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For several years now I’ve been tracking my reading on Goodreads, and as a result, the site offers me reading suggestions based on what its algorithms think I like, and they aren’t alone. Virtually every service that I use from Amazon to Netflix to Spotify uses increasingly sophisticated algorithms to figure out what I like and make purchasing/watching/listening suggestions based on that information.

 

As much as it disturbs me that they know so much about me, at least I have to make the choice to take them up on their suggestion. Amazon doesn’t just automatically send me stuff because they think I like it, and nobody can force me to watch/listen to something if I don’t like it. But what if they could?

 

QualitylandThis is the situation in Qualityland by German author Marc-Uwe Kling. The book is set sometime in the future where the third economic crisis within a decade has just ended, and upon consultation with Big Business Consultants the country (presumably Germany), decides to change their name to Qualityland. In their view, Qualityland just sounds like a prosperous and quality place. In keeping with the country’s new image, they also require the use of superlative adjectives whether they make sense or not. It’s not enough to call Qualityland a wonderful country. It’s the ‘wonderfullest’ country. A product isn’t good or even great. It’s the greatest.

 

As for the citizens, well they needed a total makeover too. Afterall, you can’t just have ordinary people living in Qualityland. The consultants decided that every boy would be given the surname relating to his father’s job, and every girl her mother’s occupation at the time that they are conceived. If your father/mother is a doctor or a lawyer, you’re laughing. Of course, there also ends up being names like Prisoner and Cleaner, but we don’t need to talk about them.

 

For all intents and purposes, Qualityland is a utopia. A universal ranking system determines your ability to find a job and your social standing.  Finding a partner is automated, and if your ideal match changes, the system will break up with them for you. Self-driving cars just know where you want to go, and you don’t need to worry about shopping for yourself anymore because TheShop (essentially Amazon) can do it for you. See something on TV that you like? Simply tell your Qualitypad (iPad) to order it for you, and boom- it will appear at your door in a flash. TheShop’s algorithm knows what you want without you even having to ask, and it’s automatically delivered to your door.

 

Unfortunately, the system doesn’t quite work for everyone. One day, Peter Jobless (you can guess what his father’s occupation was), who works as a machine scrapper in QualityCity receives a product from the shop that he is certain he neither needs nor wants. I won’t tell you what it is, but I’ll give you a hint- it’s pink, shaped like a dolphin, motorized, and definitely not for children.

 

Peter attempts to contact TheShop to return it, but discovers that this is practically impossible because machines don’t make mistakes. The algorithms are never wrong, and if they sent it, he most certainly must have wanted it. This leads Peter to start questioning the accepted norms, and how things work. Why are humans becoming less human while machines are becoming more so? What ensues, is a quest to meet with the head of TheShop to prove that they did in fact make a mistake and get a refund on the product that he very definitely does not want. The quest is set against the backdrop of an election where the choices are crazy right-wing celebrity chef and a hyper-intelligent, socialist robot.

 

Interspersed throughout the novel are news bulletins, guidebook entries, and of course comments from readers which results in the comment function being closed due to “a large number of idiotic comments”. Sound familiar?

 

The notion that machines can be mind-readers isn’t as crazy as it sounds. My entertainment apps already curate recommended lists based on what it assumes my tastes are, and I’m bombarded with suggestions from Amazon for products I might like based on what I’ve purchased in the past. If Amazon started sending me products based on what they think I want, I can’t even imagine what I might end up with. The problem with these algorithms is that in only ever showing me what I already know I like, I’m never exposed to anything new. The same is true of information, and this is the central point of the novel. If you’re only ever exposed to information and people who confirm your beliefs and opinions, it becomes a vicious circle. Our viewpoint becomes narrow and unchallenged, and anyone who doesn’t share those views has to be wrong.

 

The novel is a brilliant satire full of dark humour. Think 1984 but much more comical. The author has been aptly compared to Douglas Adams and Kurt Vonnegut, and it offers a sharp commentary on capitalism, our dependence on machines to think for us, and celebrity culture. It also challenges the narrow internet bubbles in which we increasingly exist. It’s a novel that I haven’t stopped thinking about and one of those hidden gems that I would recommend everybody read.  HBO also recently announced that Mike Judge (Office Space, Silicon Valley) will be adapting the book into a limited TV series, which is another good reason to pick it up.

 

To keep up to date with all of LSC’s latest offerings, please follow LSC on Facebook, on Instagram, and on Twitter, subscribe to our new YouTube Channel, and now on Issuu.  We also encourage you to subscribe to the weekly Green Memo, and we hope you check back each and every week on this site for our latest musings on the publishing world.

 

Happy Reading!

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