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transcript

Would You Upload Your Consciousness to the Cloud?

Jennifer Egan, the author of “A Visit From the Goon Squad,” talks about her new book and social media’s “illusion of authenticity.”

[MUSIC PLAYING]

(SINGING) When you walk in the room, do you have sway?

kara swisher

I’m Kara Swisher, and you’re listening to “Sway.” A world where share your most personal data, where you can watch replays of your own memories and other people’s, where many think content sharing has gotten out of control.

No, I’m not talking about our current reality. I’m talking about the world my guest, writer Jennifer Egan, dreams up in her new book, “The Candy House.” It’s the sequel to “A Visit From the Goon Squad,” which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2011.

In “The Candy House,” a new technology called the consciousness cube allows your mind to be uploaded to the cloud. So I wanted to talk to Egan about how close we are to this immersive world and how dystopian it would actually be. Jennifer Egan, welcome to “Sway.”

jennifer egan

Thank you.

kara swisher

So I want you to talk about the idea for this book. You’ve created a world where technology has allowed us to immerse ourselves in each other’s memories. Why did you want to write this, I guess, it’s a sequel or a sibling to your first book about that.

jennifer egan

Well, in a way, the world of “Goon Squad” never really ended for me. It’s the nature of books like this that are ensemble pieces from multiple points of view that they could go on infinitely because every person is the center of their own universe with their own cast of characters. The technology part of it was not front and center ever for me.

I really came at it more inductively by following the people into various situations that inevitably involved the future because we know when they were born, essentially. So I don’t really have much of a choice. Once I have to move forward, it’s a lot of fun to take liberties technologically because that’s, of course, what the future offers us in life and in art.

kara swisher

Yeah, in a lot of ways, your books are like networks. I was thinking as I was reading it. It’s sort of a network. And then you see this node clicking to one thing to another to another to another, which is how the internet set off, is that you start off one place and end up in very different places. I’d love to know, did you start getting involved with social media during this time?

jennifer egan

I mean, I would say that I’m involved with social media only in the most workaday fashion. I don’t enjoy consuming it, certainly not as a way of catching up on what’s happening with people I know. I find that almost eerie. I feel like why wouldn’t I just call them or talk to them?

It’s more interesting to look at people I don’t know on social media because it’s such a curiosity gratifier. Because as you just said, there’s so much out there that we’re only one step away from, in a sense, having externalized large portions of our consciousness. Consciousness is just through memories, photos, and all kinds of ancillary details that end up out there.

kara swisher

Although we have created this, I call it the database of human intentions. I used to call Google that. Everything in Google is what everybody wants at any one moment. And many years ago, Google had a ticker that would show what people were searching for at any given moment. I would watch it forever because I’d never understand why they were searching for certain things. Like, it would be horses, badminton, yellow. And you’d be like, what do they want? What are they looking for?

jennifer egan

Well, one of the intellectual preoccupations that I had in mind, before I was working on this book and as I was, is the odd paradox of the fact that we “know,” in quotes, pretty much everything. And yet, we can’t predict very much. And that knowledge doesn’t do very much to describe us as individuals. It only describes us as groups. So that’s sort of an odd juxtaposition.

kara swisher

It’s interesting. I just did the Google test on you. What you do, Jennifer Egan is. And the first thing that comes up is, is Jennifer Egan married? And Jennifer Egan net worth. And Jennifer Egan writing process, which I thought was fascinating.

jennifer egan

Yeah, I have to say, those are pretty basic questions.

kara swisher

Yeah.

jennifer egan

Although writing process is a good question.

I wonder whether married and net worth come up for almost anyone you would Google, actually.

kara swisher

Yeah, yes, that’s interesting. Mine is podcast.

jennifer egan

[LAUGHS]:: Well, I guess, in a way, that speaks to exactly what I’m saying, which is these are really general, unillustrative, and uncolorful categories. They don’t describe us as individuals at all. So where does the storytelling come in? That’s what the interpretation of the data is. It’s all storytelling. And I think it’s no accident that the word “story” has become such a cultural — such a marketing tool. What’s the story of the restaurant? What’s the story of this post?

kara swisher

Right.

jennifer egan

And I think it speaks to the way in which we fetishize storytelling because it’s the only way that we can actually use all of this data that we’re drowning in.

kara swisher

Which we’re drowning in, which is just too much information without any meaning. So I want to talk about — start with this book, the character of Bix Bouton at the beginning of the book. Really interesting character. He reminds me of a lot of people and no one at all, actually, since I’ve covered all these people. Talk a little about him because he’s much more upset by what he’s done, in a way, than anyone I’ve ever met in technology. They’re never upset about what they’ve done or what they’ve created.

jennifer egan

Well, so I’ll talk first about just how he ends up creating the invention that forms the kind of spinal column of the book, which is that in the early ‘90s, when he was a graduate student at NYU, he had an all night partying session with two friends who were undergrads, two guys. And they had a kind of great moment by the East River when the sun came up. And then Bix went home.

And these two guys went swimming in the East River. And one of them named Rob drowned. And this is an event that we see up close in “A Visit From the Goon Squad.” We meet Bix in “The Candy House” in 2010. He has in the interim invented social media. So that’s sort of an alternate reality that I’ve created.

kara swisher

Called Mandala, which is my favorite, because mandalas are about erasing.

jennifer egan

Well, but a mandala also represents the universe. So it’s one of those symbols that can mean so many things, which are, of course, tech is very good at co-opting those for as marketing tools and names. Anyway, so Bix ends up — so he is having kind of a midlife crisis because he has pretty much played out his idea, which is social media, and now what? He’s only 41 years old. He feels sort of like his life is over. And he’s surrounded by people who tell him what he wants to hear, as many famous people are.

kara swisher

Yeah, I used to say, they lick you up and down. I used to say, they lick you up and down. So what else are they going to do?

jennifer egan

So he’s not finding that stimulating in the right way, let’s say. So he goes incognito to a group of Columbia professors who are having a discussion group, but he ends up next to the East River in the same place where he stood with those two guys in 1993 before one of them drowned.

And he finds, no matter what he does, he can’t remember most of that morning. It’s just not accessible to him. He experienced it, but he can’t reach it. And he sort of can’t believe that, because he’s the guy who’s made everyone findable for each other. And yet, he can’t find his own memories. And he finds this unacceptable. And you watch the effects of what he invents ripple out through the narrative.

kara swisher

His mind is not a computer that he hoped it could be, right? He couldn’t just call up and — I think about that all the time, memories and how you can’t recall anything.

jennifer egan

Yeah, an online experience creates all these expectations in all of us. One of them is that everything should be free. And that’s had vast implications. But another is that everything should be immediate. And another is that everything should be searchable and findable. And as the guy who helped to create that reality, he finds it especially galling and just unacceptable that he can’t search his memories.

So he goes on to create this device that allows people to externalize their memories for personal use so that they can look from a present day perspective at everything that happened to them.

kara swisher

But what would these memories look like, from your perspective, watching A.R., watching a movie, the Facebook memories? Or it could be misinformation because —

jennifer egan

Well, yes.

kara swisher

I have stories that everyone tells differently. And they’re all correct, in a way. It’s the Rashomon problem.

jennifer egan

You are 100 percent right. And that’s the way in which this, quote, unquote, “machine,” because of course, there is no machine — this is a novel — is a bit of a MacGuffin. I mean, the way I posit it is that wearing a headset, you are seeing what someone sees and also hearing/feeling their impressions and their thoughts as they see it.

