Stephen Karlson (shkarlson) wrote in 50bookchallenge,
Stephen Karlson


Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story is ostensibly about the final collapse of the United States.  Book Review No. 7 suggests that the collapse is already well under way, or has already actually happened.  The post title quotes a sign posted by something called the American Restoration Authority.  It's difficult to speak of restoration without something being broken.  The more prosperous characters have the opportunity to travel, and the world they inhabit is one in which the antitrust laws have been broken or perhaps abolished as part of the transactions by which formerly sovereign nations sold naming rights to corporations, to obtain debt forgiveness perhaps?

The world of Super Sad True Love Story is in some ways more believable than that of 1984 or Brave New World, in that one can conceive of a technology-intensive dystopia (at least for individuals with some net worth left) emerging organically.  Consumer electronics have progressed to such an extent that the successor to the smart phone is small enough to be worn as a necklace, yet powerful enough to share information with all the other smart phones in a bar, or along a street.  Thus can high net worth individuals have their creditworthiness displayed for all to see, and all the pretty and predatory people have their hotness evaluated, and yet be able to arrange their one-hour stands relatively discreetly.  It's not much of a stretch to see contemporary search engines and social networks evolving in precisely that direction.

Facebook became a trusted brand by presenting itself as a private club of peers. Meanwhile, the site was changing settings and revealing more personal information to more people.

Google used to tout its search engine advertising as privacy friendly, because it focused upon users' interests per-transaction, rather than through an analysis of past searches and browsing. But in 2007, Google quietly began behavioral profiling, tracking searches, and, with the acquisition of DoubleClick, nearly all browsing behavior.

The society that emerges says more about Mr Shteyngart's prejudices than it does about his understanding of the underlying social science.  For instance, those one-hour stands appear to be the new norm for sexual congress.  Juicy Couture has become a more explicit, yet relatively restrained, brand name (read the book and judge for yourself), and the young ladies (who tend to work in Retail or Communication) who seek the attention of the highest net worth men (who tend to work in Finance or Technology) can campaign for their attention by leaving very little, even in business attire, to their imagination.

There are dissenters, but Mr Shteyngart gives us an ethnic evangelist rather than a phesbian leminist with an institutional haircut as the behind-the-times critic to be pitied rather than emulated.  On occasion, he does suggest a lament for the life lost, as when one character encounters a book and discovers she only knows how to scan data streams for information, not to read for content.  (That might be one difficulty today's students already have, particularly to the extent that high-stakes testing deemphasizes conceptual understanding.)

Mr Shteyngart's political economy is unusual for a native of the Soviet Union who emigrated at the age of nine.  He apparently learned just enough of the principles of capitalist accumulation to be dangerous.  The reason people say they work in Retail or Finance is that businesses have merged and concentrated to such an extent that a specific corporate identity conveys no information.  But if such concentration were possible, the conglomerate corporations of the 1960s and the Soviet Union itself would not have come to grief.

As, apparently, did the United States, and with it, much of the rest of the developed world, although not with an environmental or military bang.

(Cross-posted to Cold Spring Shops.)
Tags: dystopia, futuristic, technology

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