In the near future, all citizens will wear a centrally controlled super-iPhone that tracks your movements and can scan everyone around you to divulge their net worth, their shopping history, and their dating potential.
The so-called äppärät is an invention of Gary Shteyngart, author of the satiric novel Super Sad True Love Story. The main character works in the post-human services industry and falls in love with a younger woman who constantly “teens,” or text chats, with her friends. Is there an äppärät in your future? Will a fictional mobile device have a cautionary impact on today’s designs?
To find out more, we caught up with Shteyngart before his recent appearance at Newtonville Books, near Boston.
TR: Can you tell us about your invention, the äppärät?
Gary Shteyngart: I figure it would be about this big [the size of a medallion], really small. The way I envisioned it at first was that little bits of data will float almost out so everyone would see what it looks like. And I wanted a very shiny pebble. I was kind of thinking of … remember that movie Wall-E? Remember he’s in love with Eve the robot, and she’s very shiny and she has this little LED kind of display in front? That’s sort of what I was thinking.
TR: Does it hang around a person’s neck?
GS: It would be like a piece of jewelry, because you always want to have it with you. It’s interesting, people don’t have–you’d think there would be some device you would hang around your neck, because it’s so awkward constantly reaching into my pocket and getting this thing [the iPhone] out.
TR: How does the äppärät rank people?
GS: So you walk into a bar, let’s say I’m walking into a bar. Everyone automatically ranks me, and so I’ll be the seventh-ugliest man in the bar, but I’ll have the fourth-best credit rating, so it’s very exciting, you know. So everyone tells me that, you know–who I am.
It also ranks your “personality” and your attractiveness. Your personality is how extroverted you are, how much of your own personal stuff you have out there. So it’s constantly–that’s what a “good personality” is, just somebody who just constantly spews things about her- or himself. That’s one focus.
Then there’s something, there’s a kind of emote pad, so if you see somebody you’re attracted to, it measures your heartbeat as it goes up when you’re looking at them. And that woman or man immediately knows how much you want them, and then he or she can reject you or not.
TR: What other amazing features does the äppärät sport?
GS: Well, the RateMe Plus technology is its most important part; the fact that it immediately ranks you. You can load all your data onto it, and all your data is always open. You’re always completely broadcasting who you are.
It’s also much like the iPhone already is. Everyone streams in this future of mine. Journalism is dead, nobody really cares. So even as terrible things happen, what people mostly care about is their weight, their carbs, their pH factors, stuff like that. So one woman has a show, the Amy Greenberg “Muffin Top Hour,” where she talks about the size of her muffin top [her waist fat roll] as it goes up and down, fluctuates.
At one point people are dying all over in Central Park, the government attacks some of the people camped out in Central Park, but what she [Amy Greenberg] is mostly concerned about is the effect on her muffin top.
TR: In your book, America is a postliterate society, and we lost the ability to interact directly with one another. Did technology lead us to this point?
GS: In the book there are many culprits. I think technology can be construed as one culprit, but I think the main culprit is the fact that we are getting dumber. Whether technology enables this or not is an open question. But compared–relative to other countries in the world, we are constantly on the way down in terms of our scores in a wide variety of things.
This may not be so evident, obviously, at MIT, because the whole world comes to the Institute to get educated, but in terms of primary education, things are really bad.
What’s interesting is one study that the Times recently published about–children’s vocabularies are shrinking because their parents are constantly texting and typing away and they don’t have enough time to just communicate to the child.
So that’s something that really intrigued me and felt like it was already part of this world.
TR: In your book, why do you think that so many people allowed their äppärät to change their lives so much?
GS: When you’re with your äppärät there’s no permeability between you and technology. You are the technology. It’s constantly flashing around. I mean, the next thing is to incorporate it into the human body. So for example, it could be living inside your eye, so that your eye is basically a giant data point and you can learn to blink and manipulate the data that way. That would be very exciting.
TR: What other enhanced features do you expect in the äppärät version 7.7?
GS: I think eventually we will completely meld the technologies together. With each year, I lose about 6 percent of my humanity, so I think by 2018 I’ll just be mostly a walking app.
The äppäräts are also–they are a consumer device. The idea is to sell you things. That’s what the Internet does the best: it collects data from you and then it sells you a product. And so that’s what the äppärät is for. Everyone has one, and to be without one is not to be civilized, in a sense, in this civilization.