A history, like on Wikipedia

A review of "QualityLand" form Marc-Uwe Kling.
A review of "QualityLand" form Marc-Uwe Kling. - Foto: stroisch.eu/Canva.com

In a smart-technologically optimized future society, “Peter’s problem” suddenly becomes a synonym for the fact that an algorithm may not be omniscient after all. In his novel “Qualityland,” author Marc-Uwe Kling tries his hand at a dystopian societal credit yet ends up delivering a consumer product: an excellent read, but still not exactly profound.

I am writing this blog post because I participated in the Media Summer of the DGB-Bildungswerk in Hattingen. I participated for the fifth time this year and think the offerings there are fantastic. I particularly like the fact that there are no journalists here (as, well, I am one ;-), but the participants are recruited across the often union-oriented scene, from the delivery person at Hermes to the chairman of the central works council of a large company. This article is published as part of the seminar “What if? How Surveillance Endangers Democracy”.

And of course, it discusses the power of the Big 5 that data means for our society and democracy. The postulate of “quality,” which should also be strengthened by agile ways of working, taken to the extreme, is perhaps the dystopian story of “Qualityland.” That’s why this topic fits nicely in my blog!

What if large web corporations could predict any behavior of their users? What if the democratic system also submitted to these consumer predictions? What if the first time an android would run for the election of this country’s (lifelong) presidency, of “Qualityland”?

Qualityland as the name of a dystopian nation-state

In Qualityland, conveniently abandoned the original name of the nation-state. In Qualityland, the last name of each citizen is, for simplicity, the job title of their father or mother. This leads to the fact that there is a Peter Unemployed, a Sandra Admin, a Melissa Sex Worker, or a Henryk Engineer. And in Qualityland, citizens are simply sorted into certain levels that give them more rights, such as changing their first name or turning a traffic light green. Anything below 10 is useless by definition. And everyone seems to be satisfied with every situation because everyone receives only the information they want to read anyway, according to their level and their setting, which hyperintelligent algorithms calculate. And in this situation, Peter Unemployed gets sent a pink dolphin vibrator that he can’t get rid of. And John of Us, the android, stands for election for the presidency because the demise of the previously life-elected president is imminent.

Structurally, the book is well set up. Two separate storylines – that of Peter Unemployed and that of John of Us, the android presidential candidate – are told in parallel and then connect at the end of the book for the big show-down. And that’s the strength of the book as well. The overall dramaturgy is very good. And that’s why you can read through it very well and very quickly. The “micro-dramaturgy” also works well. The alternation between the two strands, also the dialogistic approach give the book momentum and dynamics.

My thesis is that a book can succeed if one of the three aspects, content, style, and structure, is good. Of course, it would be better if all three aspects are good. And that is precisely the problem with the book.

Qualityland characters are disturbingly checkerboard-drawn

The characters are drawn in an almost disturbingly checkerboard fashion. Of course, the richest man in the world is a fat, horny, just plain disgusting man. And of course, the activist Kika is a dashing African-American with a penchant for losers, which is why Peter Arbeitslos, the main protagonist, falls into her prey pattern. Who, of course, is only moderately attractive and intelligent. Kling doesn’t bother to delve into the inner lives of his protagonists to ask why. Thus, the protagonists are simply a collection of cliché characters. This is another reason why the characters remain strangely superficial and why cinema is not created in mind.

The ordinary people, the masses, by the way, only appear in the form of moronic comments, which, again, are fun to read, but nothing more. Mr. Kling’s self-image is that everyone except him is a moron.

But he doesn’t do it justice. Because in terms of content, his explanations about the web and the world are no more than a string of short wisdom that doesn’t have any more depth than the teasers on Google News. And they seem somehow cribbed from Wikipedia, which is also reinforced by the style, especially at the beginning of chapters, which have a strangely newsy language. Whereby the type is, of course, also a matter of taste and follows trends.

As an example:

“A superintelligence would arise. An intelligence far beyond our modest imagination. […] In general, there are three possibilities: The superintelligence could be well-disposed towards us, in various gradations, it could be hostile towards us, again in various gradations, or we would be indifferent to it. […] Do you know Asimov’s laws?”

These teachings the “old man,” of course a mad, white-haired scientist, knocks Peter Arbeitsloser around the ears in the chapter “Mincemeat.” And to be honest, this chapter doesn’t provide much more insight than the Wikipedia article on Asimov’s Laws (https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robotergesetze). Indeed, Kling tries again to make an enlightening contribution about superintelligences and robotics. In the end, however, it is even downright ridiculed by the manner of this “quickly cut” scene. It remains inconsequential, which unfortunately doesn’t invite reflection at all, but at best consumption.

There are a few more insights, but I doubt the author had them in mind when he wrote the book. For one, the constant advertisements of companies and countries are over-read. I can’t recall them from any single product or country even after a day. Unfortunately, the same is true of the author’s technical and social remarks.

And – funnily enough – the book also demonstrates how advertising can backfire. Because it contains a bit brazen self-advertisement for the kangaroo chronicles of the author, which are made in the form of the QualityPad Pink. Even the protagonists get so annoyed by its ramblings after a while and keep turning it over. Personally, this work of Kling does not appeal to me at all, so I feel very confirmed in my feeling here. So the self-promotion becomes a boomerang.

Conclusion: I am torn: On the one hand, I thoroughly read away from the novel “Qualityland” within three days. And that’s a good sign: It captivated me in a certain way, kept me interested.

On the other hand, it offers no more depth than the content of a Wikipedia article. All the exciting aspects and even allusions are strung together like encyclopedia entries. For example: Of course, there is the network effect, but how exactly it affects people’s lives, how it arises, how it also disintegrates again – or even philosophies that run counter to it (for example, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos himself has emphasized several times that he doesn’t believe Amazon will be around for too long), is only dealt with in a template-like manner, so template-like even, that at the latest two weeks after reading, everyone is guaranteed to have forgotten this topic or other attractive – but always only touched upon – issues. Thus, the book comes across as a critique of society and consumption and also paints heroes. But while the book criticizes consumption, it is itself a consumer product par excellence.

So it’s not a dystopian or socially critical work, but ultimately the creation of a follower, the great masses (who only have their say in the book through web comments). A bit like Mario Barth for literature. Somehow it is funny and friendly, but it is also good that you have forgotten it after two minutes.

Therefore, my “clear” recommendation: Buy and read, because you can read quickly and well because of the dramaturgy, it is entertaining! But please don’t expect anything to have stuck in 14 days.

About the book:

Marc-Uwe Kling: „Qualityland“, Ullstein Hardcover; 7. Edition (8. August 2021), 384 Seiten, ISBN-13: ‎ 978-3550050152

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