Shteyngart’s dystopia and the modern-day: Individual autonomy and the Surveillance State

I sort of thought ‘what would an Orwellian future look like without the government actually controlling things?’

(Shteyngart, Talks at Google, 2012)

Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story is a dystopian romance that follows Russian immigrant Leonard Abramov and his infatuation with a young Korean American woman, Eunice Park. While the novel tackles issues of globalism, modern romance, and politics, it was Shteyngart’s satirical criticism of surveillance and autonomy in an ever-evolving digital society which I found most compelling, due to Super Sad True Love Story’s similarities with our society today.

‘Okay everybody lets see some big smiles!’ – Ned Flanders

Shteyngart’s figuration of surveillance is used as a means of sorting people by hierarchies in a near-future authoritarian America. In the novel mass surveillance is prominent everywhere, the government uses the American Restoration Authority (ARA) to spy on US citizens, “and uses mass surveillance to instigate targeted waves of repression against Low Net Worth Individuals.” Repression, not in the overt manner of previous dystopian novels such as Nineteen-Eighty-Four where there are solid institutional rules for conformity, but in a more subtle, homogenized manner which is integrated into every fragment of human interaction. The main instrument of this dystopian surveillance is the äppärät, a universal mobile computing device, which coincidently resembles modern-day smartphones. The äppärät collects personal information from everyone in the country, classifying everything about a person, “from their credit to their ‘fuckability’ ratings.”[2] People have credit scores that are ever-fluctuating, this gives the protagonist Lenny constant status anxiety as he watches his credit rating decline, and his health issue levels rise on the äppärät. People’s testosterone and estrogen, triglycerides, and insulin levels are constantly monitored, along with their, “‘mood + stress indicators,’ which are always supposed to read “positive/ playful/ ready to contribute” but which, with enough input from competitive co-workers, could be changed to ‘one moody betch today’ or ‘not a team pleya this month.’”[3]

Even romantic interactions between people are reduced to a numerical system with the ever-so-pleasant name FAC-ing (Forming a Community), where people place their äppärät against their chest and look at the person they are attracted to. The äppärät then monitors the person’s blood pressure and assess the person’s levels of attraction. After combining vitals and personality profiles the FAC score is presented, “Fuckability, Personality, Anal/Oral/Vaginal Preference.”

It is these crude levels of satire that Shteyngart goes to in order to criticize the near-future or essentially a more exaggerated depiction of our modern-day. His satire is key in conveying his poignant message about the data-reliant, socially anxious digital age in which we live and the consequences of reducing the autonomous self to mere metrics.

The äppärät is striking similar to modern-day smartphones, a device in which we, consensually, give all of our personal information to – who we are in a relationship with, what kind of people we are attracted to, on apps like Tinder, where we go, what we do. To the extent that algorithms of our personal data can be contrived to predict us TV shows, music, places to go, people to follow, and things to buy.

“With this book, there is no need for a Big Brother … because everyone’s been deputized to chronicle their lives at all times … The government doesn’t need to spy into your bedroom because everyone in this society is constantly updating where they are, what they’re doing, who they’re sleeping with … and everywhere you go, these streams are everywhere around you.”

(Shteyngart, Talks at Google, 2012)

What I find most interesting in Super Sad True Love Story’s depiction of dystopia is the extent to which a surveillance state is created by the people, not the government. Shteyngart depicts a world where, “surveillance is predominantly decentralized and participatory,” much like our own.

The novel depicts the digital age as reducing individuals to a set of percentages, and managerial metrics. Even dating is a superficial set of explicit sexual categories and preferences with no room for awkward small talk and getting to know someone naturally. This resembles our modern-day trend of ‘swiping right’ on Tinder; where, as Lenny’s friend Vishnu explains in the novel, “it’s like, a way to judge people. And let them judge you,” without ever having to meet each other. “The superficially reductive manner in which these categories are compiled cast the “informatization” of the body as a fundamentally dehumanizing practice.” I believe this to be Shteyngart’s motivation for raising these points, to highlight the contemporary crisis of dehumanization by way of a digital society. These examples accurately highlight the zeitgeist of the contemporary age, checking how many likes an individual has on social media as a form of judgment can be cast as an appropriate example in the modern-day. Another example of societal judgment in the digital age can be seen in, “Aiden M. was lowered from “overcoming the loss of loved one” to “letting personal life interfere with the job” to “doesn’t play well with others.”[3] This shows the extent to which the human experience and individual autonomy are diluted to a number of categories and public titles. In doing so the person’s flaws and differing opinions to the norm are exposed, suppressing them back into a state of ‘positivity.’

