QualityLand by Marc-Uwe Kling

QualityLand is a futuristic country where machines have taken over a majority of jobs, there is a universal ranking system that determines your social advantages, career opportunities, possible romantic mates, and there is even TheShop – a company that knows what you want even before you do and automatically send it to you.

QualityLand simultaneously a satire and an eerie look into an all too possible future. The story follows Peter, a machine scrapper who actually keeps the dysfunctional machines sent to him to be destroyed as friends. They help him on his crusade against TheShop after he receives an item he does not want but cannot return because the algorithms claim he does want it. After finding out that his profiles – where TheShop and other big companies get their information on people in order to tailor specific content to each person – are wrong about him, he demands for the item to be taken back and for all of his information within the algorithms to be corrected. Peter is a level 9 (the ranking system being 1-100). If you are ranked below a 10, you are considered a “Useless.” Throughout his fight for his issue to be taken seriously, Peter realizes the major injustices of the system he lives under. Those at the top reap all the benefits while those at the bottom struggle to rise up even slightly, being constantly pushed back down to their lowly status by those who want to stay on top. Sound familiar?

Should I tell you the reason why you’re not interested in the problems you’re causing? Because you’re not affected by them! It’s the poor and the marginalized groups who are on the losing side of the algorithmic barrier.

Peter meets a woman who could possibly be considered an anarchist. She points out the problem of his incorrect profile to him and tells him to talk the “the old man.” He goes to the old man and listens to his ramblings on the dangers of a super intelligence becoming God-like and taking over the world before actually being able to explain his problem. Once he does, the old man explains to Peter how the algorithms basically customize the internet to each specific person, showing them only their interests and content (news/videos/comments/articles) that mirrors their own opinions. But the algorithm is basing this off of generated profiles that the person themselves cannot access or change in any way. So Peter is stuck in a box, being shoveled content he does not agree with, denied access to things deemed above his status, and he can do nothing about it.

You’re robbing me of the chance to change. [I’m] a Useless who is only being offered the path of a Useless… You can only learn something when you stumble across something you don’t yet know. And now you say there’s no problem with people only being bombarded with their own opinions?

Another main player is John of Us. John is an android who is running for president. His campaign for the common good is extremely idealistic and absolutely possible to achieve if not for the stubborn few at the top who want to stay on top, not be equal to those they have been practically reigning over. John calculates that the best thing to do for the country would be to give everyone a basic income, which would allow everyone to do the job they want. This way, a sense of community could be reinstituted and they could work toward a more pleasant life – one not based on profit and return. The major companies, of course, highly oppose this because John suggests these big companies would obviously be taxed more in order to finance the income. But give up all their benefits, money, and power so that the lower ranked citizens can live in peace too? Yeah right. I think we all know how that goes.

Capital is accumulating ever more quickly, and the number of salaried workplaces are rapidly shrinking. But what do we do? We predominantly tax salaried work and not capital. An obvious mistake.

I see QualityLand as a warning to us. We need to hold on to our individuality. We need to fight for control over our lives instead of blindly following the crowd, blindly believing everything we are fed through the media, blindly going about our lives and not paying any attention to the issues that don’t affect us directly. We need to band together, lend a helping hand to those less fortunate than us and, to do so, we need to be informed. We cannot just focus on the content that mirrors our own opinions and immediately dismiss any other source as unreliable and false. There are at least two sides to everything. Turn the coin over and study that flip side.

Are we living in a dictatorship whose methods are so sublime that no one notices we’re living in a dictatorship?

**SPOILERS AHEAD! Do not read further unless you are okay with the ending being spoiled before reading or you don’t plan on reading but still want to know how it ends**

It isn’t stated clearly whether or not Peter was able to get his profile corrected or not. He was able to make it onto television to voice his complaints and get people thinking and complaining about their grievances as well. He even got a face to face encounter with the owner of TheShop – Henryk – who pulled a gun on him when Peter tried to get him to admit to the mistakes in the algorithm. The aggressive encounter was recorded by one of Peter’s machine friends and uploaded to the internet. It caused a boycott of TheShop for a total of two days before people decided they had “Made their point! Without a doubt!” and started ordering stuff from TheShop again (including boycott themed merch – TheShop finding a way to use the upheaval to its advantage as all big companies tend to do if waiting out the storm doesn’t work).

John of Us becomes president against all odds! Peter even gets to meet him to air his grievances personally. He asks John to fix his profile, to which John replies “consider it done,” and he also asks him to make the algorithms more transparent and accessible for people to view and correct their profiles. But before John is able to respond, an angry former employee runs in, throws a sticky bomb on John and blows him up. John’s last action is pushing Peter out of the radius of the explosion.

We are left with a few different theories to choose from about John. Some believe he planned the whole thing to happen the way it did – practically committing suicide – so that he could live incorporeally. We are told a growing number of people have begun praying to him, bringing us back around to the idea of a super intelligence becoming God-like. Some believe his human vice-president must have planned the whole thing since he obviously had a lot to gain from John’s assassination. Peter believes John simply had to make a moral decision and he chose to save Peter over himself. Ultimately, it’s up to you which you believe.

Quotes worth mentioning:

  • Have you ever thought that it could be a blessing to not know the details of something? That one might perhaps need the space created by uncertainty? I mean, can we really be free if everything is precisely measured and determined?
  • The people who write the code – or perhaps I should say: the people that have the code written – want us to be happy, because frustration is unproductive. Dangerous, even.
  • Yeah, yeah, you’re at the top. But only because you’re an empty bottle, floating around. An empty bottle being carried up by the tide! Fuck you and the top!

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