1. How did I come across this book?
I picked up this book in the local library together with 2 crime novels the day before my holiday. It is a short book which I read on the return flight from Milan in just over 2 hours. The title and the content linked with the much larger essay of Shoshana Zuboff The Age of Surveillance Capitalism on which I laboured over for most of 2021. The title remind me of the fictional story of The Circle by Dave Eggers.
My interest was to engage with a work of literature addressing key questions of the modern workplace separately from the non-fiction sphere. For example, George Orwell 1984 offers a critique to 1948 society and its aspirations. A work of fiction allows emotions and empathy to play a crucial role and helps the reader to connect with the heroes and the villains, identifying a right and a wrong rather than processing balanced arguments of pros and cons.
2. Does it keep its promise?
Yes, it does.
The start candidly asks the question that we, readers, really want answered: “so what kind of things did you see?”, “what’s the worst thing you ever saw?”
The voyeurism which is at the core of the production of shocking and morally questionable videos and content on social media is activated. We want to know what is hidden from us when we surf the platforms and this is why we have selected this novel. We want to know why it is hidden and how the decision is taken.
The answer is even more shocking that I imagined – the protagonist, a gay woman Kayleigh, is swallowed by her reality as content moderator to such an extend she wont be able to see the changes in her own perception, understanding and interaction with reality.
3. Take away that won’t spoil your reading
For those of us savvy with call centre environments the description of how KPIs are set and enforced is very familiar.
The daily target is the review of 500 content pieces per person per day, there is a QC process and a score to achieve of no less than 90%.
Consider a shift of 8 hours x 60 mins = 480 mins of work – this makes each single content review approx. 96 sec –approx. 1 min and 30 secs – plausibly the average length of videos that are served to us in most social media platforms.
Now, consider the time available to a moderator to decide if the content is to be kept or removed.
There is research behind the book. At the end of the novel the Hanna Bervoets shares the lists non fictional books and articles used.
For Irish audience, an article published by Tommy Meskill on RTE websites refers to the appearance before the Oireachtas Joint Committee and the term “horrible lucid dreams” perfectly reflects what Hanna Bervoets has depicted in this short novel.
4. About the author
We had to remove this post is Hanna Bervoets’s first book translated from Dutch into English. It has been translated in 18 other languages. The original title “Wat Wij zagen” literally translates into “What we saw”.
Her education includes a Master in Journalism and Research – skills which are evident in this novel but that do not shade the epistolary style.
Reading her website I am encouraged to read more of her novels as those contemporary topics like self-definition in climate crisis, mental health and “the way (scientific) change and new technologies reshape human relationships and behaviour.” Her novels “often combine literary narratives with science fiction themes and fantasy tropes, always with strong queer overtones”
An author who is collecting numerous awards.
5. What others are saying about this book
Goodreads give it a 3 out of 5 starts and it is tag under “Horror” as well as Adult and Queer.
The Guardian finds it laboured. I admit that as my plane was approaching Dublin airport I was able to shim through some pages without losing too much sense of the work or content. Arguably I have lost intensity to be fully engrossed in the revealing closing scenes. The Guardian review offers the readers some of the insights on how content is moderated “ for example, does a video featuring two dead kittens count as animal cruelty, if they’re already dead at the start of the clip?” as well as sharing example of the mental health problems experienced by Kayleight and her colleagues. I do not agree with the closing remarks that the novel “offers little in the way of psychological acuity” On the contrary, it shows that the damage lived by the main character is yet to be fully processed by her refusal to get help. It provides a vivid insight how insidious the danger of exposure to violent images and content can truly be.
The New York Times defines it a triller – honouring Goodreads tag as Horror. Like the Guardian it offers some spoilers on the training received by the content moderator – training that discloses the rational behind what can be left rather than removed. Because the challenge is that – it is already live and the question is for how long more. Work conditions are defined as brutal which is a adjective I do not remember been used in the book and, as I express above, the practices of KPIs enforcement, bathrooms breaks and QC practices are far too familiar and adopted in other centre where Emotional Labour is required by operators.