Schadenfreude galore: in Naomi Alderman’s “The Future,” the wealthy suck


In her new book, Naomi Alderman imagines the end of the world that only the wealthiest tech billionaires can – and plan – to survive. Who will save the rest of us? Money, kindness, and the tweak of an algorithm, apparently.

Don’t you just love it when the rich – especially the egregiously wealthy tech visionaries hoarding our data and igniting hateful online discourse just to get more engagement and sell more ads – are taught a lesson, whatever it is?

It can obviously be simple jealousy and schadenfreude. But it’s pure joy if these moneybags are caught committing crimes and either face jail time or are at least shunned by their comrades in the superabundant society.

Think of the infamous schemer Bernie Madoff and his lonely years in prison, where he died. Were you sad? His crimes were extremely severe and destroyed the lives of thousands of people.

Think of the ultimate fraudster, Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos fame, who used her connections to such influential people as Henry Kissinger or James Mattis to defraud multiple investors and was sent to start her 11-year prison sentence earlier in 2023. What’s not to like, really?

The chokehold of capitalism

But sometimes the billionaires – as shifty, selfish, and greedy as they are, and we’re not naming names here – are not punished because what they do is not legally considered to be a crime, right?

We, the common folk, can sense the pure wrongness of the fact that using a social network increases a teenage girl’s suicide risk, exposes you to bullying, or, unfortunately, allows you to become a bully.

We can feel the collective mental health deteriorating, and some of us choose to escape to the worlds of hoaxes, conspiracy theories, and other types of fantasy. But, hey, the Metas and Amazons of the world then release their own research, showing some mystic correlation with productivity, and capitalism wins!

Alas, the last time when the world was flooded with this much information – the Gutenberg print revolution – was followed by 400 years of bloody war. People are just as overwhelmed now, aren’t they? And with climate change, we don’t really have 400 years to fight it out.

This is the world Alderman, the protege of Margaret Atwood for a reason, paints in her new book, The Future. I’m trying to avoid spoiling the fun of reading this, but let’s just say Alderman loves big ideas – in her previous work, The Power, she imagined women ruling the world in a kind of reverse gender dynamics.

We can feel the collective mental health deteriorating, and some of us choose to escape to the worlds of hoaxes, conspiracy theories, and other types of fantasy.

This new book is something of a similar thought experiment. The action takes place in the very near future where technology – and the world, really, since we’re all online all the time – is trapped in the chokehold of capitalism. In short, humanity is going insane, and Big Tech is profiting off the insanity.

Alderman introduces us to a threesome of almost real tech moguls – Lenk Sketlish, the Harvard-educated founder of the social network Fantail (hi Mark), Zimri Nommik, the head of the purchasing giant Anzil (how are you doing, Jeff?), and Ellen Bywater, a sort of Melinda Gates, who’s in charge of Medlar, a personal-computing corporation.

Admittedly, the parallels are so clear that one could be forgiven for thinking it’s going to be a brutal satire. It kind of is, but then Alderman introduces us to a survivalist online forum called Name The Day and, throughout the course of the book, slowly unwraps a serious parable.

It’s the tale of Sodom and Gomorrah, applied to the current day. Those cities burned, and the author seemingly wants us to think our planet is also barreling toward self-destruction – or, rather, being destroyed by the greed and self-serving fantasies of the aforementioned few.

Inspiring yet a bit naive

Going further would, again, produce more unneeded spoilers. Let’s just say there’s another group of characters led by Lai Zhen, a tech journalist and online influencer who are – rightly – pissed off at what the rich are up to.

In the real world, the so-called tech visionaries are skilled at telling us how their devices, rockets, and experiments will save Earth if and when doomsday comes. Seriously, though, it’s a safe bet these riches wouldn’t care about ordinary rags – they’d save themselves and start over.

Back to the book: the rebellious bunch has a cunning plan, it turns out. The techno-thriller moves quickly, but again and again, one can distinguish Alderman’s wish to shake up the now-established fact that algorithms dangerously distort realities.

Sure, it can be a little naive to expect a certain tweak of an algorithm to change humanity on a global scale. We humans surely are just a little more complicated, one would expect.

algo-rithm-dance
Can algorithms change the world for the better? Image by Shutterstock.

But it’s hard to disagree with this: “Why not try to make people be kind? The algorithms can’t do everything. But if they can make us more polarized, more angry, surely they can do the opposite of that.”

Trying is a must, too, because “there is no ‘neutral’ anymore. There is no leaving things as they would have been before the invention of the internet.” The game must be played, in other words – but the rules could be changed.

And yet, naivety shines through at times. At the end, Alderman addresses the reader through one of her characters: “There is a beautiful world on the far shore, where we’re not destroying all the species anymore and our cities are clean and beautiful and full of wild birds, and our cars are all electric and all shared, and the streets are safe for kids to play in, and we get to keep TV and the internet and concerts and ball games and all that good stuff, and fine, we’re eating mostly vegan food but it’s good, and if we can just get through the pain barrier as quickly as possible, then we’re there.”

Well, a nice vision, but still only a vision. I’m not saying Alderman doesn’t get it, and, again, this is fiction, so she can do whatever she wants. But in the real world, a dark future is more often overcome by light beer rather than the bright lyrics of a John Lennon song.

The inconsistency stands out, too. For instance, a Romanian computer genius, Marius, mostly exists to explain how and why AI could never develop consciousness. His part in the plot is unclear, so maybe Alderman just wants to say what Marius says.

To be fair, it’s convincing in that brusque Eastern bloc type of way. Just look: “The whole human race has fucking death wish, wants to replace itself. Used to be we wanted to replace with gods. Big gold statues, better than people, bigger, made of gold. Now: dream is robot brain, perfect person. This is not what people are. People imperfect! Imperfections beautiful. ‘Perfect’ is machine dream. We feel shit and small all day long if we judge ourselves next to machine, if we try to think like machine. Like trying to run next to car.”

“But what we do is better! Car is just tool, goes fast brum-brum, very exciting. Person is person. Why we don’t start by knowing that people is valuable already? People are not perfect: that’s how we know perfection is unimportant. Perfection is a hallucination.”

Beautiful.


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