Super Sad Super Crunching

Gary Shteyngart‘s new novel,?Super Sad True Love Story (more here), paints a compelling but amazingly bleak picture of a future ravaged by the twin evils of predictive analytics and texting.? Following the truly prescient?Snow Crash, his characters are obsessively plugged into their “äppäräts,” souped-up versions of today’s app phones.? (One of the funnier lines occurs when one character makes a disparaging reference to another character’s outmoded hand device, saying:? “What is this, an iPhone?” (Kindle 1244).)? Here is a world where credit scores, eHarmony-compatibility predictions and rankings are ubiquitously at hand.? Characters routinely choose the reality of the?shadows on their screen over the real world.

One result of the technological transformation is the decline of the ability to read sustained pages of text.? Our future selves can only be bothered to absorb tweet-length narratives dominantly geared toward consumerism and sex.? This very newspaper has morphed into “The New York Lifestyle Times,”? which is “no longer the fabled paper of yore, [but] it’s still more text-heavy than other sites, the half screen-length essays on certain products sometimes offering subtle analysis of the greater world.”? (Kindle 1847).? The protagonist is a social outcast in part because he is one of the last humans to read printed words.? His girlfriend’s friend is not impressed:? “So he REALLY, REALLY READS instead of scans.? Big whoop.” (Kindle 2612).

Here is an impoverished?newspeak that is not dictated from above but evolves from text speak.? (“Ha ha.? This is what her generation liked to add to the end of sentences, like a nervous tic.” (Kindle 1813).) What makes the novel’s accomplishment more impressive is that it is written not from the omniscient third-person perspective, but is a concatenation of the characters’ own texts, emails and diary entries -indirectly disproving by its own example that the text speak is unable to richly convey the characters’ depth of emotion.

Snow Crash dazzled by imaginatively forecasting the distant future.? In contrast, what I find so chilling about Super Sad is how near at hand our society might be to certain features of its imagined future.? I’m not so concerned about the move from paper to ebooks, but as I write this short blog post, I am somewhat frightened by our increasing preference for?brevity.

If, like me, you are a fan of predictive analytics,?this novel provides useful food for thought.

(HT: Frank Pasquale)


Drill-Baby-Drill Drill Team

There is an epidemic of people walking into telephone poles, mailboxes, parked cars while their minds are diverted to their smart phones. We are becoming electronic mindless ZOMBIES. Inatttentive distracted never fully conscience of the real world. Is it just me or is there anyone else out there!!!!

How to Prepare for the Next Zombie Attack: Two Double Barrel Shotguns, Bandolier of 12 gauge shellls, Mrs See's Assorted Grenades, Napalm flame thrower, Decapitating Machete, and a black duffel bag to carry the heads.

assumo

@1

brains...

brains...

Brains are what will keep us from the future you describe. That and playfulness, which is even disappearing from our games.

GK

I am a fan of Gary Shteyngart's earlier books, most notably Absurdistan, so when I read in the New York Lifestyle er I mean in the New York Times that his new book was coming out , and that it was a near future dystopian novel, I was thrilled. The book did not disappoint, but I must admit it scared me quite a bit because of its chillingly real extrapolation of where we are to where we are probably heading. The worst part of it all was that in Shteyngart's new New York no one reads, instead they live stream every aspect of their lives on the web. I think in the Freakononmics blog it is also worth noting that everyone in Shteyngart's satirical near future is judged by their credit scores that are ubiquitously displayed for all to see. I agree that it is a great read!

Andrew

"One result of the technological transformation is the decline of the ability to read sustained pages of text."

I would like to congratulate myself on having made it to this point in the column without having clicked over to something else.

It was the top of the second paragraph and the first one was pretty long.

If anyone wants to do me a favor and summarize the rest of the piece for me that would be great... Ten words or less please...

Tristan

I thought this novel was great, one of the best I've read in a long time, and could certainly write, or read, a few thousand words on any of the major topics covered.

Ian Kemmish

There are many reasons to praise any given dystopian novel, I'm sure. But I don't think forecasting the fall of literacy or the rise of a characteristic, disorienting vernacular can be amongst them - surely every single version of this story right back to E M Forster and Yevgeniy Zamyatin has featured those two themes?

