As the world has entrusted Big Data with their everyday decisions, the question of algorithms’ objectivity becomes more and more important—a theme aptly explored in German author Marc-Uwe Kling’s novel QualityLand.
Welcome to QualityLand
Kling’s book explores a near future in which customization and commodification have been taken to an extreme. In QualityLand, you’re ranked from 1 to 100 based on 42 subcategories, and your score governs your romantic partners and jobs, where you live and where you can eat and shop, and your access to perks of everyday life such as having your stoplights changing more quickly. You can earn points to improve yourself. But if you fall in the ranks, you lose friends, partners, and more.
Status is everything in QualityLand. Instead of the old surnames, people take the name of a parent’s job as their surname, depending on gender; women from their mothers and men from their fathers. An all-knowing outlet called TheShop even anticipates your needs and sends you exactly what you want before you realize that you even want it. The world abounds with robots who cater to your every need. It’s also an election year, and an android, John of Us, is running for president.
Peter Jobless is not enjoying the fruits of QualityLand when his score dips below 10. His perfectly adequate girlfriend dumps him when her rating improves. But Peter consoles himself with a ragtag band of robots that he has secreted away at his machine-scrapping shop. Because of Consumption Protection Laws that forbid any repairs, he’s supposed to destroy these useless robots—including a drone who is afraid of flying or a sexdroid who cannot perform—but he can’t bring himself to do it.
When TheShop sends Peter an item he doesn't want, he learns it’s impossible to return it (TheShop is never wrong about what people need). Alongside his robot crew, Peter launches a quest to discover the roots of QualityLand and confront the powers that be in an attempt to change his life.
The dangers of the algorithm
As someone whose work and thoughts are fixed on Big Data, I appreciate QualityLand’s reflection of our modern obsession with ratings and algorithms. Just like Peter, who learns that algorithms may be limiting possibilities in his life, we’re seeing an increased reliance on algorithms in all aspects of our daily lives. While most people are familiar with Amazon’s algorithm to suggest new items to us, few realize how many vital areas of our lives are impacted by algorithms, such as employment, law enforcement, and medicine.
While Amazon recommendations that turn out to be useless are not a serious issue, the impact of other, invisible algorithms can be huge—and sometimes fatal. In Arizona in 2018, a self-driving Uber Volvo XC90 ran over and killed a woman, not by mistake but by algorithmic design. Algorithms may have the potential to combat bias, but as Cathy O’Neil (author of Weapons of Math Destruction) explains in the Guardian, “far from eradicating human biases, algorithms could magnify and entrench them.”
While QualityLand’s rating system seems far-fetched to us right now, China has begun implementing a controversial social-credit system that may put people on blacklists or redlists: what Wired calls “rosters of companies and people that have been particularly compliant.” While the system has not yet been implemented nationwide, critics fear it will increase the Chinese government’s surveillance over its population and exert inappropriate control over people’s lives. QualityLand’s satiric rendering spotlights those dangers, presenting us with a warning and a critique of what life lived by algorithms could look like.
What, When, Where
QualityLand. By Marc-Uwe Kling, translated by Jamie Lee Searle. New York: Grand Central Publishing, January 7, 2020 (English translation). 352 pages, hardcover; $24.30. Get it here.