So there comes a moment where the second one of the two guys standing with Bix in that place by the East River watches with a headset Bix’s memory of that morning. So he sees through Bix’s eyes himself at 19 as he leaves to take this walk with Rob. And it’s agony because he can’t stop it.

kara swisher

He knows how the story is going to end, right?

jennifer egan

He knows how the story is going to end. And this doesn’t change it. This just brings him face to face with it in a more profound way.

kara swisher

Rgiht. So I want to get into that in a second. But I’d love to know who you are basing this on because it’s not quite Mark Zuckerberg. It does have a lot of Steve Jobs, someone you knew very well, obviously. You went out with him in college, correct? You went out with him in college.

jennifer egan

Yes.

kara swisher

And then you retained your friendship over the years. And he did understand what the next big thing was. Is it modeled on him or someone else? Or did you just make it out of whole cloth?

jennifer egan

I am terrible at basing anyone in fiction on a real person. And that is probably most true if I have any whiff of myself entering the narrative. I go really cold. I’m a terrible auto fictionalist and a terrible memoirist. So I didn’t base him on anyone. And in fact, that’s true of every single person in the book. And I would go further and say that if he had reminded me of Steve, I would not have been able to write about him.

kara swisher

Why’s that?

jennifer egan

It has to feel like someone I’ve never met because the whole fun of it is the discovery. That’s what I do it for. And if I’m discovering what I already know, the process is not working. I’ve entered a solipsism. I have to get out of it.

kara swisher

So it’s interesting because I think this character is if Mark Zuckerberg had the soul of Steve Jobs. Now I interviewed Steve and we had a very deep discussion of what he was going to do next in his life, one of which was pushing back against a lot of this. Is that something you talked to him about? Or did you have an awareness of his interest in that around privacy and what was happening with this technology?

jennifer egan

I really didn’t. I can’t say that Steve felt close to any of this. I mean, part of that is he was really not a reader. So the world of literature and books was just very much apart from him. And so while I was very fond of him and I feel like I knew him pretty well, I don’t think he had a whole lot to do with this character.

kara swisher

With this character. Because it’s interesting because one of the things he said, “Privacy means people know what they’re signing up for in plain English and repeatedly. I believe people are smart and some people want to share more data than other people do. Ask them. Ask them every time. Make them tell you to stop asking them if they get tired of your asking them. Let them know precisely what you’re going to do with their data.” Which is astonishing because this is one of the things that you’re talking about is this memory invention device, which is all the data, essentially.

jennifer egan

Yeah, I mean, I think — I agree with what he’s saying and/or what he was saying. What is so fascinating is the degree to which people — a couple of things. One is, people will do almost anything for access. They’ll give up anything. And number two is people are OK with sharing much more than one might necessarily think. And that gets to your point about, what does Bix regret as we meet him again through the eyes of his son at the end of the book?

And what we learn is that he never intended that the sharing part of Own Your Unconscious would become so predominant. His idea was that people would — the name of this invention says it all — Own Your Unconscious. And we learn that Bix himself programmed his externalized consciousness, his cube to delete if anyone ever tried to share it. But there was this sharing option, which is that by sharing all or part of your own consciousness, you gain equivalent access to the collective. And that proves to be absolutely irresistible. And that’s the part he didn’t see coming.

kara swisher

Yeah, what’s interesting it’s an opt-in thing without a choice, if that makes sense. It is opt-in but you can’t have it unless you opt in, right? You can’t be part of it.

jennifer egan

And that model exists already. I mean, in DNA sharing, if you want to find out if you have relatives, you have to make your own results public. That’s how Napster worked. If you wanted free music, you had to also make your music available. People do this. I mean, it feels in the moment like a reasonable bargain. I think so often, the long-term consequences of this don’t become clear until later. And many, many people in the world of the book are very, very gung ho about all the good that this invention has done. And like so much of tech, there’s a lot of good alongside the bad.

kara swisher

That is correct. I mean, but I think one of my premises is that we’re all cheap dates for them. We get a search or be able to email, and they get everything else. They get every bit of us. And we get little tiny bits of candy, which is — talk a little about why you called it “The Candy House.”

jennifer egan

Right, the context in which it came up, this was the case where the title was actually sort of in the book, but I hadn’t found it for a while. But it’s actually Napster. So there are two young women working in the music industry with their father. They are appalled in 1999 to discover that suddenly everyone’s getting music for free. They all realize that this is going to be a disaster. So these young women are trying to figure out how to warn people not to use Napster and try to warn them that they’re paying in ways that they don’t see.

So they have this idea, which they don’t end up doing, of having a billboard campaign alongside American highways of billboards that say, “Never Trust a Candy House,” as if somehow looking at this will cause drivers to say, ah, I shouldn’t use Napster. It’s obviously a very silly idea. But the idea is that people don’t understand that the currency they’re using is not money. And it took me forever to understand that because I’m not a very technological person.

And so the idea of the attention economy and my data being sold, I mean, that takes a while to absorb. And I feel like by the time most of us absorbed that form of commerce, it was too late.

kara swisher

Yeah, absolutely. And it also was convenient. People liked it. The convenience is a big factor. I interviewed Margrethe Vestager, who’s a big regulator in Europe, about this. And she said convenience is what they get you with. But why would people memory share? Because there are some positives in that idea. So can you talk a little about why that would be a good thing?

jennifer egan

Well, there are a lot of reasons. I mean, putting aside just the societal goods that the machine ends up doing, so, for example, child abuse disappears because now we can view footage of memories, and we know who the abusers are. Externalized consciousness can be reinfused after a traumatic brain injury or during, for example, if you begin to experience dementia, although that doesn’t really require sharing.

I think that the real things that lead people to share are the same things that lead people to share now, which are the desire to know others in a deeper way, the desire to be known, and probably number one, an ongoing hunger for authenticity that, I think, fuels so much of what happens online. And it’s a deep irony because so much of what creates the hunger for authenticity is the constant sense of artificiality and mediation. Looking to the internet for authentic experience is just inherently a loser. But it’s amazing how many different devices and possibilities continue to come up that give us the illusion of authenticity.

kara swisher

100 percent. So that was interesting. I was just going to ask, it’s one of your biggest themes, this idea of authenticity. But online is completely performative, absolutely, whether it’s people doing their weddings or their food or anything, what they’re doing. And one of my favorite characters is Alfred, who’s constantly seeking the real authentic by sort of shocking people and yelling. Can you talk a little about him? Because I find him — my favorite character in your whole book is Kinghorn, the bus driver, just for a second. I love Kinghorn.

jennifer egan

I know. I love Kinghorn, too. I may have to pursue him in the future.

kara swisher

Explain who he is. He’s a bus driver. Alfred screams in public and to shock people to see what people will do, which is usually get very upset.

jennifer egan

Yeah, I mean, Alfred, from a young age, was obsessed with artificiality and determined to thwart it by provoking genuine responses in the people around him. And as a young kid, he wore a paper bag over his head at family holidays, so his grandparents were befuddled and everyone was unhappy. He goes on to begin what he calls a project of screaming in public, bloody murder, and of course, prompting extremely spontaneous and authentic reactions, mostly very negative.

But he assuages his guilt over any pain he might be causing people by terrifying them, et cetera, by reminding himself that he’s not actually physically hurting anyone. This, for Alfred, becomes a sort of addiction. He can’t tell quite when the impulse to scream will come. Very hard to resist it. Along it comes when he’s on an Avis bus with his serious girlfriend, whom he’s bringing to meet his family in Winnetka, Illinois. He starts to scream.

