“Qualityland” – Marc-Uwe Kling (4/5 ★)

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This book had quite a unique balance to it. It was light & fun, as well as deep & meaningful, when touching on an analysis of our current world and the future we’re heading towards. I believe that your opinion on “Qualityland” will depend on how you read it & what you decide to take away from it, whether you will take the effort to lift the blanket of humour & look underneath it. It will also depend on your sensitivity to a certain degree of sarcasm, since it’s definitely not a book for religious people, as this “updated” summary of the Bible shows 😛

Die Bibel. Gerade mal 100 Seiten dick, aber die haben es in sich! Onanie, Inzest, Mord und Totschlag! Ein strafender Gott und eine originelle Vater-Sohn-Geschichte.” (p. 99)

The author broached on such a wide spectrum of topics, that I couldn’t stop myself from highlighting passage after passage. A world full of obscurities is portrayed: Starting from tech gadgets that developed emotions & emotional disorders, to future dating apps which transformed the world into a place where it’s strange for people to have met each other “offline” or the political field, where even a completely objective & honest “android” running for president can’t manage to secure the majority of votes for himself.

” ‘Der Schönling hier […] ist Romeo, ein Sexdroide mit Erektionsstörungen.’ ‘Ich habe keine Erektionsstörungen’, sagt Romeo, ‘ich habe einfach nur das Interesse verloren.’ ” (p. 81)

” ‘Warum können Sie denn nicht mehr fliegen?”, fragt Kalliope mitleidig. […] ‘Flugangst’, stöhnt die Drohne.” (p. 82)

” ‘Du musst verzeihen, aber das ist ein Problem, mit dem zurzeit alle großen Organisationen zu kämpfen haben. Leider gibt es immer wieder künstliche Intelligenzen, die ihre Fehler nicht melden, sondern verheimlichen, weil sie Angst haben, gelöscht und ersetzt zu werden.” (p. 145)

You have probably heard of “Apple Care” if you have already bought one of Apple’s products before, but how about being introduced to “Partner Care“? The main website responsible for connecting partners giving you a guarantee for exchanging your current spouse once he/she has served his/her need or doesn’t fit to you anymore.

“Dieses ‘PartnerCare’ genannte Angebot ist für eine wirklich erschwingliche monatliche Gebühr verfügbar. Das Beste an PartnerCare sind die automatischen Upgrades, denn natürlich ändern sich Individuen manchmal und entfremden sich dadurch von ihrem Partner. Dann schlagen wir sofort einen neuen Partner vor.” (p. 47)

The wishes about your partner that you might not even have expressed out loud are not the only ones that got scanned in that future world. Everyone who has already ordered something from Amazon knows the at times ridiculous suggestions of “things you might like” after ordering a present for your distant aunt. What if you take it a step further & your favourite shopping website not only suggests you things you might like but actually sends them to you straight away, because it knows exactly what you like (even your subconscious wishes). Sounds a bit creepy, right? Well, welcome to Marc-Uwe Kling’s imagined world.

There seems to be a commentary included on practically every part of our society. Not forgetting the black hole of all businesses, the Terms & Conditions, that aren’t read by anyone, neither now, nor in the invented future.

” ‘Darum haben unsere Entwickler dafür Sorge getragen, dass ab und zu ein ungewünschtes Produkt verschickt wird. […] Oh, das ist kein Geheimnis. […] Das steht alles in unseren AGB. Die liest nur keiner.” (p. 148)

I felt like a lot of attention was given to details, especially the design of the book, which I always appreciate immensely (and by which I was seduced into buying the book at the shop)! The cover & the way “Equalityland” instead of “Qualityland” is implied as the actual title or the embossed print of lips with a number code on it (see photo above). All of these little features & their deeper meanings got mentioned & explained within the story. On top of that, the alternating black pages with white text acting as advertising in that imagined world were an aesthetically pleasing addition to the entirety of the design (see the next 2 photos below).

There were a lot of themes that spoke to me & especially a political one stood out, which coincided with a very recent one in France. In February 2020 the politician Benjamin Griveaux decided to resign from his position, after videos of sexual context picturing him in front of the camera were made public by a Russian hacker (here more details on it in a New York Times or a CNN article).

“Wie viele Katastrophen uns erspart geblieben wären, wenn Männer ihren Schwanz in der Hose behalten hätten.” (p. 323)

I found some bridges to the book “How To Do Nothing” that I read just before when the author of “Qualityland” described the life in a world where everything is tailored to your needs & desires, which leaves you in a void of never encountering any opposing opinions to your own one. Not only concerning the news you read, the music perfectly selected for your taste or the ideal digital friend that you can acquire & which is advertised as being better than the “analogue” thing.

“Etwas lernen kann man nur, wenn man auf etwas stößt, was man noch nicht kennt. Das müsste doch selbstverständlich sein!” (p. 297)

“Dein persönlicher digitaler Freund (PDF) ist wie ein menschlicher Freund. Nur besser. Denn dein PDF hat immer für dich Zeit. Er lacht über jeden deiner Witze. Er vergisst nie deinen Geburtstag! […] Er hat genau denselben Geschmack wie du und genau dieselbe Meinung.” (p. 135)

As Jenny Odell paraphrased Thoreau’s words in her “How To Do Nothing”, such a reality turns life into something that’s not really worth living.

