A Review of Users

Zoë Hu
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In Colin Winnette’s new novel, Users, virtual reality has reached its final stages of perfection. An unnamed corporation, having invented what it calls Original Experiences, helps users render their inner visions in HD and act out fantasies of lethal detail and precision. These Original Experiences never have to dictate the substance, the dream stuff, of customers: the less specific the software, the richer the users’ experience. In response to the light touch of its products, the corporation receives a “flood of creativity” from users.

Winnette’s protagonist, Miles, is one of the corporation’s top employees, and both the best and the worst possible person to be in charge of others’ speculative reveries. Capable of intimacy only on his own terms, Miles is obsessed with and scared of other people. He fears his responsibility to his loved ones, because he cannot contend with the standard results of such social ties: occasional disappointment, interpersonal gaffes. Every interaction Miles has with his wife, Claire, is thus approached as if on the emotional terrain of a chessboard. “If he was careful, he could fix this,” he thinks tactically at some point, in the midst of a conversation. “He had to choose his next move wisely.” Rarely able to stay convinced of the righteousness of his self-assertions, Miles lashes out at others, then minces away. By the end of the book, the most he can say of his older daughter is that she is “a person he’d spent time with.”

When users come close to discovering violations of the company’s privacy policy, Miles is tapped to manage a burgeoning PR crisis. His solution is a grand distraction in the form of the Egg: a glorified piece of smart furniture that allows people to pilot virtual reality scenes as full-body experiences. The catch is that the experiences are shared—manipulated and negotiated by other people in other Eggs. Users jockey with one another “to protect their preferred experiences”; in this push and pull, they are meant to eventually agree “upon the terms of a given reality,” and finally live in “chaotic harmony.”

Tech companies love to circuitously reinvent that which already exists. In the same way that Uber repackaged the taxi and DoorDash the pizza delivery, Miles comes up with the millennia-old concept of politics. People settling their realities via degrees of persuasion and aggression, cosigning agendas in the hopes of seeing them persist: this is what happens in any kind of political community. It is also what happens, on a micro scale, in a romantic relationship. Miles is bad at being part of either, and when he enters the Egg, it is only to be alone. He goes in seeking literally “nothing,” hoping to be released from his impact on other people and the risk of “mak[ing] it worse.” 

Despite his company’s penchant for data harvesting, Miles’s personality is thus not so much extractive as entropic; he thrashes about, voiding himself of energy and feeling, and in the process becomes impenetrable to others. When he does communicate, it is only to pass on what obsesses him to someone else; Miles sees intimacy as a means of unburdening himself. His worries are like a sickness that he can get over only by giving them to another person. Men like Miles run from the prospect of fucking up, from the disapproval of loved ones, and their flight is always into the rounded fantasy of the zero. To be nothing is to be unusable, unaccountable. A notion like this may seem objectionable to readers, until we remember that we, too, nurse it. To never feel the thwang of interpersonal tension, to live in a self that is slack and spent and upon which no demands can be made—for these reasons and others, we turn to contemporary tech. Our algorithms
and feeds become more personalized, and the distance between ourselves and others widens.

Publisher: Soft Skull Press Page count: 288 Price: $27 Key quote: “It was a living fantasy, limited only by the speed of your internet and the company’s servers.” Shelve next to: William Gibson, Don DeLillo, Sinclair Lewis Unscientifically calculated reading time: One long, relentless doomscroll

Zoë Hu
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