And Kinghorn, the bus driver, deals with this in a different way than anyone has so far because normally, everyone just kind of goes wild. But Kinghorn pulls the bus over, comes back, and basically just watches Alfred to figure out what Alfred is doing. And this sense of being observed in this quiet and rather invasive way completely diffuses Alfred’s screaming. Kinghorn talks to him and basically lays down the law. And the bottom line is, in this struggle, Kinghorn triumphs in such a way that Alfred realizes he will never do this again.

kara swisher

It was his last stand, really. But the idea of adding to authenticity at all, is it possible? I mean, unless it’s in a situation of fear or maybe joy.

jennifer egan

I mean, I think authenticity is one of those things that is hard to acquire if we’re looking for it specifically. And in a way, that’s kind of what Alfred discovers, that this is a completely artificial thing that he’s doing. It’s a big pain in the neck for everybody. And yet, I think we hunger for it because of this sense of mediation and artificiality. So that’s, in a way, a case where the more we shove and push and demand authenticity, the more elusive it becomes.

kara swisher

And the more information we get about people. So we talk a bit about the implications of privacy, this sort of bargain for convenience over, essentially, data abuse. But a lot of it is self surveillance. How do you look at that? Because we sort of like looking and being looked at, I suppose.

jennifer egan

Well, you say we. I mean, I have to say, I don’t include myself in that.

kara swisher

I meant the populace seems to have been gotten into this idea.

jennifer egan

For sure. I am amazed by that. As a fiction writer, I take that as a challenge to understand from the inside where that desire comes from and what it feels like, because I don’t have it myself so that makes it very interesting and even sort of appealing to me on the level of curiosity. I think it comes from the basic wish to be known, to be understood. I think there’s something very basic and human about that.

But it feels like the medium of expression thwarts the goal in a very basic and fundamental way. Parading oneself or constructing a self and widely disseminating it is not a way to be known exactly. It is a way to be potentially famous. And that, of course, is another huge motivation. I mean, a lot of young people just want to be TikTok stars.

kara swisher

So you’re not an influencer.

jennifer egan

I don’t think so.

kara swisher

I think you are. I hate to tell you, but I think you are.

jennifer egan

Well, I guess I found a different route to it.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

kara swisher

We’ll be back in a minute.

If you like this interview and want to hear others, follow us on your favorite podcast app. You’ll be able to catch up on “Sway” episodes you may have missed, like my conversation with Jeanette Winterson. And you’ll get new ones delivered directly to you. More with Jennifer Egan after the break.

Do you see an end point to this of the idea that we’re sharing almost constantly? Eventually, we have the consciousness cube. We eventually will. There will be a way to do this.

jennifer egan

Well, I’m not so sure about that technologically. Do we really understand the brain well enough to externalize consciousness? But putting that aside, in the world that I invented, a logical outcome of the mandala consciousness cube and the collective consciousness where all of this sharing happens was a pretty fierce resistance in which people are not just going off the grid, because that’s not really good enough.

In the collective consciousness, whether you share or even externalize your own consciousness, you are fully represented in other people’s perceptions that have been shared. And there are people who find this so objectionable and so abhorrent, they so do not want to be represented in this collective that they shed their identities altogether and take on new identities. And —

kara swisher

These are the eluders.

jennifer egan

Yes, they disappear, but it’s not enough to just disappear because everyone notices you’re gone. They take on new identities. And they actually leave their identities behind as the price of freedom from this entire system. So I guess, in the world I’m imagining, yes, maybe we keep going in the direction of absolute sharing and self surveillance and no borders between consciousnesses. But not everyone is going to go along with that.

kara swisher

I’m not sure they’ll have a choice, I’ll be honest with you. So would you use a consciousness cube? Or would you be an eluder, would you imagine?

jennifer egan

I can really relate to both groups. My own curiosity was what led me to invent this technology, even in the realm of fiction. I wanted to do certain things narratively. And this cube let me do them. So obviously, there’s a lot there that is of interest. Like, for example, for a while, I was thinking, I really want to write about someone who’s able to find a person they’ve just glimpsed, whose full name they don’t even know. And that arose from my own curiosity about certain people who I literally just remember as people, but with no identifying information. Who were they? Who are they? I’m curious.

Well, using the collective, one of my characters is able to do that. He’s able to see glimpses of the life of a guy who used to sell him drugs, whose first name is all he knows. And he’s able to see, basically, this guy’s whole story in little fragments. And that was extremely satisfying to me, the writer, because I had a way of doing this using this technology that I invented.

kara swisher

Which is sort of the old reading someone’s mind, being able to read someone’s mind. Also, you’re going to be able to have a version of this in five years with glasses that will be able to search databases and tell you exactly who’s sitting in front of you and a lot of details about their lives, which is, I think, much closer than you think. Both Apple and Facebook are working on these things.

But are there memories of yourself that you’d revisit in this way, something that — because that’s an appeal to it also. I would go back and see my time with my dad. My dad died when I was five. I would have liked to have — it must be in there somewhere. Maybe it’s not. But if it was, that would be very accessible, I would imagine, in a good way.

jennifer egan

Well, the conceit is that it’s all accessible. Every moment of your life is accessible and in my realm. Yes, that’s a totally appealing idea. I also, I didn’t know my dad well. And I love the thought of knowing him better in that way.

And I also find that sometimes my memories are shopworn. I feel like I go over the same little moments again and again, but what about all the moments in between those moments? I also would be very tempted by the collective because, look, I’m a fiction writer. My job is to imagine my way inside other people’s consciousnesses, so you bet I would be curious to be inside other people’s minds, actually listen to their thoughts.

But I should mention that this is rarely a satisfying enterprise as we see it in the book. The truth is, I’m not sure any of us really wants to be inside someone else’s consciousness. We want the illusion of it.

kara swisher

Yeah, someone was asked what superpower you’d have, and someone’s like, I’d like to read people’s brains. I’m like, no, you don’t. You don’t want to hear what’s inside people’s heads, in a lot of ways. You say it’s not a dystopian book. Why is that? Because I found the book somewhat terrifying in a lot of ways, because I think it’s possible.

jennifer egan

Well, it may feel more dystopian to you for that reason. My lack of real knowledge of what’s possible technologically may have protected me.

kara swisher

Ah, your Luddite excuse.

jennifer egan

No, I mean, to me, it doesn’t seem possible. And honestly, nothing you’ve said has changed that opinion. The fact that we can look through glasses and learn a lot of data about the person sitting across from us is not knowing their interior life.

kara swisher

That’s the beginning.

jennifer egan

Yeah, I guess nothing has persuaded me of that. When we don’t understand how the brain works, how can we replicate it? But I realize that in the world of A.I., there’s all kinds of debate about whether we can create machines with souls. And maybe it’s possible. I’m —

kara swisher

There was just a story about —

jennifer egan

I know.

kara swisher

— a sentient being. Of course, they’re going to be sentient.

jennifer egan

I really have my doubts about it. I guess I really come down on the other side. But again, I don’t know. So my ignorance may be protecting me.

kara swisher

Yeah, but that’s OK. That’s fine. But it’s still a great imagining. The only reason I think is that as you become — there’s already some work being done on dreams, being able to see dreams that people are having and then put photos to them and things like that. So you don’t think this is dystopian. It’s just, it wouldn’t be dystopian in reality, given even the simplest tools, social media or Twitter has had such implications on society.

jennifer egan

I think it would be totally dystopian in reality. But it does not make this a dystopian book in the sense that what I’m using the machine to do is just try to tell fun stories. And in the end, what I’m interested in is people, not machines, and interested in technology only to the extent that it impacts the way people feel and are with each other and what their experience of the world is. So the story that I’m telling about this machine and with this machine is not that dystopian story. There would certainly be a way to write a dystopian story using this technology, but that’s not the one I’m writing.

And I do agree with you. If this really came to pass, it would be dystopian and partly for a reason that you just mentioned in passing and that was in my mind, but I didn’t pursue it, which is fakes. Like, wait a minute. So suddenly you can show footage of someone’s thoughts in a courtroom to convict an abuser or a criminal. Well, what about the deep fakes of thoughts?

And actually, I do touch on that because a lot of people try to capture the moment of their deaths in the book and then what lies beyond it. But the only successful attempts, we learn, turn out to be fake. So people try to dramatize the afterlife. I mean, that’s kind of exciting. But no consciousness has reached into the afterlife —

kara swisher

Except for the movie, “Ghost,” and it was very satisfying.

jennifer egan

I agree.

kara swisher

Super — so when you think about the internet, one of the early things that someone, when I first started covering it in the early 1990s, someone said to me, what is it? I don’t get it. I don’t get it. And I said, it’s everything. And they’re like, what do you mean, everything? I said, what’s outside? A tree, a car, a horse. I don’t know — everything. And this is the same thing.

