‘Over thirty years ago, a computer manufacturer launched an ad campaign for its latest model featuring the slogan “On January 24th Apple will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like 1984.” That’s the same computer manufacturer whose iPhones and iPads now log where we’re standing or walking at every instant. Whose apps search and pass on our address lists. Which bans apps from its App Store when they show, say or do something that Uncle Sam doesn’t like….’
Marc Elsberg’s world here in “Zero” read for German lit month VIII is so very close to ours, as the future technology giants embrace the available technology to offer us a better present, why give away your data to Google or Facebook when Freemee will pay you for it, all of it. Ok so you will have to wear a smart watch which in real time sends in your actual physical data, but with this and your profile which Freemee picks up from all of your online information, Freemee Act apps can tell you how to act to meet your goals and you may find that Freemee can define your individual goals better than you because with the data and probability analysis they know you better than you know yourself. So this is the opening gambit as illustrated by the opening quote.
The story revolves around Cynthia Bonsant, a dinosour really, Cynthia is an investigative journalist in a world of instant news, anyone with a camera can be a journalist. One day Cyn is given a pair of on line video glasses to test by her newspaper, which hardly interests her but this is where the trouble begins, she lends the glasses to her daughter Vi who decides to test out the glasses with her friends, the glasses use facial recognition software and almost instantly in a crowd you can know everything about everyone:
The low afternoon sun picks out strands of hair, spectacles and earrings sparkle and cast sharp shadows over a sea of heads, these heads are streaming in all directions, slowly hastily with gritted teeth or relaxed expressions chatting laughing talking and phoning there are red and green squares around the faces of passers by bigger or smaller depending on how far away the person is, they move along with the people occasionally overlapping for a second whilst others vanish and new ones appear, a psychedelic pattern of abstract patterns, within seconds the red squares turn green.
As Vi and her friends each use the glasses, one of the boys sees a face that is almost instantly recognised as a violent criminal and begins to chase him, in spite of his friend’s warnings and those of Freemee through the glasses he continues his chase and is eventually shot dead. Six months before he had been a quiet young boy but since he had started using Freemee Act apps his whole character had changed, girls liked him, he had improved at school etc.
In parallel to this story, initially at first is the story of the internet activist Zero who warns against the power of the people hoarding personal data and who crosses paths with and helps Bonsant:
You’re paying the world’s data oligarchs to spy on you. That, right there, is consummate surveillance. Please let me give you money so you can locate me and use my data! They could sure teach international spy agencies a thing or two …’ Zero lowers his voice, his tone more biting. ‘Here they come with their Trojan horses, offering you search results, friends, maps, love, success, fitness tips, discounts on your shopping and who knows what else –but all the while, armed warriors sit lurking in their bellies, waiting for an opportunity to pounce! Their arrows strike you right in the heart and the head. They know more about you than any intelligence service. They know you better than you know yourself.
As the story progresses Bonsant discovers the insidiousness of the technology, even her daughters seeming rapid maturing and changing for “the better” is due to her use of Act apps. The on line video glasses rapidly ammass much more data more quickly. There is however a secret closely hidden by the head of Freemee, Vi’s friend is not the only youth to have taken inordinate risks and died. Bonsant circles around before finding the story and when eventually after chases and deaths Cyn brings the truth to light, the head of Freemee cynically plans the next phase.
Ok, he says to Joaquim and Henry as unobtrusively as possible the story’s out I see two alternatives: one, we undermine Bonsant’s and Bricle’s credibility and deny everything. We’ll need to undermine more than their credibility says Joaquin, people conform to Julius Caesar’s old adage, I love treason but hate a traitor, we must challenge their character and motives and their integrity, the same way the US administration and their allies did to Edward Snowden by attacking his motives, his escape to China, his asylum bid in Russia and a few tactless statements he made they got people to reassess his other actions as treason this played perfectly with many members of the public.
First Published in German as “Zero” in 2014 by Blanvalet Verlag.
Translated into English by Simon Pare and published in 2018 by Doubleday