Beyond Calculation

In some ways, not much happens in Anne Charnock’s A Calculated Life. It could be summarized like this: Jayna, a data analyst at some sort of private research firm in Manchester, leads a life of carefully structured routines. She goes to work each day, negotiates the politics of the modern office, deals with the stresses of deadlines and demanding bosses, and returns each home in the evenings to discuss workplace events with her housemates. She ends up developing a romantic relationship with someone unexpected at work and it turns her life upside down. In terms of its basic structure, it’s a plotline recognizable from any number of Hollywood films and contemporary novels – whether executed in a comedic or dramatic mode (you have to read the book to find out if Jayna gets a happy Nora Ephron ending or not).

Of course, you could summarize the book like that, but you’d miss some key details. In the book, Manchester has the climate of California’s San Joaquin Valley and sits amid groves of citrus and avocados. Most of human society is divided into two classes: a wealthy elite who receive implants for cognitive and behavioral enhancement and working class “organics” who live in apartment blocks in isolated and impoverished suburban “enclaves.” And, Jayna is not a regular office worker, she’s a “simulant” (think: manufactured human) who has been biologically engineered for analytical proficiency. She lives with other simulants (who are leased out to government agencies etc.) in a dormitory and they spend their mealtimes in the cafeteria puzzling over the oddities of “normal” human interaction they encounter in their workplaces and worrying about a recent trend of recalls by their manufacturer as simulants have started to break from their normal routines (i.e. seeking the same things other humans seek: love, recognition … Indian food).

The world Jayna lives in is recognizable as a future vision of our own. But, as Ursula K. Le Guin has written, “science fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive,” and A Calculated Life is very much “the way we live now” science fiction. A rapidly widening gap between haves and have-nots (aided by technological enhancement), neighborhoods strictly segregated by class, and a population distracted and satisfied through readily available entertainment and intrusive advertising are all facets of the novel that are perhaps a little too recognizable for comfort. But, I think it is really Jayna’s day-to-day work life that resonates most with contemporary life. Charnock effectively skewers the culture of the modern, professional office (and the main enjoyment of the book is Jayna’s puzzled exploration of ordinary human life – work, friendship, rivalry, family, ambition, attraction – this is not a pulse-pounding thriller … at least not until the final couple of pages) while also subtly pointing out that this is a world swimming in a stew of data.

While details are somewhat sketchy of who exactly buys the results of Jayna’s research, her main task is taking large amounts of statistical data and examining emerging trends, which then inform investment strategies, public policies, etc. This element of a world driven by measurement and analysis might slip past the notice of a reader in a way the orange groves surrounding Manchester do not. It seems relatively normal – this kind of job exists right now and bestsellers are written about using data to “nudge” consumers and citizens into particular types of behavior. This is part of what makes the dystopia of A Calculated Life so believable: we already live in a world of “big data” and (typically utilitarian) calculation, a world where conceiving of human beings as “a kind of second-rate computer, jammed full of old legacy software but possible to reprogram” is plausible, a world where a life of efficiency and productivity (based on the best available statistical data) is something to be desired rather than viewed with suspicion. I’ve described the book as a dystopia, but with a little PR spin, it could sound like utopia (at least according to some Silicon Valley futurists). We lifehack these days; we don’t seek the good, the true, and the beautiful (at least insofar as transcendentals can’t be tracked in a spreadsheet or picked up on an fMRI scan). Charnock’s book asks some subtle, unsettling questions about the reduction this attitude represents, what our pursuit of productivity is for, and what is actually fundamental to human flourishing.