And one of the things I think you do really well here is you show that it’s everything. You move from person to person the way you would click on the internet and then go to different places, to different networks, to different everything. When you’re writing this, you were much vetted when you wrote “A Visit From the Goon Squad” for doing this. How has novel writing changed? Has it changed a lot? Do you think you’ve been a big part of that?

jennifer egan

I think that if anything, it’s just become narrower than it started out being. If you look at the 18th and 19th century novels, they were really flexible, swaggering. They sucked every form of discourse into themselves and used all of it to have fun and to reveal people’s internal lives.

And I see the novel as a form that was invented to be totally flexible and very bold. In some ways, I think people don’t think about it quite that way. So honestly, I think I get more credit than I deserve as an experimenter. I mean, for example, there’s a chapter in “The Candy House” that’s all electronic communication.

kara swisher

Right. Presumably, your next novel will be all little TikTok movies.

jennifer egan

Well, you know what’s interesting? The question is whether I would actually cross over into the visual per se. And I think the answer is no because if we’re looking at a picture, we are on the outside of a consciousness, not the inside. It is the lack of visual, which, of course, imperils the novel as a cultural force, because we are such a visual culture, and we are less fit readers than we have been at other points.

But the fact that the novel is not visual is actually one of its greatest strengths, I think. So I’m not sure I would cross into TikTok. What I see when I watch, for example, someone playing a video game and narrating their perceptions is a really crude —

kara swisher

Do you do that?

jennifer egan

No, but I watch my kids do it.

kara swisher

Me, too.

jennifer egan

It’s a crude and weak approximation of the kind of reach that we have inside someone’s mind if we’re reading fiction. OK, yes, you’re seeing what they see, and you’re hearing a performative version of their impressions as they play this video game. But we have to watch them play a video game. Like, we’re not watching them fall in love or confront major life issues or, really, much of anything. So I guess this is a long winded way of saying, I would not want to be shackled to the visual because it is so limiting.

kara swisher

But let me just push back on something. You said the visual is taking over, and it is. The visual is now all young people. If you have any — you have teens. I have teens. TikTok, the visual rules everything, even more so when television existed because that was a much more passive. This is an immersive experience. And as we get into the Metaverse or any kind of visuals around us, it becomes even more so. Does that threaten the novel?

jennifer egan

Absolutely, but I feel like the only way to respond as a novelist is to write fiction that’s so good or to try and to lean into the strengths that fiction has, which is that it is actually the only narrative art form that places you inside the consciousness of another human being. So I guess my response is, let’s just keep writing great books. And if we do things that can’t be done any other way, certain people will want to read them.

kara swisher

Unfortunately, a dwindling number because of the advent of the tech moguls, really. Steve was the first, but a very different kind. But in one of the last chapters, you say Bix was perhaps, quote, “trying to repair and atone for a world that he had inadvertently wrought.” Do you think we’ll ever get atonement from our real world tech magnates? And I don’t think they’re doing it inadvertently. I think they’re doing it explicitly.

jennifer egan

Well, that’s interesting. You know better than I about the people who exist who are doing this work. But I guess the one thing I would say is that most people feel that what they’re doing is good, in my experience. Now that may just be a complex rationalization for doing whatever the hell they want. Basically, another version of the trickle down theory — if I get rich, it’s good for everyone.

kara swisher

Yeah, all boats.

jennifer egan

It’s good for me.

kara swisher

All boats.

jennifer egan

So it must be good. So, and some of that lack of repentance may just be an ongoing rationalization and justification of choices that have enriched and benefited certain people who have made them. But in the end, what interests me is not whether it’s good or bad, but how that rationalization works and how that mind works of that person who is making these things.

And I would not underestimate the will to resist and push back. I think that we sometimes don’t give younger people enough credit for understanding perfectly well the bargain they’re making, maybe better than we do.

kara swisher

I think my teens do.

jennifer egan

My son explained to me that apps were made to be addictive and that the smartest people in the world are putting all of their energy into making sure we can’t put this phone down. It is almost an act of resistance at this point to pick up a physical book and read it. And it’s hard to do that if you don’t actually put your phone in another room. But the rewards are enormous.

And so I put a lot of faith in the adaptability and the resourcefulness of humans and young people, especially, who are more flexible in their thinking. And so I don’t have a gloom and doom view of all this. And maybe that’s my own rationalization so that I can get up in the morning. That’s possible.

kara swisher

Yeah, it’s hard, given all the implications of all this stuff because it amplifies, weaponizes — and it addicts. And it’s global, which is kind of — it has a lot of things that make it very hard not to pick it up and, like a candy, eat it. You have to have it. And then it becomes an impulse kind of thing.

But one of the things at the last part of the book, you were talking about this baseball game, which I want you to comment on. I think this is the right quote. “The screens that everyone holds 20 years from now haven’t been invented. All the parents gathered in the fading light, not a single face underlit by a bluish glow. They’re all there in one place, their attention burning toward home plate.” I remember that.

jennifer egan

Yeah, I do, too. I mean, I think that in a way, the explosion of communications technology is the single great story I’ve witnessed in my lifetime, because I was born in ‘62.

kara swisher

Me, too.

jennifer egan

By the time I got to college, there was — oh, really? Oh, wow. Got to college, a call waiting was the only development that had occurred. It was huge. But and then you look at now, where someone who’s 25 feels like someone who’s 20 grew up in a different technological universe than they did. So I think there is this kind of inherent nostalgia for a time when people just were where they were without also being somewhere else. And I do feel that.

kara swisher

That was a beautiful sentence. I was like, oh, then. Anyway, Jennifer, thank you so much. This is a wonderful book. It really is.

jennifer egan

Oh, thank you so much!

[MUSIC PLAYING]

kara swisher

“Sway” is a production of New York Times Opinion. It’s produced by Nayeema Raza, Blakeney Schick, Caitlin O’Keefe and Wyatt Orme, with original music by Isaac Jones and Sonia Herrero; mixing by Sonia Herrero and Carole Sabouraud; and fact-checking by Kate Sinclair. Special thanks to Shannon Busta, Kristin Lin and Kristina Samulewski. The senior editor of “Sway” is Nayeema Raza. And the executive producer of New York Times Opinion Audio is Irene Noguchi.

If you’re in a podcast app already, you know how to get your podcasts, so follow this one. If you’re listening on the Times website and want to get each new episode of “Sway” delivered to you — along with a drive containing all your memories, except for the ones about that unfortunate boyfriend in college — download any podcast app, then search for “Sway,” and follow the show. We release every Monday and Thursday. Thanks for listening.

Would You Upload Your Consciousness to the Cloud?

Jennifer Egan, the author of “A Visit From the Goon Squad,” talks about her new book and social media’s “illusion of authenticity.”

Daily News 😟😁🤓 Opinion | Would You Upload Your Consciousness to the Cloud? - The New York Times
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transcript

Would You Upload Your Consciousness to the Cloud?

Jennifer Egan, the author of “A Visit From the Goon Squad,” talks about her new book and social media’s “illusion of authenticity.”

[MUSIC PLAYING]

(SINGING) When you walk in the room, do you have sway?

kara swisher

I’m Kara Swisher, and you’re listening to “Sway.” A world where share your most personal data, where you can watch replays of your own memories and other people’s, where many think content sharing has gotten out of control.

No, I’m not talking about our current reality. I’m talking about the world my guest, writer Jennifer Egan, dreams up in her new book, “The Candy House.” It’s the sequel to “A Visit From the Goon Squad,” which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2011.

