In her newest novel Joanna Kavenna has gone digital and turns her diverse skills to one of the most pressing issues of our day: the impact of technology on our minds, habits and happiness. Kavenna deserves high praise for originality as well as the energy and humour of her writing. In 367 pages she manages to paint a picture of a world terrifyingly similar to our own and provides a witty and horrifyingly relevant account of just how much technology can control the world if we let it.
Set in the near future the story takes place in a United Kingdom which has become “the most advanced benign regulatory environment in the world”. Beetle, an enormous corporation whose closest real-world equivalent is probably Amazon, controls every aspect of civilian life and its technology is deeply ingrained in all areas of society. The corporation’s cryptocurrency is the one legal currency, which you can only earn if you are employed by the company. This requires you to wear a Beetleband, which monitors your every movement and contains a Veep (or VIPA – very intelligent personal assistant). The Veeps provide a great deal of fun throughout the novel and Kavenna’s inventive terminology and acronyms for them add a quirky layer to her dark, dystopian world.
As well as controlling the economy, Beetle has a monopoly over both the social and political realms as it controls state security through a huge network of security cameras and robotic policemen. Each person in Kavenna’s Britain has an “associated life”, which is computed by an algorithm that can predict all of a person’s important decisions, and the law now uses this technology to make a prediction of future criminal behaviour a criminal offence in its own right.
The novel provides an interesting and accurate insight into the power and problems of algorithms and asks important questions about how they impact on the value we place on humanity.
Beetle is owned by Guy Matthias, a distinctly dislikeable character who believes that his control over the population through his company creates a safe and stable utopia. To complete the picture-perfect image of a “benevolent dictator” he also has a disastrous personal life, including a wife fed up with his affairs and a string of one-night stands with a variety of young brilliant women.
The main plot deals with what happens to such a society when humans suddenly start behaving as most humans do and become dangerously unpredictable – blamed on a factor known as Zed; a term which stands for “human decoherence”.
Kavenna’s book is full of dark humour and provides refreshingly frank social commentary with a distinctly Orwellian flavour. Clever, funny and incredibly readable, Zed is a book that might make you think twice before agreeing to “share my location” on the next app you download. - Shona Elliott
Zed, By Joanna Kavenna, Faber, £16.99