Gary Shteyngart discussing humanity in the face of new technological innovation

Reducing the autonomous self to metrics not only renders the individual to managerial exploitation but, “it also increases the prospect of social discrimination,” and goes against the fundamental core of what it means to be human; by-passing the intricate complexities of the individual, “rather than being accurate or inaccurate portrayals  of real individuals … they are a form of pragmatics: differentiated according to how useful they are in allowing institutions to make discriminations among populations.”

Shteyngart’s dystopia warns of the pervasive metrification of the body and soul, highlighting a world that threatens not only individual autonomy but social justice too. Being able to categorize people by numerical digital data and having that data exposed to everyone at all times not only sabotage individual liberty but makes the suppression of the population all the simpler. Shteyngart in 2010 warned of a near-future surveillance state, ten years later, it looks eerily, a lot like our own.


Bibliography:

  • Simon Willmetts, ‘Digital Dystopia: Surveillance, Autonomy, and Social Justice in Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story.’ American Quarterly, Volume 70, Number 2, June 2018
  • Shteyngart, Gary. 2010. Super Sad True Love Story, Random House.
  • Al-Shawf, Rayyan ‘Äppärät-chic: Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story‘ July 30, 2010, The Millions. Web.
  • “Gary Shteyngart Discusses ‘Super Sad True Love Story,’” Talks at Google, January 13, 2012, www.youtube.com/watch?v=mrlaqvH6bzU.
  • “Keen on … Gary Shteyngart: A Super Sad True Love Story” Youtube, July 15, 2011, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Me2bqd8uMac

2 thoughts on “Shteyngart’s dystopia and the modern-day: Individual autonomy and the Surveillance State

  1. Well done on writing such a well thought out piece, Ryan. I, like you, also found the use of satire quite heavy handed, or ‘crude’, in your words. Do you think Shteyngart needed to take such a broad brush approach, or did his lack of nuance hinder his aims? I definitely think his approach to satire rendered his characters frustratingly unlikable, for me at least, but if we take that as intentional, then what might the function of writing characters in this style? Although, you may completely disagree with me and find the characters much more compelling, and if you do I’d love to hear about that instead!

    1. Hi Lerato, I’m going to go about answering this in a round-about way, bear with me,
      I find Shteyngart’s satire quite crude at times, but dense with purpose and utility. An example I give in the blog is the FAC-ing system, which abruptly and obviously refers to sex. This in of itself, communicates through satire, to me, that dystopian future relationships have a fundamental purpose, sexual pleasure, just as it says on the tin, no hesitation about it. However, we are led to believe it really means (forming a community), hiding its central characteristic through a pleasant name, (a prevalent theme throughout the novel). I understand this sort of satire to be Shteyngart’s way of commenting on society’s vapid transition into pleasure-seeking and death of romance, possibly all tradition, in a dystopian future. In an example like this, I believe Shteyngart’s satire to be quite funny and thought-provoking.
      So, to answer your question Lerato, do I think Shteyngart needed to take such a heavy-handed approach, no, certainly not. However, I believe this to simply be Shteyngart’s style in what he planned to be a dark comedy, and the broad-brush approach to satire, he takes, can have nuanced undertones that help understand Shteyngart’s message for the future.
      I don’t find Lenny to be all that likable if that’s what you mean. However, I think his questionable approach to women and over-all mediocrity throughout the novel is a compelling character to analyze, as I believe Lenny’s character points to a prevalent male archetype in contemporary society. Perhaps Shteyngart sees a bit of himself in Lenny and wishes to hold a light on these sorts of male archetypes, or perhaps not. While Lenny is the main character, I don’t necessarily believe his problematic traits are championed by the novel or anything. However, if you can rejig my memory with some examples I’d appreciate it!

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