Q&A with Colin Winnette: ‘Users’ and the Underbelly of Tech

Charlie Barton

Colin Winnette’s latest novel, Users (271 pages; Soft Skull Press), is much less about virtual reality than the creative minds behind it. The protagonist Miles works at a VR firm as the lead creative and is tasked with hatching up new ideas for future products. He’s well-respected and well-paid, the creator of Ghost Lover, a popular simulation in which the user is haunted by a former flame. His personal life, however, is much less secure: his marriage is precarious, and his children can be difficult and unrelatable. Miles’s anxiety is spurred by the arrival of death threats. But the pressure to innovate is unrelenting, and work never ceases to end. What ensues is a confrontation between career and personal life, a choice between action and acquiescence—will technology rule Miles’s life? Or will he?

Winnette has written seven novels, as well as many short stories, poems, and essays. His work has appeared in Playboy, McSweeney’s, LA Review of Books and more. A resident of San Francisco, his story “Ornament” appears in ZYZZYVA No. 123. He spoke to us about Users via email. This interview has been edited for clarity and length

ZYZZYVA: Miles works at a pioneering VR company. We get a glimpse into corporate tech—the constant push for innovation, the work-life imbalance of employees, and the opacity of tech business model, including the discrete sale of customer data. Who do you think are the real users? Are you drawing from personal experience to write about the tech world?

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COLIN WINNETTE: When I was writing the book, I was thinking a lot about the legal argument Uber has repeatedly made, claiming their drivers are not an essential part of Uber’s “Core Business”, as Uber is a technology platform and not a transportation company. Meanwhile, the drivers are the only reason anyone has ever even heard of Uber. It’s a legal argument that’s had mixed results, but it represents a kind of dehumanizing rationale that’s pervasive among a lot of tech companies, allowing them to justify ignoring increasingly impossible realities for the very humans they profit from boasting they’ve attracted. There’s a kind of blame-shifting that happens when these situations worsen (which it seems they often do), which I tried to write about in the book. It’s important that Miles’ big idea is less about addressing the source of the legitimate concerns of the users, and more about figuring out a way the company can argue that those complaints are the responsibility of the users themselves, so they’ll quiet down and go back to generating data for the company. I’ve worked as a writer for a variety of tech companies, and while not all of them have this kind of relationship to their users — some of them are advocates for their users—I’m not going to say I haven’t seen it. Some of the details of daily corporate life depicted in the book are pulled from life, but a lot that’s in the book is reality-adjacent. The novel is less about me reporting things as they are, and more about me trying to unpack the thinking of the kind of human beings who are behind some of these decisions and present it in a compelling way.

Z: To me, Miles is facing a midlife crisis. His marriage has grown tepid, even combative. He loves his kids, but can’t really relate. And he works too much, though he may not realize it. Why write about a character like Miles, one who is neither admirable nor enviable?

CW: I wrote about Miles because I was curious about him. How does a person do these things? What do they tell themselves? How am I like them? How am I not? People like Miles shape so much of the world we live in, and increasingly, I’m invited to accept their way of thinking as standard and sensible. I wanted to examine that thinking and try to describe the person I could find behind those thoughts. Because, while you and I might not find Miles attractive or enviable as he’s depicted in the book, I’ve met a lot of people in my life who could meet a person like Miles, witness his luck and success, and think… It must be nice. I think a lot of people wear outcome-based goggles: If the right numbers are high enough, the decisions were good.

Z: There’s a cultural narrative that the digital world is infinite and totally liberating for its users—people often say “you can find anything on the Internet.” But your novel disagrees, as Miles finds virtual reality to be a temporary escape at best, and, in the end, a trap. Is Users in part a corrective of our cheery view of technology? Where do you see it within the broader tech discourse?

CW: On some level, the project of Users is to take these companies off the pedestal onto which they’re often placed and turn them back into the people behind the decisions that influence us on such a grand scale. I wanted to focus in on someone who’s had the privilege of touching countless lives, nameless and faceless to him, and to try and understand the way he can convince himself to carry on as he does. When Steve Jobs died, it was like a generation had lost its God. I don’t really understand how we got to that place. I’m not interested in saying tech is the future or tech is the devil, only in trying to use art as a way of observing what’s happening and of making sure we don’t lose of sight of the complex humanity of the people involved. I’m not asking for readers to have sympathy for Miles — at times I do, at times I don’t — but as our individuality increasingly becomes absorbed and influenced by our devices, I want to try and keep the goals, thoughts, intentions, and flaws of those shaping those environments in mind.

Z: Your previous novel, The Job of the Wasp was a gothic coming-of-age story with mystery elements, much different from the tech setting of Users. Do you find it is necessary to experiment, to explore different genres and milieus? How do you understand your evolution as a writer? 

CW: It’s different for every writer, but I get creative energy from experimentation. I do like to know where the floor is, but other than that, I’ll go wherever my interests, feelings, psychology, or situation ask me to go. For me, there’s an honesty to it. It took me five years to write Users and four years to write The Job of the Wasp. I’m a different person than I was five years ago, and five years before that, and so on. If my art is the product of my person engaging with reality, it makes sense to me that that art will always be a bit different in its angle of approach. Even if my obsessions remain the same, saying the same thing a different way reveals more of it. That’s what draws me to fiction: it is the realm of endless possibility and limitless discovery. Anything one can imagine can be made meaningful. There’s a feeling of real freedom in that, and I think that’s what keeps me coming back. The work will never be done.

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