Tech

Gary Shteyngart Is Ready For Dystopia

The Super Sad True Love Story author talks about getting Google Glass, dealing with inevitable machinehood and the “endless experiments” of getting older.

Google founder Sergey Brin (L) adjusts a pair of Project Glass glasses on designer Diane von Furstenberg. Carlo Allegri / Reuters

In Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, a near-future dystopian novel, characters interact with one another almost exclusively through the lens of an äppärät (as in apparatchik) — essentially a smartphone taken to its logical extreme. It ranks others, for example, by “fuckability” and “hotness.” Anne Trubek, writing for Buzzfeed, called it “the best novel about digital life yet.”

It does hit close to home. One character, attempting to step outside of the äppärät-augmented world and back into reality, found himself unable to stay:

There [were] only ‘walls and thoughts and faces,’ which weren’t enough. He needed to be ranked, to know his place in this world. And that may sound ridiculous, but I can understand him. “We are all bored out of our fucking minds. My hands are itching for connection.”

To anyone who read Super Sad, the announcement of Google Glass brought to mind one thing: This is the äppärät. They’re actually trying to do it.

And, amazingly, during Google’s “If I Had Glass” Twitter campaign, Shteyngart was invited to try out a headset:

BuzzFeed spoke with Shteyngart over the phone.

So, I couldn’t stop laughing when I saw Google’s (apparently automated?) tweet informing you that you’d been selected for the Google Glass pilot program.

Awww yeah.

Just wanted to check in to see what you think about Glass, and how worried you are that you may have predicted it.

Right. I’m pretty worried!

Your initial tweet — were you just joking around with the hashtag, or with Google?

No, I really wasn’t, because we’re working on trying to adapt Super Sad as a television series, so it would be helpful for me to see just how close this thing is. After I started writing Super Sad I dropped my Hotmail accounts and started to be as current as possible.

What were you drawing from, tech-wise, when you started writing Super Sad. Like, what was your context?

I can’t resist becoming a cyborg anymore — it’s clear that all paths lead to me becoming more machine than man. Which is fine, because I never really liked me as a man very much. So I embrace my new machinehood.

I want to see how far we can take this. Will there be “fuckability” on this, like in the book? Will I be able to walk into a bar and learn about things just by looking at them? I don’t know yet. I’m excited to find out.

They’re opening it up to developers, so if someone thinks they can make money from a “fuckability” app, maybe we’ll get one.

I would love to make some fuckability money with my Google Glasses.

I saw a demo at South by Southwest this year, and it was underwhelming. Do you think we can depend on the single-mindedness, or the focus on advertising, to prevent an absolute dytopian situation? Or is that worse.

Well, I’d like to see how much of this gets commercialized. In my future, everything is commercialized. If everything leads back to dollars and cents that would be exciting for me to see.

Your book talks a lot about how the äppärät rates people in various ways, which, today, most aptly describes what Facebook does to its members. Have you been watching Facebook over the last few years?

The ad targeting doesn’t hit the mark. It should be Daschunds, single malt liquor, and hair improvement strategies. Instead I’m getting ads for spring break and Subarus. This technology has a long way to evolve.

So, would this all be a little bit scarier if it weren’t so dumb?

It’s dumb! That’s the thing! I mean, I’m always hearing that technology is the be-all, end-all, but I try to play a video game and I think, “wow, this is blurry and stupid.” It seems like people are so addicted to technology — people need to be more discriminating about it.

The only thing I’ve started using and thought it worked very well was the iPhone. I thought, “it can tell me where to go now.” Hopefully Google Glass will just completely control my life, so I can cede all my decision-making capabilities to it. I have not made good decisions. Maybe it will save us all, this Google Glass.

Yeah, you’ve written a lot about how technology makes people feel as though they’re more in control of their lives. This idea of a wearable computer that connects to all the services that you’ve submitted all this data to, that sounds like the relinquishing of control. Do we ever reach a point where we start to really feel this disconnect? Or are we doomed?

It’s harder and harder to think about what is in control. People are constantly comparing data and information to figure out what they’re missing: should I be here instead of there, should I be doing this instead of that. Everything is a constant search for information, and people feel very competitive about it.

It’s sad! One always thinks, just one more device and I’ll finally be able to get my hands on whatever is missing from my life. Maybe Google Glass will do that for me.

Anyone under the age of, say, 20 — they have no sense of the Before Times. Today, someone might read your book and instantly recognize things as Orwellian or creepy. Can you imagine someone born today eventually reading your book and not understanding it at all?

I could see it as a period piece. You know, “oh my god, what was wrong with constantly sharing everything?”

Or, “why does this person keep describing how this “äppärät” works, and why does it keep coming up? This author seems hung up on this thing!

That’s why older people need to constantly expose ourselves to new technology. It’s the only way we’ll survive in this world. I can’t wait to have things implanted inside my head so I don’t have to wear [äppärät] glasses. I’m going to have to wear contact lenses with this thing! The rest of my life I can see as a desperate struggle to catch up. And then failing.

Who, among the major tech figures in the news, strikes you as closest to a classic literary villain?

I honestly don’t follow much what happens with these figures. Steve Jobs has a nice kind of Greek tragedy thing, he was sort of an outside figure. I don’t really follow the rest of them. I find the technology more interesting than the people.

They’re usually not terribly interesting people. I mean, Mark Zuckerberg.

I’m glad I’m not investing time in things I should not be following.

So, tell me about the Super Sad TV show.

We’re just starting to work on it. One of the things that interests me is how to represent all of the things that are happening in the äppärät on the screen — that’s one of the reasons I wanted to get my hands on Google Glass.

Did you have any sense, when you were writing about the äppärät, that a company would come along and attempt to make almost exactly what you were talking about in, like, a few years?

When I started working on Super Sad the idea was that the äppärät would be inserted into the eye —I think I called it the “eye” instead of the “äppärät.” But that seemed too cumbersome to explain, as I was starting to write in 2006. It was right [before] when the iPhone was coming out.

And before most your readers had used smartphones. And before they had ever experienced the ability to instantly recall any information from any place, anywhere.

I think there were BlackBerrys.

So you were really engaging with this new idea of full recall, and full information presence.

Yeah, I mean, eventually this is going to have to be part of us, inserted inside the body. I mean, where else can it go other than there?

So if Google holds up its end of the bargain, are you going to shell out for your Glass?

Ha, as someone who chronicles contemporary society, you can’t turn away from technology. So that’s what I’m going to have to do, for the rest of my life: I’m going to have to subject myself to these endless experiments.

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