Even the theme of literary criticism being performed by people ill-equipped for the task pops up in Fahrenheit 451....

di

Using bits of foreign language, or foreign language inspired neologisms (like "äppäräts" ) in particular to disorient us in the future dystopia goes back at least as far as "A Clockwork Orange."

Mantonat

Why is the ability/desire/need to read long passages of written text held up as some kind of high point in human evolution or some sort of cultural virtue? As a species, we've only been reading for a relatively miniscule amount of time. Reading has only been common to the larger populace for less than a millenium. While the written word is a glorious achievement in terms of communicating complex ideas and large amounts of information, it's pretty inefficient compared to other more recent forms of communication. Who's to say that we aren't simply getting better at communicating and that the written word will fall by the wayside along with the internal combustion engine, animal-based food and clothing, and invasive surgery? Sentimentality has never been much of an obstacle to progress.

Shane

I like Tad Williams's Otherworld series, imagining a future where virtual reality internet has become so advanced that the world's superrich attempt to upload their entire personalities into online worlds where they can live as gods for eternity.

In reality I notice that each generation has an anti-technology backlash. Yes many people like to be plugged in and connected to the net, but this emphasises the pleasure of plugging out and returning to nature and reality.

Steve S.

I have been wary of smart phones since their onset for the reasons detailed in this story. Over time I am seem increasingly more like a luddite compared to my peers (I am in my 20's).

However, didn't people have similar fears at the onset of previous inventions (Printing press, TV, etc.)? Seems like we turned out alright after those items became mainstream.

Maybe I'll continue to resist getting a smart phone solely on the grounds of the outrageous data plan fees that they include!

Eric M. Jones

There is actually some considerable reason for optimism in our technological futures--

After we screw everything up, by 2035 computers will be conscious*. After a few fast iterations designed by those conscious computers, their suggestions will be followed in a few minor areas, then more and more. After some great successes, we will hand all important decision making over to them.

Let's face it...how could they do any worse? Skynet?

*The question of who or what is conscious will never be solved, but by 2035 computers will make a good case for consciousness and, says Kurzweil, they will be believed.

ADMC

I loved Snow Crash, and all of Neal Stephenson's other books, particularly Cryptonomicon and Anathem.

What Snow Crash has to do with Gary Shteyngart, I don't know.

OK, perhaps you didn't mean to imply that Shteyngart wrote Snow Crash, but it sure looks like that's what you're saying.

tudza

Snow Crash is by Neil Stephenson. I followed the link provided to make sure you weren't talking about a book by this author with the same title and found the book I expected.

doug m

Snow Crash was written by Neil Stephenson.

Lystraeus

A "decline of the ability to read sustained pages of text" may be countered by an increase in the efficiency of short communication.

Given the high information redundancy in English (~ 79%) there is major scope for condensation in communication.

StandardsAreSkewed

Our production of interesting information/content is increasing far more quickly than our useful lifespans. If and when we're able to live longer/forever without any cognitive deterioration, we may very well go back to enjoying long-form everything.

We want to experience the most we can as quickly as we can because life is just way, way too short.

ra

I just read Snow Crash a couple of weeks ago, and it is indeed brilliant. However, the future it predicts is not supposed to be distant - recall that Hiro's father was a soldier in World War II, so by definition the action is taking place fairly close to the end of the twentieth century. Reading it now, the novel is frighteningly contemporary!

Shane

Oh, I should also mention Neil Postman's "Amusing Ourselves to Death" which criticised the rise of television and argued that it would do severe damage to modern society. I wonder what Postman would have thought about the internet, with its shift back from one-way visual entertainment to two-way textual debates of the kind we see on discussion forums, or here in comments sections?

Jake

Reading take too long, I will watch Idiocracy instead.

Eileen Wyatt

Plato griped that reading and writing were going to be the downfall of intelligent thought.

Nobody ever mentions in these novels that it's awfully handy to be able to read a scholarly paper on one's phone while waiting for the next band to set up at a club, rather than having to track the article down at a library that carries it, go in person, and either take notes at the library or photocopy the article (I'm not an academic, so don't have interlibrary loan on journal articles). I do this. I can't be the only one.