In “The Candy House,” a new technology called the consciousness cube allows your mind to be uploaded to the cloud. So I wanted to talk to Egan about how close we are to this immersive world and how dystopian it would actually be. Jennifer Egan, welcome to “Sway.”

jennifer egan

Thank you.

kara swisher

So I want you to talk about the idea for this book. You’ve created a world where technology has allowed us to immerse ourselves in each other’s memories. Why did you want to write this, I guess, it’s a sequel or a sibling to your first book about that.

jennifer egan

Well, in a way, the world of “Goon Squad” never really ended for me. It’s the nature of books like this that are ensemble pieces from multiple points of view that they could go on infinitely because every person is the center of their own universe with their own cast of characters. The technology part of it was not front and center ever for me.

I really came at it more inductively by following the people into various situations that inevitably involved the future because we know when they were born, essentially. So I don’t really have much of a choice. Once I have to move forward, it’s a lot of fun to take liberties technologically because that’s, of course, what the future offers us in life and in art.

kara swisher

Yeah, in a lot of ways, your books are like networks. I was thinking as I was reading it. It’s sort of a network. And then you see this node clicking to one thing to another to another to another, which is how the internet set off, is that you start off one place and end up in very different places. I’d love to know, did you start getting involved with social media during this time?

jennifer egan

I mean, I would say that I’m involved with social media only in the most workaday fashion. I don’t enjoy consuming it, certainly not as a way of catching up on what’s happening with people I know. I find that almost eerie. I feel like why wouldn’t I just call them or talk to them?

It’s more interesting to look at people I don’t know on social media because it’s such a curiosity gratifier. Because as you just said, there’s so much out there that we’re only one step away from, in a sense, having externalized large portions of our consciousness. Consciousness is just through memories, photos, and all kinds of ancillary details that end up out there.

kara swisher

Although we have created this, I call it the database of human intentions. I used to call Google that. Everything in Google is what everybody wants at any one moment. And many years ago, Google had a ticker that would show what people were searching for at any given moment. I would watch it forever because I’d never understand why they were searching for certain things. Like, it would be horses, badminton, yellow. And you’d be like, what do they want? What are they looking for?

jennifer egan

Well, one of the intellectual preoccupations that I had in mind, before I was working on this book and as I was, is the odd paradox of the fact that we “know,” in quotes, pretty much everything. And yet, we can’t predict very much. And that knowledge doesn’t do very much to describe us as individuals. It only describes us as groups. So that’s sort of an odd juxtaposition.

kara swisher

It’s interesting. I just did the Google test on you. What you do, Jennifer Egan is. And the first thing that comes up is, is Jennifer Egan married? And Jennifer Egan net worth. And Jennifer Egan writing process, which I thought was fascinating.

jennifer egan

Yeah, I have to say, those are pretty basic questions.

kara swisher

Yeah.

jennifer egan

Although writing process is a good question.

I wonder whether married and net worth come up for almost anyone you would Google, actually.

kara swisher

Yeah, yes, that’s interesting. Mine is podcast.

jennifer egan

[LAUGHS]:: Well, I guess, in a way, that speaks to exactly what I’m saying, which is these are really general, unillustrative, and uncolorful categories. They don’t describe us as individuals at all. So where does the storytelling come in? That’s what the interpretation of the data is. It’s all storytelling. And I think it’s no accident that the word “story” has become such a cultural — such a marketing tool. What’s the story of the restaurant? What’s the story of this post?

kara swisher

Right.

jennifer egan

And I think it speaks to the way in which we fetishize storytelling because it’s the only way that we can actually use all of this data that we’re drowning in.

kara swisher

Which we’re drowning in, which is just too much information without any meaning. So I want to talk about — start with this book, the character of Bix Bouton at the beginning of the book. Really interesting character. He reminds me of a lot of people and no one at all, actually, since I’ve covered all these people. Talk a little about him because he’s much more upset by what he’s done, in a way, than anyone I’ve ever met in technology. They’re never upset about what they’ve done or what they’ve created.

jennifer egan

Well, so I’ll talk first about just how he ends up creating the invention that forms the kind of spinal column of the book, which is that in the early ‘90s, when he was a graduate student at NYU, he had an all night partying session with two friends who were undergrads, two guys. And they had a kind of great moment by the East River when the sun came up. And then Bix went home.

And these two guys went swimming in the East River. And one of them named Rob drowned. And this is an event that we see up close in “A Visit From the Goon Squad.” We meet Bix in “The Candy House” in 2010. He has in the interim invented social media. So that’s sort of an alternate reality that I’ve created.

kara swisher

Called Mandala, which is my favorite, because mandalas are about erasing.

jennifer egan

Well, but a mandala also represents the universe. So it’s one of those symbols that can mean so many things, which are, of course, tech is very good at co-opting those for as marketing tools and names. Anyway, so Bix ends up — so he is having kind of a midlife crisis because he has pretty much played out his idea, which is social media, and now what? He’s only 41 years old. He feels sort of like his life is over. And he’s surrounded by people who tell him what he wants to hear, as many famous people are.

kara swisher

Yeah, I used to say, they lick you up and down. I used to say, they lick you up and down. So what else are they going to do?

jennifer egan

So he’s not finding that stimulating in the right way, let’s say. So he goes incognito to a group of Columbia professors who are having a discussion group, but he ends up next to the East River in the same place where he stood with those two guys in 1993 before one of them drowned.

And he finds, no matter what he does, he can’t remember most of that morning. It’s just not accessible to him. He experienced it, but he can’t reach it. And he sort of can’t believe that, because he’s the guy who’s made everyone findable for each other. And yet, he can’t find his own memories. And he finds this unacceptable. And you watch the effects of what he invents ripple out through the narrative.

kara swisher

His mind is not a computer that he hoped it could be, right? He couldn’t just call up and — I think about that all the time, memories and how you can’t recall anything.

jennifer egan

Yeah, an online experience creates all these expectations in all of us. One of them is that everything should be free. And that’s had vast implications. But another is that everything should be immediate. And another is that everything should be searchable and findable. And as the guy who helped to create that reality, he finds it especially galling and just unacceptable that he can’t search his memories.

So he goes on to create this device that allows people to externalize their memories for personal use so that they can look from a present day perspective at everything that happened to them.

kara swisher

But what would these memories look like, from your perspective, watching A.R., watching a movie, the Facebook memories? Or it could be misinformation because —

jennifer egan

Well, yes.

kara swisher

I have stories that everyone tells differently. And they’re all correct, in a way. It’s the Rashomon problem.

jennifer egan

You are 100 percent right. And that’s the way in which this, quote, unquote, “machine,” because of course, there is no machine — this is a novel — is a bit of a MacGuffin. I mean, the way I posit it is that wearing a headset, you are seeing what someone sees and also hearing/feeling their impressions and their thoughts as they see it.

