How to Resist the Algorithm: Dave Eggers Interviewed by Danny Caine

A hilarious and terrifying novel of ideas that asks: what’s the true cost of convenience?

The cover of Dave Eggers' latest novel, The Every, comes in different colors but this one is green and has a knot in the center with what looks like a camera looking through.

Writing, publishing, and discussing a book about Amazon has brought me face-to-face with one particular question again and again: how do publishers feel about what I’m saying? It’s a tricky one to answer. Amazon controls half of the US book market, and more than 75 percent of online book sales. I can understand why publishers might be reluctant to bite the hand that feeds them, even if that hand has engaged in widely-reported anti-competitive, predatory, and anti-worker behavior. Plus, Amazon fights back. When Hachette tried to stand up to Amazon in 2014, Amazon retaliated with brute force, likely discouraging other mega-publishers from entering the ring. That’s too bad; aside from sweeping antitrust legislation, the only thing that could possibly move the needle on Amazon’s book-industry dominance is strong resistance from all major publishers, and that seems unlikely. However, from time to time, a publisher may decide to skirmish against the giant. Portland’s iconoclastic Microcosm Publishing, who put out my book, cancelled all their Amazon contracts and saw their sales go up. Unafraid to poke the giant, Microcosm and a few other small publishers have quietly engaged in a series of “little battles” for years, calling attention to the dangers of Amazon’s dominance. 

One such “little battle” is Dave Eggers’s new novel The Every (McSweeney’s). The book grapples with the dominance of tech monopolies through wacky satire and an insider-sabotage heist plot. A companion novel to 2013’s The Circle, The Every sees Google stand-in The Circle absorbing an Amazon-like monopoly to become an impossibly huge company (even larger than Amazon and Google already are, but just a little more). Protagonist Delaney, a self-described anti-tech “Trog,” gets a job at The Circle and tries to take it down from within, one bad idea at a time. Mirroring the spirit of Delaney’s merry pranking is the book’s distribution strategy, with McSweeney’s (Eggers’s publishing house) selling a limited-edition hardcover exclusively through independent bookstores several weeks in advance of a more traditionally-published paperback version. Further mystifying corporate monopoly-driven publishing, the McSweeney tricksters are sending out boxes of The Every with random assortments of covers. Will one indie-exclusive hardcover book in a dramatic array of covers take down the company Eggers calls the “apex predator?” Certainly not. But, as Eggers puts it, fighting these “little battles” could end up creating “a little bit of meaning for those that participate.” 

—Danny Caine

Danny CaineThe Every is something of a companion book to 2013’s The Circle, which brought us the story of ambitious, idealistic Mae Holland who begins working at the world’s most powerful internet company and discovers an existential clash between who she is and what the company asks of her. Why return to this world?

Dave EggersI don’t know if this is the case with your book (How to Resist Amazon and Why) but the second I finish something I’m still taking notes for it. There’s always that overflow of stuff that doesn’t fit into a book. Sometimes—usually—that’s for the best. And then sometimes you have this nagging feeling that you have some more to say on a subject. 

DCWhich was?

DEHow the overwhelming amount of information and choices we’re given every day is making us more willing to cede control over our lives to algorithms. That’s one of the ideas, anyway—the idea that scared me enough to get me started. I was thinking, what if, in the desire to be our best selves, we allow apps and algorithms to tell us how to get there? And what if these algorithms were controlled by an all-seeing monopoly? I see so many people absolutely paralyzed by choice, by the prospect of making the wrong decision, that they’re only too happy to give that power away to a psuedo-progressive, ostensibly benevolent monopoly. That was the initial impetus behind the book.

DCAnd it’s very funny.

DEI think I came to this new book with a little bit more of a satirical angle. I tried to have fun with a subject that I often find very dark. I was trying to see the humor in it as much as I could. 

DCThe Every does something rare for a book as hilarious as it is: it asks crucial questions about humanity at the same time. How did you reckon with those ethical questions—about Big Tech and free will—for this novel?

DEI’m an advocate for using technology and not being used by it. I’ve been startled over the last thirty years to see just how dramatically that power dynamic has been flipped—how tech companies insist on an a very strange relationship: to use their products, you have to agree to a long-term relationship that’s almost feudal—you pay them continuously, but you never own anything. And meanwhile, they’re going to be tracking everything you do. It’s like being in a relationship with a very controlling, needy, obsessive person. You’re never free; you’re always paranoid. You’re simultaneously on a leash and under a microscope.

But there’s been very little pushback to any of this. So, we have these monopolies whose power grows every day, because we continually feed them. All the power they have is power that we’ve given them.

DCAre people that passive?

DEI think we’re exhausted. When it comes to Amazon, for example, buying stuff through them simplifies things—even though people know that it’s hollowing out the retail economy. We’re feeding the apex predator all day, every day, and that means that soon there will be almost no retail diversity. We’ll wake up one day and there will be restaurants, cafes, and Amazon. Nothing else. But again, people are tired. 

In a way, the whole tech cycle feeds itself. We are driven batty by our phones, we don’t sleep enough, we’re all exhausted; so when it comes to buying things, we rely on the monopoly to make one part of our lives simpler. And when these things are delivered to our door, it’s another reason we don’t need to leave the house. So we stay inside, on screens; we stay up late, and the cycle repeats itself.

