Does Not Compute

A Review of ‘Zed’ by Joanna Kavenna

Joanna Kavenna’s latest novel Zed takes place in a not-too-far-off future where the tech company Beetle registers the smallest decisions made by individuals through wearable devices called BeetleBands. With this data, Beetle adjusts the predictive algorithms of individuals’ lives. If a woman orders a fresh squeezed orange juice, her algorithm alters accordingly. If she smokes a cigarette, another adjustment. Through such minute accumulation, Beetle has developed a predictive method that knows what she’s going to do before she does it. It’s the most accurate Magic 8 Ball you can imagine.

Or is it? In Zed, a man murders his wife and children, upending Kavenna’s hyper-efficient world. It’s the kind of story that horrifies people for all the right reasons, but it’s doubly disturbing because the algorithm didn’t predict it. Beetle engineer and company man Dan Varley struggles with the effects of a technology so tantalizingly close to perfect:

…[T]he predictive algorithms were behaving very oddly. Or, people were behaving very oddly and not remotely as they should. Suddenly, the precious and beautiful bond between predictive algorithm and human behavior—a bond on which Varley’s entire career, life, payment in BeetleBits, and continued survival in the world was founded—seemed tenuous. At that moment, an alarm went off on Varley’s BeetleBand, indicating that his heart was under extreme strain and he must take urgent action.

What kind of savage world counts on technology to determine what its people need and when they need it? If you’re noting some parallels to our world, you’re getting Kavenna’s drift. But she doesn’t rely solely on dear God, what have we done? fear to keep you turning pages. She also uses humor, which acts as a kind of soft filter to her more harrowing implications. At one point, Beetle CEO Guy Matthias and his journalistic tool Dan Strachey engage in what’s ostensibly a business meeting but what Strachey becomes convinced is something more portentous:

[Strachey] was about to pick up his glass again but then he wondered suddenly if it was poisoned. But that was absurd! Guy would never poison him. It would simply be too analog.

The humor of Zed helps separate the novel from similar efforts such as Dave Eggers’s The Circle, which focuses on a world more on the cusp of the battle between digital and analog and therefore doesn’t crack much of a smile. In Kavenna’s version of our future, this battle is largely over, with the vast majority giving themselves over to the idea that Beetle equals better. The only holdouts are those of the resistance group LOTUS, which operates largely from the credo that not participating in such data accumulation means you’re not guilty of anything.

Such a tenet is anathema to Matthias and others in the straight world of this dystopian milieu. Like the episode of Black Mirror starring Bryce Dallas Howard, Matthias is very locked in to digital ratings as measurements of success and fulfillment, but he also has his eye on using his company’s digital access to shape human behavior:

Beetle were not only watching everyone, which everyone already knew and no longer seemed to care about, but also inspiring them to act in certain ways, “best” ways as defined by Beetle.

It’s not hard to find the idea of such an imposition offensive. Then again, how is this different from Facebook advertising? That’s the kind of connection Kavenna exploits throughout Zed. The novel serves as its own kind of efficient algorithm reflecting something close to our current condition back at us and asking, Do you care? Unfortunately, all signs do not point to yes.

(Doubleday, January 14, 2020)

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Art Edwards

Art Edwards’s reviews have appeared in Salon, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Kenyon Review, among many others. He was cofounder of the Refreshments. His recently finished novel is called Nineteen Ways to Destroy Your Rock Band.

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