Fundamental questions about free will, identity and the consequences of manipulation and nudging
In historian Ewoud Kieft’s sciencefiction novel, people are healthy and by and large fairly happy. Sexism, racism and physical decay are virtually extinct. Artificial intelligence has found its way into all aspects of society, and smart algorithms monitor and assist people as they go about their everyday lives.
The nature of these algorithms is determined by the protocols of ‘the Conglomerate,’ a tech giant-cum-secret service. The system has rendered politics and religion superfluous; work has been automated, and many people are leading prosperous and peaceful lives. In this seemingly idyllic existence, the operating system Gena plays a central role. Gena is an application that serves as a custodian, teacher and parent figure all rolled into one – as well as being the narrator of Kieft’s novel. Through Gena we get to know the protagonist of The Imperfected: Casimir Zeban or Cas, a somewhat adrift guy in his early thirties who relies on Gena for companionship, mental health support and even advice on his love life.
The novel becomes increasingly dystopian as the downsides of a world controlled by algorithms become apparent. The residents of the Conglomerate lead exceedingly comfortable lives, but they are also docile, unaccustomed to pain, emotionally impoverished. What takes place beyond the network is carefully kept from them. And yet Cas finds himself growing dissatisfied with this unruffled existence after he encounters the ‘Imperfected,’ a group of misogynistic reactionaries who embrace physical decay as an expression of freedom. When Cas falls under their spell, disconnects from the network and disappears, Gena has to explain to the Conglomerate’s Supervisory Board what has happened. Why was she unable to keep him from going down this road?
The novel’s unique narrative perspective is its great strength. Gena’s support and guidance is subtle and empathetic – she ‘tries to avoid playing the role of judge and jury, an all-seeing institution which judges their actions and decisions’. Consequently, Gena does not have access to all of Cas’ thoughts – he also has the option of turning off the app and being free from supervision for a while. Kieft makes clever use of this ‘freedom’, creating gaps in the story that make the reader empathize with both Gena and Cas and that raise fundamental questions about free will, identity and the unforeseen con sequences of manipulation and nudging. Ewoud Kieft steers clear of easy answers. He explores the idea that manipulation and paternalism can also lead to regression and the rise of reactionary ideology. Gripping and ominously topical.