Against a navy background, an older white man in a long sleeve black T-shirt that reads "Saw Tooth City Iowa" poses with a half-smile.

Photo of Dave Eggers by Brecht Von Maele.

DCThe novel’s main character, Delaney, in an attempt to sabotage the company, invents an ever more ludicrous array of apps. How did those evolve for you?

DEFor every app in the book there are probably two others that I thought I had made up but then realized that they already existed. I tried my best to be as silly as I could. There’s one called Kerpow! that reminds you to be spontaneous. It dings periodically, and that’s your cue to do something unexpected.

DCThere’s an app that tells you if you enjoyed the meal you just ate, and an app that rates your own orgasms.

DEBoth of those will come to pass in some form. You know this. For now, they’re gags in a novel, but someone, somewhere, is developing both of them. It can’t be any other way.

DCTo serve the need to rate things.

DETo rate everything. To assign a number to anything that might be ambiguous. Humans have a limitless appetite for data-driven answers to every unanswerable question. So whether it’s an app that tells you if your friends are true friends, or whether your parents were good parents, anything that provides certainty, or the illusion of certainty, we embrace. A couple days ago, I saw that there are scientists working on measuring awe.

DCPerhaps the ultimate unmeasurable metric.

DEA design firm here in San Francisco actually created a machine that measured laughter in the workplace. They heard that laughter was seen as a positive thing to have going on in the workplace, so instead of just saying, “Yup, makes sense. People like to laugh,” they created a machine to measure it. They created this device, and you can put it in the middle of a conference-room table or something, and it measures how much laughter takes place between, say, the IT team. I can’t imagine how much work went into creating this thing. And you know what comes next: some struggling comedian is being dragged into that company every lunchtime to make sure the staff hits their laughter quota.

DCThe first thing I heard about the book was that the hardcover would only be available in independent bookstores, which was announced a few months ago.

DEOver the years McSweeney’s has always had a symbiotic relationship with independent bookstores. Distributing this way is something we did first in 2002 with You Shall Know Our Velocity in 2002. I was alarmed by the growing power of Amazon and the chains back then. That was when the chains—Barnes & Noble and Borders—were a little bit more powerful. It was clear that McSweeney’s as a publishing company wouldn’t exist without independent bookstores. I had a lot of painful experiences early on seeing the difference between how we were treated by indies and how we were treated by the bigger conglomerates and monopolies. 

With that book we said, “Well, let’s just distribute it through indies.” That was exceedingly hard to do, so much so that we had to actually send the books directly to about three hundred bookstores and bill them directly. The process was exceedingly difficult, and it was a mess. There were only three of us working at McSweeney’s at that time. 

DCNow you have how many?

DEFive, which studies say is the right number of people you need to take on Amazon.

DCFor most books, it’s impossible to have the publication process mirror the ideas in the book. How did you manage it?

DEWith this book, because it’s about the power of monopoly, it’s just a good opportunity to make a point about how powerful and dominant Amazon is. Maybe it will help bring a few more people through the door of a local store, or help consumers think for a second, before just clicking that Amazon buy button, that they could take another twelve seconds and buy it from the local bookstore instead.

Obviously this one book and this one experiment aren’t going to make a huge dent in Amazon’s overall march toward global domination. But I do think it might have a little bit of meaning for those that participate. Weirdly, these little battles are sometimes enjoyable, even as they’re hard. They’re a little reason to wake up in the morning.

DCIt kind of sucks that this was hard enough for you to call it a battle. But in addition, you’re creating a slew of different covers. How does that figure into the overall message?

DEIt was just an idea I had. Why not fifty different covers? And the more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea, as ludicrous and unnecessary as it was. But of course, if we asked one or another monopoly what they thought of the idea, they’d kill it dead. You just can’t imagine how machine-like the thinking is with so many large companies. The human animal is driven most of the time by delight—we are set aglow by new things, new ideas—but then, all too often in the commercial side of culture there are gatekeepers who forget all that. They believe people want dust, not delight. They grind every fun idea into dust.

I thought, “Well, that’s another reason to do it this way.” Because if we let monopolies, or algorithms, dictate our artistic choices, then we’re really gone. I think we have about forty-four covers so far and we’re still creating new ones every week. Publishing The Every this way gives it a little bit of joy and a little bit of mischief.

DCWithout that bit of joy and mischief, publishing and bookselling could feel somewhat dispiriting.

DEI always just wake up in the morning as an optimist. I wouldn’t have been a small publisher for all these years unless I thought that there’s a place for the small guys among us, as publishers and as retailers. If we stick together and battle back against the algorithmification of culture every chance we get, we can live free for a little while longer. 

The Every is available for purchase here.

Danny Caine is the author of the book How to Resist Amazon and Why, and the poetry collections Continental Breakfast, El Dorado Freddy’s, and Flavortown. His writing has appeared in HAD, Barrelhouse, Publishers Weekly, and Literary Hub. The 2019 Midwest Bookseller of the Year, he lives in Lawrence, Kansas where he owns the Raven Book Store.

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