In Edgar Scott’s latest dystopian novel “418: I Am a Teapot,” the world has changed from the one you recognize, and yet, it doesn’t seem very far off. In the very near future, people choose, are born into or are forced to give up the rights to their own body. In exchange for the ability to live in a world of the Internet and all its shiny glories, they allow their bodies to be used for mundane jobs while they remain completely unaware.
Scott says he didn’t set out to write a dystopia in “418,” but that the “idea of an immersive Internet” came naturally to him and “does seem very attractive at first.” He spoke about the books that influenced him. “Of course I’ve read “1984”, “Lord of The Flies”, “Brave New World”, “Fahrenheit 451” and “The Handmaids Tale.” I think those are fairly ubiquitous influences. But perhaps the novel that influenced this the most was “The Trial” by Franz Kafka. In this novel we are presented with a bureaucratic society which is bent on inflicting its justice on K. He is unaware of what he has even done, but it is bad and shameful, and it is so because everyone says it is. This is very similar to how Brian finds himself in debtors arbitration, he is because they say he is. In “418” we have to discover the rules of a society which is inhumane, though my dystopia is a lot more cheerful than “The Trial.”
Choosing to give up your body to sample the delights of an online existence and become “staff” might seem attractive to some people. Scott says that when he describes the idea, “I can see people engage, [see] their faces light up and I usually get comments like, ‘Yeah, that would be neat.’” However, he explains that he started with the downside because the truth of that existence in the world of the novel is different that initial expectations.
“At this time people still think it’s a pretty good deal,” he says. “The idea of going to work and not noticing it, is appealing. And so, I hit them with another practical reality, ‘how much do you think we would pay someone who could be programmed and doesn’t actually know how to do the work?’ And if they haven’t had their ‘uh-oh’ moment, I answer the question, ‘virtually nothing.’ In fact, we might pay them online in currency they can’t use anywhere else, which means we would pay them nothing. This usually ruins the fantasy.”
“Would we want to be staff?” he asks. “It would be fun, but as ‘418’ illustrates in the novel, the unending stimulation would become tedious and the realization that everything he is experiencing is unreal and has no real value overrides any pleasure that he derives. But if you don’t think about it, being staff would be super fun, in the very short run.”
In the book, the character of Brian has a mundane job, but lives in the real world. He watches his young son Prince being sucked into the video game world, and desperately hopes that he won’t choose to become staff. Particularly during the pandemic, as the Internet has become our link to the outside world, we’re becoming more and more connected and tethered to the Internet.
Scott talks about the creation of this plot line. “Haven’t we all watched a loved one watch too much TV, be glued to their phone or tablet? There could be a whole world going on and they would prefer to watch it on a screen. Living vicariously rather than simply living directly.
Brian has partial information about the way in which this society has gone wrong…I think that one doesn’t even need to be a parent to see where fear comes from. We all want better, but if we knew the way, we would have taken it ourselves.
“Brian knows that one way to become staff is to choose it and many of the devices that we have are training devices that seek to make us more docile so we can accept becoming staff. This is not unlike how the Internet often assists us in deciding what we want. If we didn’t have an opinion on something, it would give us one, and might even provide us with direction, even if following those directions was injurious to us in either the short or long term. I think the best way to deal with this problem is to step back, take a measured look at the messages we get and technology that we use to decide which parts we want to engage and what other messages and technologies we wish to minimize or eliminate.”
So, is this our future? Can stories like the one in “418: I Am a Teapot” help us avoid this fate? Scott says, “I wanted to capture a race to the bottom, inspired by the virtualization of the computer processor I applied to the human processor. In order to virtualize the human brain, we had to dehumanize the people who were virtualized. This deskilling of work should strike similarities to the gains made by Scientific Management (Taylorism) in the early 1900’s; deskill the work so anyone can do it and you can pay them less. This philosophy remains prevalent in our industrial processes today. My fear is that with improved technology this process could be accelerated. Is this our future? Perhaps. The novel presents a potential future and so it does serve as a warning about going too far.”
“418: I Am a Teapot” is available on Amazon.