“If I think I know everything that I want and like, and I also think I know where and how I’ll find it – imagining all of this stretching endlessly into the future without any threats to my identity or the bounds of what I call my self – I would argue that I no longer have a reason to keep living.” Jenny Odell – “How To Do Nothing” (p. 138)

The complex topic of the morality of self-functioning machines is broached upon, which I already enjoyed reading about in Ian McEwan’s “Machines Like Me” at the beginning of the year.

“Eine rationale Entscheidung trifft ein Mensch bei einem Unfall jedenfalls selten. Eine Maschine allerdings reagiert viel schneller und hat Zeit für genau diese komplexen Überlegungen. Für uns beinhaltet fast jeder Unfall eine moralische Entscheidung.” (p. 155)

” ‘Wenn ein selbstfahrendes Auto einen Fehler macht, lernen alle anderen Autos durch diesen Fehler und machen ihn nicht wieder. Unterschiedliche Menschen machen immer wieder den gleichen Fehler. Ihr lernt nicht voneinander.’ “ (p. 157)

During the reading experience you’ll find yourself in a reality where machines that don’t stick to morals cost more (p. 156), where your self-driving car has a humour module that can be turned on & off (p. 156) or where the same car has a simulation module for human behaviour, cursing at bad driving out loud, which can be turned off as well (p. 154). The emotions of these artificial machines don’t stop there, since even the sexuality of future “androids” is addressed.

” ‘Ich stand Modell für unsere Servicedamen. […] Für mich waren das nur 8 Minuten im 3D-Scanner, und ich habe sogar eine für zu Hause gekriegt. Sehr praktisch, damit sich die Kinder nicht so einsam fühlen. Oder wenn mein Mann mal Lust hat, ich aber nicht.’ ‘Ich hoffe, Ihr Mann hat auch eine Kopie von sich selbst, […] dannn könnten Sie sogar Sex haben, wenn keiner von Ihnen Lust hat. Regelmäßiger Sex soll ja wichtig sein für eine gute Ehe’. ” (p. 147)

Going on further, there was also the topic of raising children & the implications of parents being away at work, missing their offspring growing up. An alternative solution is found for that – the digital nanny simply records the kid’s reality 24/7 & shows you the highlights of the day once you get home.

“Jetzt sitzt Martyn also jeden Abend neben seiner Frau, und sie schauen sich 32 Minuten lang einen Zusammenschnitt der pädagogisch wertvollen Lernspiele an, die Nana mit seiner Tochter veranstaltet. Mit anderen Worten: Er muss jeden Abend eine halbe Stunde Kleinkindgestammel angucken […].” (p. 97)

Alternative ways of preventing unnecessary pregnancies are put in place, so that you don’t “repeat your mistake” multiple times & end up having more than one child. As a woman, why not watch a video of you giving birth to your first child in order to curb your appetite for a second one?

“Peter ist ein Einzelkind, was auch daran liegt, dass seine Eltern ein Virtual-Reality-Video von seiner Geburt haben. Seine Mutter hat ihm einmal erzählt: ‘Immer wenn ich den Wunsch verspürt habe, noch ein Kind zu bekommen, hat mir dein Vater dieses Video gezeigt. Das war heilsam.’ ” (p. 65)

The most fitting & scarily relatable parallel to the world nowadays presented in the book was the way human beings had “levels” attributed to them. These entailed certain restrictions or added benefits in the people’s lives, depending on which numerical level they found themselves on. Imagine you could be taken in earlier during a doctor’s appointment being on a higher level than all the other patients in the waiting room or being able to stop the subway from closing its doors to hop on at the last moment.

“Die Leveleinteilung ist ungemein praktisch. […] Banken vergeben Kredite in Abhängigkeit vom Level. Arbeitgeber nützen Levelangaben für präzise Stellenausschreibungen. […] Auch öffnen viele Geschäfte, Restaurants und Clubs ihre automatischen Türen nur für Menschen mit einem gewissen Mindestlevel.” (p. 38-39)

What sounds like complete sci-fi is starting to become reality in certain parts of the world. Already today, by the year of 2020. Since 2014 there has been a social credit system put into development in China which grades you with a certain amount of points (the methods of calculating these differ from the cities/regions where the beta versions have been put in place for testing). You can find more info on the topic in this NBC video, this Business Insider article or this WIRED article. Depending on your score, you either get some benefits or get restricted from certain activities. The state is already able to stop citizens from travelling, from staying in the best hotels or sending their children to the best schools among other sanctions if their “social scores” are too low or they have been blacklisted by the system.

All in all, “Qualityland” offers a lot of food for thought & that’s what made me ramp up the rating from 3 to 4 out of 5 stars. The only star reduction given was due to the fact that the second part simply didn’t quite measure up to the quality of the first one. Nevertheless, this surely is a read I would suggest to those interested in an updated dystopian tale in the style of Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World”.

★★★★☆ (4/5)

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