Will Social Media Make Us Anti-Social? A Talk With Gary Shteyngart

The author of the international best-seller Super Sad True Love Story explains his dystopian take on a future with smart advertising and dumb people

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Not everyone sees the rapid advance of social media and digital technology as an unalloyed good. For a different view of where technology is taking us, we called Gary Shteyngart, author of the best-selling novel Super Sad True Love Story. The novel is set in a dystopian New York City in the not-too-distant future. The US economy has collapsed. The Chinese are circling, eager to collect on their US debt. Demonstrators have taken over Central Park. Yet most people seem far more concerned with monitoring their social status on their electronic devices than with the state of society. Shteyngart talked with Mary Kuntz, managing editor of What Matters.

Mary Kuntz: Let's start with the technology in Super Sad True Love Story, which is both very familiar and very surprising. You've taken social media to a logical extreme, to a point at which it becomes antisocial media. Can you describe the devices? What's a credit pole and what is an apparat, for example?

Gary Shteyngart: A credit pole is a way for the government to know what your creditworthiness is, because the big problem in the society is that nobody has enough credit. Credit poles are found on sidewalks in major metropolitan areas, and as you walk by they tell you what your credit rating is.

The apparat is worn around the neck as a pendant, and it has what's called RateMe Plus technology. Let's say you walk into a bar; it says, "OK, you're the third-ugliest man in here, but you have the fifth-best credit rating," things like that. Everyone is constantly ranked and constantly assessing everyone else's ranking, which is similar to the society we already live in.

We all have credit scores. Those of us who have books out have Amazon scores. Those of us who teach have RateMyProfessors.com scores. So there's an endless amount of hierarchy. In an insecure society, it becomes an obsession to constantly know where everyone stands, and that's what this technology enables.

Kuntz: Some of the rankings are crowd sourced, which is often extolled as a way to get a really accurate reading. But in Super Sad, there's a perniciousness to it.

Shteyngart: Oh, the rankings take over people's lives. Everyone wants to move their rating up, and everyone is obsessed with their number. It's a very quantitative society. Everything is about enhancing one's numerical value. Nothing is about the qualitative value. Lenny, the main character, is a dinosaur in this world because he still believes in the unquantifiable qualities of individuals. And he is constantly being told that they don't matter. He's constantly being told by his boss and everyone else to get his rankings up.

Kuntz: It's a very postliterate world. There's data and there's snippets of text, but no one reads or writes. Books have been either banned or abandoned.

Shteyngart: They haven't been banned. Oh no, they've just been abandoned. The 20th-century nightmare scenario where books were burned has been replaced by the 21st-century scenario, where nobody really cares enough to burn them. Literature is no longer considered a threat. Literature's no longer considered to be something that can change the world, that can change the opinions of anyone, except for a very small group of intellectuals.

Kuntz: But the fact that people abandon books rather than having them taken away--is that because their interaction with technology has made them unable to engage with anything long and complex? Do you see that happening now?

Shteyngart: I know professors who can't read an entire book--professors of English literature, mind you. So everyone's attention span has been shot. We're no longer used to processing long strings of information. When a book is no longer a book but yet another text file, it's very hard to say, "OK, I'm gonna devote myself to the 300 pages of text on my screen" when I have all this other stuff that I need to do.

That's why channels like HBO and Showtime have taken over to a big extent. The kind of stuff that used to appear in novel form now appears in "The Wire" or "Breaking Bad." They deliver the narrative thrust that we need. They teach us about different worlds and different ways of living. But at the same time, they don't require textual immersion. You just passively sit there and let these things happen on the screen.

Kuntz: On the other hand, one of the things that marketers would say about digital technology and all the data they can now gather on us is that this information allows them to deliver very individualized products and services. We get exactly what we want without having to go out and look for it, which sounds like a good thing. But I gather you would say that there's a hidden cost to that.

Shteyngart: Well, there's a terrible drag on discovery and curiosity. When I log on to my Web browser, it knows that I like things about Russia and certain kinds of environmental news. And it just gives that to me, so I don't see or think about other things I might find interesting if I knew about them. The computer also knows what your politics are and will deliver to you whatever you want politically, without letting you roam any further than you need to or encountering other points of view.

Kuntz: The world of Super Sad True Love Story is not a very happy world. There's a lot of political and economic turmoil. But even though people have all these communications devices, and "media people" are at the top of the social pecking order, nobody seems to know what's going on, because there's no real information.

Shteyngart: Yeah, journalism really comes under assault in this book. Journalism has essentially abdicated any responsibility to deliver hard news. All it cares about is promoting a product--or, more important, journalists are promoting themselves. They stream these very bloglike streams where they talk about their sex lives, their weight loss or their weight gain, and things like that. This really comes under sharp attack because it's so related in my mind with democracy, the ability to find factual information, to find the truth as opposed to things that are filtered through the opinions of somebody who's trying to enhance his own career.

Kuntz: But there are examples around the world where passionate, committed people have used social media to band together and effect real change. I'm thinking, of course, of the Arab Spring uprisings. I guess the test will be whether the revolutionaries can organize enough to actually create a better system.

Shteyngart: Well, it's a big question, and it's a big "if." Communications devices were always used to effect change, to effect revolution. Telephone, telegraph--these all seemed like very big enhancements at the time. It's what happens after the revolution that matters. A bunch of Twitter feeds and Facebook pages are not going to create a stable economy. They're not going to create a democracy where none has flourished before. We want to believe that technology will deliver us from all these different problems and create things that didn't exist before, but that's not how it works. It's worrisome to see how much faith we place in technology at the expense of more humanistic enterprises.

Kuntz: In fact, all the characters in Super Sad have lots of gadgets, lots of technology. But it doesn't seem like any of that has really enhanced their lives.

Shteyngart: Yeah, I don't think I'm any happier than I was before the iPhone and immersion in the Internet. I think I'm much more anxious and much more stressed out.

Kuntz: And you attribute that increase in stress to the constant buzzing and tweeting of gadgets?

Shteyngart: And just the inability to ever be alone. You know, that's the difficulty. You want to read a book? That requires introspection. It requires time away from people and time away from the constant need to communicate and to connect.

Kuntz: I would assume that your book appealed to a lot of tech-type people. Do you know how sales of the digital version compared with the print versions?

Shteyngart: I would say, so far, maybe 30 percent of the sales of Super Sad have been digital. For my previous book, Absurdistan, 1 percent was digital, so that's a huge, huge change.

Kuntz: How does that affect you as an author?

Shteyngart: So far, financially it hasn't hurt at all, but the terms are all so strange that I can't figure out what it's going to mean down the line. It hasn't affected how I write. But there are other consequences to eBooks. Borders is already history. That means there's less shelf space, there are fewer people who can walk in and see your book. A lot of the ways of advertising a book--the cover, whether somebody sees it on a subway or sees it in a bookstore--those things are going to rapidly diminish as we move to an electronic model.

Kuntz: What gadgets do you use? There must be some technology that you like.

Shteyngart: I like the map feature on the iPhone that tells me where I am, because I travel a lot. And it's nice to know how far you are from Union Station in Washington, DC, or the harbor in Seattle. It puts things into context, and I like that. I don't like the fact that somebody else can find out where I am or that where I am has been recorded.