Sometimes I’m late to the party, but in the case of A Visit From the Goon Squad, I was very late. Published in 2010, it won several important prizes, among which the Pulitzer. Many articles have been written about the book. All thirteen chapters or stories are written from different perspectives that are all connected, one of them is even a Powerpoint presentation, and overall it’s very postmodern and ripe for discussion.
So what can I add seven years after publication? The final chapter of A Visit From the Goon Squad is a look into the near future, set somewhere in the 2020’s. In this chapter, we get a pretty good idea of Egan’s idea of the future. The entire book focuses on time, on being young and growing up to become part of the past. Many of the stories are set in the past, showing how it shaped the present, but the final two chapters are the only ones looking forward, to a time that hasn’t yet been.
But by now we’re almost in the 2020’s and most of the ideas that Egan described, felt off to me. They didn’t feel like the world I was living in. It’s always tricky to write about the future. We all know that The Jetsons-reality still isn’t here and making these kinds of predictions can often come off a little silly. Still, I thought it would be fun to take a closer look at how A Visit From the Goon Squad imagined the future, and how close to reality it has become.
Egan’s Visions of the Future
The use of handsets
During the entire chapter, we see people use ‘handsets’. Egan doesn’t exactly describe them, but they seem to function the same way our smartphones do. They’re handheld devices that connect you to the internet, that have GPS, can play music and video and other such things. People are addicted to them and have to make a conscious decision to not use the handsets too often and to not have their young children use it. I’d say this one is pretty accurate in our smartphone addicted society.
The music scene caters to babies
The handsets aren’t just used by adults, but also by kids. There’s a kiddie handset, which is called a Starfish, which is specifically designed for really young children. Egan writes that any child can point and download music and that they are the ones who actually still buy songs. The music industry has turned from ‘artistic’ influence to whatever sells, illustrating this with Biggie’s song ‘Fuck You, Bitch’ being changed to ‘You’re Big, Chief!’ Thank god, this literal thing didn’t actually happen.
Luckily, this literal thing didn’t happen. Babies aren’t responsible for whatever works in the music business, but the underlying idea of art versus charts is definitely something we still see. Back in 2010, we were all convinced that the music industry was dying, and although music itself isn’t dead, the industry as we knew it certainly is. There’s less money to be made from album sales, record labels are less successful and many musicians are struggling. However, it might not be as bleak as Egan makes it out to be. Streaming is on the uprise, there’s definitely still music that’s considered art and no one ruined our Biggie songs.
Fifteen years of war and constant surveillance
According to A Visit From the Goon Squad, America has been at war for 15 years, which resulted in a world of constant surveillance. The book was published not too long after 9/11, after which laws like The Patriot Act came into vogue, which definitely accounts for the dystopian feel. In this near future, the sky is always filled with helicopters, hinting at a constant surveillance and threat of danger. Besides that, we also read about multinationals storing all the information you put online. And even though they swear they won’t use it, we all know they do.
To me, this felt like the scariest of Egan’s predictions, and I actually think that our reality beat this. In A Visit From the Goon Squad, the surveillance is visible. There are helicopters over your head twenty-four seven. The people might not really see them anymore, but if you look up, you’ll immediately be reminded of them. We, on the other hand, have no visual reminder. Everything we say and do – especially online – will be recorded and saved, and it’s up to us to remind ourselves of that.
I’m starting to feel really cynical the longer I work on this article, but I guess it’s time to take on marketing. In A Visit From The Goon squad, we learn of a marketing term called ‘parrots’. These are people who get paid to espouse a specific opinion online and offline, in this case, that a certain musician is amazing and everyone should listen to him. We don’t use the word ‘parrots’ in marketing – as far as I know – and paid advertisement isn’t that much of a thing in our offline world.
Online is a very different story though. I think many of us struggle with the idea of authenticity online. Does that bookstagrammer actually like that book they’re taking a million pictures off or are they getting paid to do so? How are you supposed to know, if all you see is a curated version of reality that looks so much better than your own life? Just like Egan’s future, we’re also wary of people being fake and using each other as means to an end rather than as people. Delve into any kind of advertisement tips and you’ll quickly get into influencer marketing and thought leadership territory, which both closely resembles Egan’s parrots. So half points for the book here!
We no longer talk about going viral
In this near-future, going viral has been replaced by a different kind of model. Information doesn’t travel in a mechanical way, but it’s faster than the speed of light and resembles particle physics. Now, I’m not very well versed in physics and luckily I don’t need to be to answer this one. We still very much use the word ‘viral’ and think in terms of epidemiology when it comes to blowing up on the internet. Egan was way too optimistic here about our progress.
A reverence for the beauty of nature
Somewhere in the start of the chapter, a big group of New Yorkers come together in a park and watch the sun set. They seem a little in awe of it. They forget about their children for a moment and just look at the pretty, pretty sky. I think there’s still a reverence for nature and its beauty, but unlike what happens in Egan’s story, now we would all grab our phones and take amazing pictures to post on Instagram. So again, maybe we’re worse?
Youngsters are ‘clean’
The socially relevant young people are all shown to be clean, which means they have no tattoos, no piercings, and no scarifications. I’m having my doubts about this one, because if I go off of Thirteen Reasons Why, I believe that all teens are covered in tattoos now. I haven’t found great numbers, but several pieces of research say that Millenials have about the same or more tattoos than the previous generation. Definitely not a trend we’re seeing then.
Texting like idiots
I saved my favorite for last. Egan imagines that in the future we text like idiots. In some ways, she’s right, but we do it very differently than how it’s shown in A Visit From the Goon Squad.
The use of handsets has made it easy to text – or ‘T’ as the cool kids call it. This is a thing we see now as well. Most of the people I know prefer using text-based messaging over calling any day. However, we text without caps and interpunction. We use emoji’s and pictures and sometimes seem to be trying to faze out words altogether. Our grammar and spelling definitely sucks, but at least it doesn’t look like this: pls wAt 4 me, my bUtiful wyf.
Whoever thinks that using capitals in the middle of a word, clearly doesn’t use a smartphone. Do you know how much more effort it takes to use a random capital letter than to just actually spell it out the right way? Even just typing one line took me such mental effort and I honestly can’t imagine any of us using capitals to stress a vowel. It feels too advanced and at the same time too needlessly complicated for people typing away on a phone or handset all day.
So, just how accurate was Egan’s idea of the future if we look at it now? Of the eight predictions I took from the book, only two are really spot on. Some of them are half-right and the rest is thankfully not the case. I think that shows we’re doing pretty well, or at least that things could be worse.
What do you think? Is Egan’s view of the future dystopic and are we living in it, or should we stop worrying and start loving constant surveillance and our smartphone addiction? Feel free to discuss it in the comments and let me know if I missed any visions of the future!
If you’d like to read more about the near future of A Visit From the Goon Squad, you can check out this essay that really delves into the dystopia angle. On the other hand, if you’re looking for another book delving into the art world through multiple perspectives, I’d like to recommend Tuesday Nights in 1980 to you.