‘Little Eyes’ is as is a powerful and disturbing book that invites us to reflect on how a new technology can amplify our desires and our fears and create opportunities for both kindness and abuse.
At the beginning of the book, Schweblin perfectly captures the way big tech uses a ‘supply creates its own demand’ approach to new products. They put the product in smart white boxes, which are almost works of art. The add a high price so you know the box contains something valuable. You don’t know what it’s for or how it works but you love the smart design of the box and you want to hold the product and find out what it does. You live with the constraints big tech places on the product/service and may even convince yourself that the constraints are features that you need to learn how to use. You do all this because you want to leap into a dream where the technology will make you… MORE.
The communications product is called a Kentuki. The technology itself is not innovative. It’s a cellphone on wheels dressed up as a fluffy animal. Kentuki don’t compete with or replace existing products. Kentuki are marketed to create a desire for Kentuki. They designed to create a desire that only a Kentuki can fulfil.
The heart of the innovation and the heart of the novel lies in the two user roles Kentuki create: Keeper and a Dweller. A Keeper shares their home with the Kentuki and lets it charge itself. A Dweller moves the Kentuki around and uses its camera, microphone and translator app to observe the Dweller and their home.
A purchaser can choose to be a Keeper or a Dweller but Keepers and Dwellers can’t choose each other. A blind automated irreversible process connects a Keeper with a Dweller as soon as the Kentuki is activated. It provides neither with information about the other. The Dweller can see and hear the Keeper but cannot speak. The Keeper sees only the Kentuki. The Keeper must inevitably surrender some anonymity in exchange for intimacy. The Dweller need only trade time and attention to become part of the Keeper’s household.
The book describes Kentuki technology clearly and plausibly but its main focus is on the motivations and reactions of the Keepers and Dwellers: what prompts someone to choose to be a Dweller or a Keeper and what drives the boundaries of the freedom each is trying to get or is willing to give up.
By amplifying two features on our day-to-day online lives: the pull of voyeurism and the behavioural changes enabled or triggered by anonymity, the Kentuki concept explores some dark places in our desires and fears.
After a brutal and disturbing first chapter that shows how quickly the Keeper/Dweller relationship can be abused. the novel follows the experiences of five people using Kentuki.
A Keeper in Oaxaca who is emotionally distant from and becalmed in her own life, who buys a Kentuki to ward off boredom and the jealousy that accompanies it. She starts off protecting herself from her Kentuki and then becomes hostile to it.
A divorced father in Umbertide who becomes the de facto Keeper of his son’s Kentuki. He is a man seeking a connection and who is blinded by his own trust and his embarrassment at his need and its rejection and ends up betrayed.
A young boy in Antigua who becomes a Dweller who wants no keeper at all, only the freedom to run away.
An old woman living alone in Lima who is gifted the role of Dweller by her absent son. She starts with no agenda but becomes lost in her desire to protect and to be needed.
A young man in Zagreb who is trading dwelling rights who wants only to exploit a gap between new technology and its regulation but finds he cannot keep his distance from what he sees through the windows on the world the Kentuki make him look through.
The five stories are told in parallel, moving through synchronised arcs from expectation to realisation. In each case, we see that, regardless of whether the person on the other side of the Kentuki link is strong or weak, nasty or nice, it is the fears and desires of the people whose stories we are following that end up defeating them.
I admired Schweblin’s refusal to explain or to judge the people in her stories. She makes her readers into observers and lets us come to our own conclusions.
‘Little Eyes’ is filled with abuse, sadness, disappointment and anger. It’s not a fun read or an uplifting one. It’s grim and often disturbing but it’s deeply memorable.