So there comes a moment where the second one of the two guys standing with Bix in that place by the East River watches with a headset Bix’s memory of that morning. So he sees through Bix’s eyes himself at 19 as he leaves to take this walk with Rob. And it’s agony because he can’t stop it.

kara swisher

He knows how the story is going to end, right?

jennifer egan

He knows how the story is going to end. And this doesn’t change it. This just brings him face to face with it in a more profound way.

kara swisher

Rgiht. So I want to get into that in a second. But I’d love to know who you are basing this on because it’s not quite Mark Zuckerberg. It does have a lot of Steve Jobs, someone you knew very well, obviously. You went out with him in college, correct? You went out with him in college.

jennifer egan

Yes.

kara swisher

And then you retained your friendship over the years. And he did understand what the next big thing was. Is it modeled on him or someone else? Or did you just make it out of whole cloth?

jennifer egan

I am terrible at basing anyone in fiction on a real person. And that is probably most true if I have any whiff of myself entering the narrative. I go really cold. I’m a terrible auto fictionalist and a terrible memoirist. So I didn’t base him on anyone. And in fact, that’s true of every single person in the book. And I would go further and say that if he had reminded me of Steve, I would not have been able to write about him.

kara swisher

Why’s that?

jennifer egan

It has to feel like someone I’ve never met because the whole fun of it is the discovery. That’s what I do it for. And if I’m discovering what I already know, the process is not working. I’ve entered a solipsism. I have to get out of it.

kara swisher

So it’s interesting because I think this character is if Mark Zuckerberg had the soul of Steve Jobs. Now I interviewed Steve and we had a very deep discussion of what he was going to do next in his life, one of which was pushing back against a lot of this. Is that something you talked to him about? Or did you have an awareness of his interest in that around privacy and what was happening with this technology?

jennifer egan

I really didn’t. I can’t say that Steve felt close to any of this. I mean, part of that is he was really not a reader. So the world of literature and books was just very much apart from him. And so while I was very fond of him and I feel like I knew him pretty well, I don’t think he had a whole lot to do with this character.

kara swisher

With this character. Because it’s interesting because one of the things he said, “Privacy means people know what they’re signing up for in plain English and repeatedly. I believe people are smart and some people want to share more data than other people do. Ask them. Ask them every time. Make them tell you to stop asking them if they get tired of your asking them. Let them know precisely what you’re going to do with their data.” Which is astonishing because this is one of the things that you’re talking about is this memory invention device, which is all the data, essentially.

jennifer egan

Yeah, I mean, I think — I agree with what he’s saying and/or what he was saying. What is so fascinating is the degree to which people — a couple of things. One is, people will do almost anything for access. They’ll give up anything. And number two is people are OK with sharing much more than one might necessarily think. And that gets to your point about, what does Bix regret as we meet him again through the eyes of his son at the end of the book?

And what we learn is that he never intended that the sharing part of Own Your Unconscious would become so predominant. His idea was that people would — the name of this invention says it all — Own Your Unconscious. And we learn that Bix himself programmed his externalized consciousness, his cube to delete if anyone ever tried to share it. But there was this sharing option, which is that by sharing all or part of your own consciousness, you gain equivalent access to the collective. And that proves to be absolutely irresistible. And that’s the part he didn’t see coming.

kara swisher

Yeah, what’s interesting it’s an opt-in thing without a choice, if that makes sense. It is opt-in but you can’t have it unless you opt in, right? You can’t be part of it.

jennifer egan

And that model exists already. I mean, in DNA sharing, if you want to find out if you have relatives, you have to make your own results public. That’s how Napster worked. If you wanted free music, you had to also make your music available. People do this. I mean, it feels in the moment like a reasonable bargain. I think so often, the long-term consequences of this don’t become clear until later. And many, many people in the world of the book are very, very gung ho about all the good that this invention has done. And like so much of tech, there’s a lot of good alongside the bad.

kara swisher

That is correct. I mean, but I think one of my premises is that we’re all cheap dates for them. We get a search or be able to email, and they get everything else. They get every bit of us. And we get little tiny bits of candy, which is — talk a little about why you called it “The Candy House.”

jennifer egan

Right, the context in which it came up, this was the case where the title was actually sort of in the book, but I hadn’t found it for a while. But it’s actually Napster. So there are two young women working in the music industry with their father. They are appalled in 1999 to discover that suddenly everyone’s getting music for free. They all realize that this is going to be a disaster. So these young women are trying to figure out how to warn people not to use Napster and try to warn them that they’re paying in ways that they don’t see.

So they have this idea, which they don’t end up doing, of having a billboard campaign alongside American highways of billboards that say, “Never Trust a Candy House,” as if somehow looking at this will cause drivers to say, ah, I shouldn’t use Napster. It’s obviously a very silly idea. But the idea is that people don’t understand that the currency they’re using is not money. And it took me forever to understand that because I’m not a very technological person.

And so the idea of the attention economy and my data being sold, I mean, that takes a while to absorb. And I feel like by the time most of us absorbed that form of commerce, it was too late.

kara swisher

Yeah, absolutely. And it also was convenient. People liked it. The convenience is a big factor. I interviewed Margrethe Vestager, who’s a big regulator in Europe, about this. And she said convenience is what they get you with. But why would people memory share? Because there are some positives in that idea. So can you talk a little about why that would be a good thing?

jennifer egan

Well, there are a lot of reasons. I mean, putting aside just the societal goods that the machine ends up doing, so, for example, child abuse disappears because now we can view footage of memories, and we know who the abusers are. Externalized consciousness can be reinfused after a traumatic brain injury or during, for example, if you begin to experience dementia, although that doesn’t really require sharing.

I think that the real things that lead people to share are the same things that lead people to share now, which are the desire to know others in a deeper way, the desire to be known, and probably number one, an ongoing hunger for authenticity that, I think, fuels so much of what happens online. And it’s a deep irony because so much of what creates the hunger for authenticity is the constant sense of artificiality and mediation. Looking to the internet for authentic experience is just inherently a loser. But it’s amazing how many different devices and possibilities continue to come up that give us the illusion of authenticity.

kara swisher

100 percent. So that was interesting. I was just going to ask, it’s one of your biggest themes, this idea of authenticity. But online is completely performative, absolutely, whether it’s people doing their weddings or their food or anything, what they’re doing. And one of my favorite characters is Alfred, who’s constantly seeking the real authentic by sort of shocking people and yelling. Can you talk a little about him? Because I find him — my favorite character in your whole book is Kinghorn, the bus driver, just for a second. I love Kinghorn.

jennifer egan

I know. I love Kinghorn, too. I may have to pursue him in the future.

kara swisher

Explain who he is. He’s a bus driver. Alfred screams in public and to shock people to see what people will do, which is usually get very upset.

jennifer egan

Yeah, I mean, Alfred, from a young age, was obsessed with artificiality and determined to thwart it by provoking genuine responses in the people around him. And as a young kid, he wore a paper bag over his head at family holidays, so his grandparents were befuddled and everyone was unhappy. He goes on to begin what he calls a project of screaming in public, bloody murder, and of course, prompting extremely spontaneous and authentic reactions, mostly very negative.

But he assuages his guilt over any pain he might be causing people by terrifying them, et cetera, by reminding himself that he’s not actually physically hurting anyone. This, for Alfred, becomes a sort of addiction. He can’t tell quite when the impulse to scream will come. Very hard to resist it. Along it comes when he’s on an Avis bus with his serious girlfriend, whom he’s bringing to meet his family in Winnetka, Illinois. He starts to scream.

And Kinghorn, the bus driver, deals with this in a different way than anyone has so far because normally, everyone just kind of goes wild. But Kinghorn pulls the bus over, comes back, and basically just watches Alfred to figure out what Alfred is doing. And this sense of being observed in this quiet and rather invasive way completely diffuses Alfred’s screaming. Kinghorn talks to him and basically lays down the law. And the bottom line is, in this struggle, Kinghorn triumphs in such a way that Alfred realizes he will never do this again.

kara swisher

It was his last stand, really. But the idea of adding to authenticity at all, is it possible? I mean, unless it’s in a situation of fear or maybe joy.

jennifer egan

I mean, I think authenticity is one of those things that is hard to acquire if we’re looking for it specifically. And in a way, that’s kind of what Alfred discovers, that this is a completely artificial thing that he’s doing. It’s a big pain in the neck for everybody. And yet, I think we hunger for it because of this sense of mediation and artificiality. So that’s, in a way, a case where the more we shove and push and demand authenticity, the more elusive it becomes.

kara swisher

And the more information we get about people. So we talk a bit about the implications of privacy, this sort of bargain for convenience over, essentially, data abuse. But a lot of it is self surveillance. How do you look at that? Because we sort of like looking and being looked at, I suppose.

jennifer egan

Well, you say we. I mean, I have to say, I don’t include myself in that.

kara swisher

I meant the populace seems to have been gotten into this idea.

jennifer egan

For sure. I am amazed by that. As a fiction writer, I take that as a challenge to understand from the inside where that desire comes from and what it feels like, because I don’t have it myself so that makes it very interesting and even sort of appealing to me on the level of curiosity. I think it comes from the basic wish to be known, to be understood. I think there’s something very basic and human about that.

