee would say it’s O.K. for you to access my screen and count my keystrokes at any time of the day — It’s flabbergasting to me. And every time I think I’m trying to get ahead of it a little bit to satirize it, I see something like that where I think, I never would have seen that coming.
So last question. Are we in the final days of free will?
I think that we do want to do the right thing most of the time. And I do think that the really interesting thing, and this is the weird paradox of the Bay Area, is that everybody’s progressive for the most part. People really do want to do what’s right. And if you tell them what’s right, here’s the right food to eat and here’s how much sleep to get and here’s how many steps to take, they will observe most of these things. And if you can create an app that tells you how to do these things, I think that people increasingly are going to say, I give up. Tell me how to do it. And if I am free from having to make all of these individual choices, then my stress level will go down, and I’ll get the requisite amount of sleep and then I’ll live forever.
Yeah. At last, a sense of order, as long as Zuckerberg’s in charge or Jeff Bezos. Oh well. That’s the trade off.
They’re smart guys, right? I think that that’s what ultimately —
Not that smart.
But the perception is that at these companies, they are the smartest people. And I do think that it goes with most people, the worship of Steve Jobs being sort of a real hallmark of it. He invented devices. And I don’t see us sort of worshipping the guy that invented the television tube the same way or the person that first engineered the catalytic converter or anything like that. But somehow some of these tech originators are given sort of mythic status. And I think it’s a very strange thing.
“Sway” is a production of New York Times Opinion. It’s produced by Nayeema Raza, Blakeney Schick, Matt Kwong, Daphne Chen, and Caitlin O’Keefe. Edited by Nayeema Raza with original music by Isaac Jones, mixing by Sonia Herrero and Carole Sabouraud, and fact checking by Kate Sinclair. Special thanks to Shannon Busta, Kristen Lin, and Liriel Higa. If you’re in a podcast app already, you know how to get your podcasts. So follow this one. If you’re listening on The Times website and want to get each new episode of “Sway” delivered to you by “benevolent market mastery,” download any podcast app, then search for “Sway” and follow the show. We release every Monday and Thursday. Thanks for listening.
By the way, if you’re wondering what’s happening inside my head and what else I’m thinking about, there isn’t yet an app for that. But soon you can get my New York Times, subscriber-only newsletter delivered straight to your inbox. If you’re a Times subscriber and would like to learn more, join me for the virtual launch event. It’s on September 14 at 1:00 PM Eastern. Maggie Haberman and Congresswoman Cori Bush will be there too. You can R.S.V.P. at nytimes.com/KaraLive. [MUSIC PLAYING]