Everybody jokes about just doing away with the Internet after some data hack, service outage or other frustration reveals how much of our lives revolve around it. As David Yoon writes in his new novel about a fictitious platform called Wren — and only the name may be fictitious:
Everyone loved it, everyone hated it. People used it for news. For gossip. Social plans. Dining tips. Political views. Dating. Shopping. Driving directions. Blablabla ... The people could not stop themselves. They said they were addicted.
Version Zero is the story of tech workers who disrupt — and don't high tech wizards love that word — the internet with unforeseen consequences. It's David Yoon's first novel for adult readers, and it's about a world he knows well.
"I worked in tech for something like over a dozen years, first as a web designer in the early days of the internet and then as a user experience expert," he says. "And I would design not just the interfaces that you would push buttons and scroll around in, but also how to get customers on board and how to make them do the things that the business wanted them to do, as opposed to what the users themselves wanted to do. So there was a lot of psychological considerations in my job."
On protagonist Max and his scary company
Max is the hero of the story. He's this brilliant, sort of idealistic 20-something tech want-repreneur. He really wants to be like the next Steve Jobs. And he believes that tech can make the world a better place. And he works for this fictitious company, Wren. He discovers that they're doing some pretty shady stuff with user data, selling it to spooks and spy agencies. And he blows the whistle. And what happens is he promptly gets fired and then blacklisted from the entire industry that he idolizes. So he has this massive crisis of faith, and he has to sit there and figure out what to do with his life. And what he wants to do is exact revenge on the people that shut him out of the tech industry that he so loved.
On the idea that technology makes a lot of money — but produces nothing
Technology — and I'm paraphrasing the novelist Ted Chiang, who I just kind of worship — he says that technology and capitalism are so intertwined that it becomes hard to separate the two. And in my mind, technology is almost like a pure form of capitalism because it's up in this cloud and it scales infinitely and you can have billions of users and it seems endless and infinite. And when you sort of reach that level of abstraction, you know, you're not selling anything. You're selling what, engagement? Eyeballs and impressions? These are not tangible things.
On how hard it is to stay offline these days
Modern American capitalist life has always been mediated by these huge companies ... we used to be afraid of the credit card companies and the phone companies back in the day. The image that we used to have was, like, banks of thousands of employees just dutifully sort of writing down what you're saying — it's kind of funny, now that we have AI voice recognition technology and auto transcription, that image becomes much smaller, could probably fit on your phone. And the fact that increasingly all of your, not just business communications, but your friendships and your dating — like, stuff that really matters is being mediated through these giant companies. It really should give us a little bit of pause, at least, to wonder why do we need so much technology and so much infrastructure simply to be friends with someone?
On Max's line about "when we stop looking at one another in the eyes, bad things happen."
That was sort of another thing that ... Max realizes, is when you build a system for normal human beings that is not really compatible with our normal human instincts — which is small groups, intimate eye contact, being in a room together — when you take away that identity and make a hugely anonymous system, think about driving your car, for instance. You take millions of people and you turn them into vehicles, and they stop being people and you wind up with things like road rage. You don't wind up with things like, you know, supermarket aisle rage very much.
And so the internet is kind of like the same effect, but on a much larger scale. It becomes much easier for one bad actor to, under an anonymous profile, have an outsized influence on a lot of people. I mean ... Q is a perfect example of that. How big an effect one person can have, for better or worse.
On the challenge of writing for adults
Adults, I think, are more interested in exploring things that are unsettled. You know, YA I think, for the most part, educators and librarians — who are the people who buy these books, buy YA — they are looking for teachable moments that they can present to the students and say, this is what we learned about racism recently, this is what we learned about, you know, anything in humanity. And so they deal with kind of the known and the teachable and the adult world kind of deals with the unknown and the unteachable, the unresolved.
And the internet, in my mind, is very much unresolved. It's this huge thing that we built, not in response to a particular problem, per se, apart from "provide a distributed network that was immune from attack during a Cold War situation." But beyond that, it wasn't really built to solve any particular problem. It's created a bunch of problems. It's made a bunch of wonderful things, too. But in my mind, the jury is still out on has it all been worth it?
This story was edited for radio by Ed McNulty and Samantha Balaban, and adapted for the web by Petra Mayer.