But it feels like the medium of expression thwarts the goal in a very basic and fundamental way. Parading oneself or constructing a self and widely disseminating it is not a way to be known exactly. It is a way to be potentially famous. And that, of course, is another huge motivation. I mean, a lot of young people just want to be TikTok stars.

kara swisher

So you’re not an influencer.

jennifer egan

I don’t think so.

kara swisher

I think you are. I hate to tell you, but I think you are.

jennifer egan

Well, I guess I found a different route to it.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

kara swisher

We’ll be back in a minute.

If you like this interview and want to hear others, follow us on your favorite podcast app. You’ll be able to catch up on “Sway” episodes you may have missed, like my conversation with Jeanette Winterson. And you’ll get new ones delivered directly to you. More with Jennifer Egan after the break.

Do you see an end point to this of the idea that we’re sharing almost constantly? Eventually, we have the consciousness cube. We eventually will. There will be a way to do this.

jennifer egan

Well, I’m not so sure about that technologically. Do we really understand the brain well enough to externalize consciousness? But putting that aside, in the world that I invented, a logical outcome of the mandala consciousness cube and the collective consciousness where all of this sharing happens was a pretty fierce resistance in which people are not just going off the grid, because that’s not really good enough.

In the collective consciousness, whether you share or even externalize your own consciousness, you are fully represented in other people’s perceptions that have been shared. And there are people who find this so objectionable and so abhorrent, they so do not want to be represented in this collective that they shed their identities altogether and take on new identities. And —

kara swisher

These are the eluders.

jennifer egan

Yes, they disappear, but it’s not enough to just disappear because everyone notices you’re gone. They take on new identities. And they actually leave their identities behind as the price of freedom from this entire system. So I guess, in the world I’m imagining, yes, maybe we keep going in the direction of absolute sharing and self surveillance and no borders between consciousnesses. But not everyone is going to go along with that.

kara swisher

I’m not sure they’ll have a choice, I’ll be honest with you. So would you use a consciousness cube? Or would you be an eluder, would you imagine?

jennifer egan

I can really relate to both groups. My own curiosity was what led me to invent this technology, even in the realm of fiction. I wanted to do certain things narratively. And this cube let me do them. So obviously, there’s a lot there that is of interest. Like, for example, for a while, I was thinking, I really want to write about someone who’s able to find a person they’ve just glimpsed, whose full name they don’t even know. And that arose from my own curiosity about certain people who I literally just remember as people, but with no identifying information. Who were they? Who are they? I’m curious.

Well, using the collective, one of my characters is able to do that. He’s able to see glimpses of the life of a guy who used to sell him drugs, whose first name is all he knows. And he’s able to see, basically, this guy’s whole story in little fragments. And that was extremely satisfying to me, the writer, because I had a way of doing this using this technology that I invented.

kara swisher

Which is sort of the old reading someone’s mind, being able to read someone’s mind. Also, you’re going to be able to have a version of this in five years with glasses that will be able to search databases and tell you exactly who’s sitting in front of you and a lot of details about their lives, which is, I think, much closer than you think. Both Apple and Facebook are working on these things.

But are there memories of yourself that you’d revisit in this way, something that — because that’s an appeal to it also. I would go back and see my time with my dad. My dad died when I was five. I would have liked to have — it must be in there somewhere. Maybe it’s not. But if it was, that would be very accessible, I would imagine, in a good way.

jennifer egan

Well, the conceit is that it’s all accessible. Every moment of your life is accessible and in my realm. Yes, that’s a totally appealing idea. I also, I didn’t know my dad well. And I love the thought of knowing him better in that way.

And I also find that sometimes my memories are shopworn. I feel like I go over the same little moments again and again, but what about all the moments in between those moments? I also would be very tempted by the collective because, look, I’m a fiction writer. My job is to imagine my way inside other people’s consciousnesses, so you bet I would be curious to be inside other people’s minds, actually listen to their thoughts.

But I should mention that this is rarely a satisfying enterprise as we see it in the book. The truth is, I’m not sure any of us really wants to be inside someone else’s consciousness. We want the illusion of it.

kara swisher

Yeah, someone was asked what superpower you’d have, and someone’s like, I’d like to read people’s brains. I’m like, no, you don’t. You don’t want to hear what’s inside people’s heads, in a lot of ways. You say it’s not a dystopian book. Why is that? Because I found the book somewhat terrifying in a lot of ways, because I think it’s possible.

jennifer egan

Well, it may feel more dystopian to you for that reason. My lack of real knowledge of what’s possible technologically may have protected me.

kara swisher

Ah, your Luddite excuse.

jennifer egan

No, I mean, to me, it doesn’t seem possible. And honestly, nothing you’ve said has changed that opinion. The fact that we can look through glasses and learn a lot of data about the person sitting across from us is not knowing their interior life.

kara swisher

That’s the beginning.

jennifer egan

Yeah, I guess nothing has persuaded me of that. When we don’t understand how the brain works, how can we replicate it? But I realize that in the world of A.I., there’s all kinds of debate about whether we can create machines with souls. And maybe it’s possible. I’m —

kara swisher

There was just a story about —

jennifer egan

I know.

kara swisher

— a sentient being. Of course, they’re going to be sentient.

jennifer egan

I really have my doubts about it. I guess I really come down on the other side. But again, I don’t know. So my ignorance may be protecting me.

kara swisher

Yeah, but that’s OK. That’s fine. But it’s still a great imagining. The only reason I think is that as you become — there’s already some work being done on dreams, being able to see dreams that people are having and then put photos to them and things like that. So you don’t think this is dystopian. It’s just, it wouldn’t be dystopian in reality, given even the simplest tools, social media or Twitter has had such implications on society.

jennifer egan

I think it would be totally dystopian in reality. But it does not make this a dystopian book in the sense that what I’m using the machine to do is just try to tell fun stories. And in the end, what I’m interested in is people, not machines, and interested in technology only to the extent that it impacts the way people feel and are with each other and what their experience of the world is. So the story that I’m telling about this machine and with this machine is not that dystopian story. There would certainly be a way to write a dystopian story using this technology, but that’s not the one I’m writing.

And I do agree with you. If this really came to pass, it would be dystopian and partly for a reason that you just mentioned in passing and that was in my mind, but I didn’t pursue it, which is fakes. Like, wait a minute. So suddenly you can show footage of someone’s thoughts in a courtroom to convict an abuser or a criminal. Well, what about the deep fakes of thoughts?

And actually, I do touch on that because a lot of people try to capture the moment of their deaths in the book and then what lies beyond it. But the only successful attempts, we learn, turn out to be fake. So people try to dramatize the afterlife. I mean, that’s kind of exciting. But no consciousness has reached into the afterlife —

kara swisher

Except for the movie, “Ghost,” and it was very satisfying.

jennifer egan

I agree.

kara swisher

Super — so when you think about the internet, one of the early things that someone, when I first started covering it in the early 1990s, someone said to me, what is it? I don’t get it. I don’t get it. And I said, it’s everything. And they’re like, what do you mean, everything? I said, what’s outside? A tree, a car, a horse. I don’t know — everything. And this is the same thing.

And one of the things I think you do really well here is you show that it’s everything. You move from person to person the way you would click on the internet and then go to different places, to different networks, to different everything. When you’re writing this, you were much vetted when you wrote “A Visit From the Goon Squad” for doing this. How has novel writing changed? Has it changed a lot? Do you think you’ve been a big part of that?

jennifer egan

I think that if anything, it’s just become narrower than it started out being. If you look at the 18th and 19th century novels, they were really flexible, swaggering. They sucked every form of discourse into themselves and used all of it to have fun and to reveal people’s internal lives.

And I see the novel as a form that was invented to be totally flexible and very bold. In some ways, I think people don’t think about it quite that way. So honestly, I think I get more credit than I deserve as an experimenter. I mean, for example, there’s a chapter in “The Candy House” that’s all electronic communication.

kara swisher

Right. Presumably, your next novel will be all little TikTok movies.

jennifer egan

Well, you know what’s interesting? The question is whether I would actually cross over into the visual per se. And I think the answer is no because if we’re looking at a picture, we are on the outside of a consciousness, not the inside. It is the lack of visual, which, of course, imperils the novel as a cultural force, because we are such a visual culture, and we are less fit readers than we have been at other points.

But the fact that the novel is not visual is actually one of its greatest strengths, I think. So I’m not sure I would cross into TikTok. What I see when I watch, for example, someone playing a video game and narrating their perceptions is a really crude —

kara swisher

Do you do that?

jennifer egan

No, but I watch my kids do it.

kara swisher

Me, too.

jennifer egan

It’s a crude and weak approximation of the kind of reach that we have inside someone’s mind if we’re reading fiction. OK, yes, you’re seeing what they see, and you’re hearing a performative version of their impressions as they play this video game. But we have to watch them play a video game. Like, we’re not watching them fall in love or confront major life issues or, really, much of anything. So I guess this is a long winded way of saying, I would not want to be shackled to the visual because it is so limiting.

kara swisher

But let me just push back on something. You said the visual is taking over, and it is. The visual is now all young people. If you have any — you have teens. I have teens. TikTok, the visual rules everything, even more so when television existed because that was a much more passive. This is an immersive experience. And as we get into the Metaverse or any kind of visuals around us, it becomes even more so. Does that threaten the novel?

jennifer egan

Absolutely, but I feel like the only way to respond as a novelist is to write fiction that’s so good or to try and to lean into the strengths that fiction has, which is that it is actually the only narrative art form that places you inside the consciousness of another human being. So I guess my response is, let’s just keep writing great books. And if we do things that can’t be done any other way, certain people will want to read them.

kara swisher

Unfortunately, a dwindling number because of the advent of the tech moguls, really. Steve was the first, but a very different kind. But in one of the last chapters, you say Bix was perhaps, quote, “trying to repair and atone for a world that he had inadvertently wrought.” Do you think we’ll ever get atonement from our real world tech magnates? And I don’t think they’re doing it inadvertently. I think they’re doing it explicitly.

jennifer egan

Well, that’s interesting. You know better than I about the people who exist who are doing this work. But I guess the one thing I would say is that most people feel that what they’re doing is good, in my experience. Now that may just be a complex rationalization for doing whatever the hell they want. Basically, another version of the trickle down theory — if I get rich, it’s good for everyone.

kara swisher

Yeah, all boats.

jennifer egan

It’s good for me.

kara swisher

All boats.

jennifer egan

So it must be good. So, and some of that lack of repentance may just be an ongoing rationalization and justification of choices that have enriched and benefited certain people who have made them. But in the end, what interests me is not whether it’s good or bad, but how that rationalization works and how that mind works of that person who is making these things.

And I would not underestimate the will to resist and push back. I think that we sometimes don’t give younger people enough credit for understanding perfectly well the bargain they’re making, maybe better than we do.

kara swisher

I think my teens do.

jennifer egan

My son explained to me that apps were made to be addictive and that the smartest people in the world are putting all of their energy into making sure we can’t put this phone down. It is almost an act of resistance at this point to pick up a physical book and read it. And it’s hard to do that if you don’t actually put your phone in another room. But the rewards are enormous.

And so I put a lot of faith in the adaptability and the resourcefulness of humans and young people, especially, who are more flexible in their thinking. And so I don’t have a gloom and doom view of all this. And maybe that’s my own rationalization so that I can get up in the morning. That’s possible.

kara swisher

Yeah, it’s hard, given all the implications of all this stuff because it amplifies, weaponizes — and it addicts. And it’s global, which is kind of — it has a lot of things that make it very hard not to pick it up and, like a candy, eat it. You have to have it. And then it becomes an impulse kind of thing.

But one of the things at the last part of the book, you were talking about this baseball game, which I want you to comment on. I think this is the right quote. “The screens that everyone holds 20 years from now haven’t been invented. All the parents gathered in the fading light, not a single face underlit by a bluish glow. They’re all there in one place, their attention burning toward home plate.” I remember that.

jennifer egan

Yeah, I do, too. I mean, I think that in a way, the explosion of communications technology is the single great story I’ve witnessed in my lifetime, because I was born in ‘62.

kara swisher

Me, too.

jennifer egan

By the time I got to college, there was — oh, really? Oh, wow. Got to college, a call waiting was the only development that had occurred. It was huge. But and then you look at now, where someone who’s 25 feels like someone who’s 20 grew up in a different technological universe than they did. So I think there is this kind of inherent nostalgia for a time when people just were where they were without also being somewhere else. And I do feel that.

kara swisher

That was a beautiful sentence. I was like, oh, then. Anyway, Jennifer, thank you so much. This is a wonderful book. It really is.

jennifer egan

Oh, thank you so much!

[MUSIC PLAYING]

kara swisher

“Sway” is a production of New York Times Opinion. It’s produced by Nayeema Raza, Blakeney Schick, Caitlin O’Keefe and Wyatt Orme, with original music by Isaac Jones and Sonia Herrero; mixing by Sonia Herrero and Carole Sabouraud; and fact-checking by Kate Sinclair. Special thanks to Shannon Busta, Kristin Lin and Kristina Samulewski. The senior editor of “Sway” is Nayeema Raza. And the executive producer of New York Times Opinion Audio is Irene Noguchi.

If you’re in a podcast app already, you know how to get your podcasts, so follow this one. If you’re listening on the Times website and want to get each new episode of “Sway” delivered to you — along with a drive containing all your memories, except for the ones about that unfortunate boyfriend in college — download any podcast app, then search for “Sway,” and follow the show. We release every Monday and Thursday. Thanks for listening.

Instagram, Twitter and TikTok can monopolize all of your time, driven by what the novelist Jennifer Egan calls humankind’s “ongoing hunger for authenticity.” But to Egan, social media is not a winning strategy for discovering what’s real or true: “Looking to the internet for authentic experience is just inherently a loser,” she says. The digital world, after all, offers only an “illusion of authenticity.”

In her newest novel, “The Candy House” — set in the same universe as her Pulitzer Prize-winning “A Visit From the Goon Squad” — Egan paints a picture of a world where the search for authenticity becomes so ubiquitous that people can choose to upload their memories — and entire consciousnesses — to a collective archive, and then share them for the world to see.

[You can listen to this episode of “Sway” on Apple, Spotify, Amazon Music, Google or wherever you get your podcasts.]

In this conversation, Kara Swisher and Egan discuss how far Silicon Valley is from accessing our consciousnesses and introducing this kind of dystopian technology. They debate how social media has changed the world and whether there is still room for optimism. And Kara tries to decipher which tech founder, if any, inspired Egan’s protagonist, whom Kara describes as Mark Zuckerberg with “the soul of Steve Jobs.” (Egan, for the record, denies all comparisons.)

(A full transcript of the episode will be available midday on the Times website.)

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Credit...Pieter M. Van Hattem

Thoughts? Email us at [email protected].

“Sway” is produced by Nayeema Raza, Blakeney Schick, Caitlin O’Keefe and Wyatt Orme, and edited by Nayeema Raza; fact-checking by Kate Sinclair; music by Isaac Jones and Sonia Herrero; sound design by Isaac Jones; mixing by Carole Sabouraud and Sonia Herrero; audience strategy by Shannon Busta. Special thanks to Kristin Lin and Kristina Samulewski.