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David Yoon Plays Around the Dark Side of Tech in First Adult Novel Version Zero

David Yoon Plays Around the Dark Side of Tech in First Adult Novel Version Zero

Before David Yoon became a bestselling author, he spent more than a decade working for a tech company. From social media to cybersecurity, David has seen it all: some of the geniuses behind the lucrative industry as well as the horrors that lie beneath it.

“Ad technology scrapes your behavior and tries to figure out what kind of person you are, and then sells that data to advertisers so they can serve up the best ads. I worked with a bunch of smart people and they just wanted to make cool stuff,” David shared.

“But one day I just looked around the office and I realized that everyone in the office had ad blockers installed on their laptops and on their phones. And I was like, okay, that's weird where, like, I felt like we were like a bunch of non-smokers working in a cigarette company.”

Version Zero is a scorchingly observant thriller that follows the story of Max, a data whiz at the social media company Wren, as he got a firsthand glimpse of the dark side of big tech. Now, he and his friends are on a mission to reboot the internet and save everyone else from the real perils of the virtual world.

In Fully Booked Chats with David Yoon, the author of Frankly In Love and Super Fake Love Song talked about what it was like to write his first adult novel Version Zero. Read snippets of the interview here.

How was the experience from shifting from one audience to another? What made you decide that Version Zero was going to be your debut adult novel?

I actually started writing Version Zero before Frankly In Love. So I've been working on it for a long time. I was thinking, should I make it a young adult novel? And I really couldn't because I realized, you know, a lot of young adult novels, they come from a place of hope. They can get dark too. There's a lot of fantasy, horror, and sci-fi that are very dark, but at the core, they come from a place of hope. Whereas adult books are not so much. I also realized that so much about technology is unresolved and it often makes me think whether it is good or not. Is the whole thing worth it? I figured this book would just sort of ask those questions through the characters and also portray it as almost like its own kind of dystopia, its own kind of alternate reality. Because sometimes it feels that way. Sometimes I look at the stuff we're doing on our phones and I'm like, that's so weird. It's like another planet.

How did your experience working for a tech company influence your writing? Were some of the scenes based on real life experiences?

There are so many paradoxical, strange moments when you work in the tech industry. Just a lot of talk about saving the world or making the world a better place. While being very invasive at the same time. I mean, my career spans the very beginning of the internet until maybe five years ago. So there were like two phases: the beginning of the internet was very idealistic and it's very simple. Then, something shifted to social and ad tracking and then everything sort of became surveillance.

I think the reason why I didn't quite get that my ad tech job was a little bit creepy was cause I was sort of still stuck in the first phase of the internet. It took me a while to realize that we're building surveillance tools. That was sort of the inspiration for Max's character where he has this crisis of faith, because he really loves technology. He's a nerd. He believes that it can make the world a better place. When he sees that he's part of a machine that's actively making the world a worse place, he has to re-question everything.

While the internet has been useful for us, it also has its negative effects: trolls, fake news, depression, addiction. Why do you think it’s important to shed light to these stories? 

I was really struggling with the question of, has it all been worth it? I was scrolling my phone all day. First thing in the morning, wake up, turn on my phone and start scrolling. It was also the last thing I did before I went to bed. I started to have anxiety and I couldn't sleep very well. So I talked to my therapist and my wife and they were like, take a break. So I not only stopped reading the news, but I also stopped reading my fun stuff. 

I realized that my head is like a room too. So I'm decluttering my brain because I realized that every morning I was shoveling stuff into it and it was getting full and that was causing me stress. When I meditated, I flashed back to high school. I felt like I was in high school again because that was before the internet. That was the last time I had real headspace to just be free to think whatever I wanted and, and have the room to do that because all I had were books and records and my friends and that's kind of it.

It was a really interesting experience because it made me realize just how much stuff we're putting in our heads and we don't have the space for it. I think occasionally, we stumble on certain technologies that really tap into the limbic brain. It’s like when we’re scrolling, we actually tend to stop breathing. We hold our breath and then when we stop scrolling, we start breathing again. And so you're literally depriving your brain of oxygen as you're scrolling. It's fascinating.

There's this one line in the book that's really beautiful that you wrote: in order to fix things, sometimes you have to break them. That's kind of really the heart of Version Zero, right?

That's true.It came from a realization that my life had been reduced to numbers. We are our follower accounts. Our likes. How many posts we have, how many comments we have. We look at numbers very closely. When we look at other people, we look at their follower counts and we're like, are they important? We've reduced ourselves to numbers and we kind of enjoy it. 

So Max sees this and he, Akiko and Shane and Pilot… They set out to create these escalating series of hacks to try to get people to be more aware of what the technology is doing to their minds. They get crazier and crazier and it goes way out of control. 

Aside from the tech side of the story, you also write about diverse characters. Max is also Salvadoran American and his parents are immigrants. There’s a line in the book that says, “Max had read something about immigrants, how they come wanting a better life and how their kids wind up taking that better life for granted and a low generation gap is born.” Could you please elaborate this further?

I think America really goes through this where you have parents that come from poverty or from difficult circumstances and they move here. Their kids are going to the mall and school and driving cars. They have no idea what their parents went through to get to a safe place. The parents don't really expect them to.

The whole point was to, I mean, if I were a parent and I came from a war zone, I would do anything I could to get my child to a safe place. But once they're there, a gap forms immediately because there's no way the child can understand what the parent has been through nor should they. That's the whole point of immigrating. But it just creates a gap when the child doesn't understand what's important to the parent and the parent doesn't understand what's important to the child, but they still love each other. And they're trying to relate. 

You often talk about misrepresented truths and finding a sense of belongingness in your books. So why do you think these themes are important to you as a writer?

I kind of think that’s what everyone's really doing: you get born and you're a child and you don't care and you're happy. Then, almost immediately, the world starts to try to tell you what kind of person to be, what kind of food to eat clothes, to wear, things like that. It becomes really hard to have the courage to say: Actually, this is who I am. There's a lot of expert expectations on who you should be. 

As a child of immigrants, me specifically, I went through that. My parents had ideas about who they wanted me to be like— a doctor or a lawyer or whatever. I know now thatthey wanted me to not be poor. I used to think that they didn't care that I wanted to be a writer, but that was not the case. It was that they were worried about my financial future. 

We want to be in control of our own destiny and a place where they feel the most comfortable. That's why those themes keep coming up over and over again. It's because it's taken me a long time to feel comfortable in my own skin to be comfortable as myself and not worry about what other people expected of me. 

What do you think is the future of Asian writing?

Honestly, a lot of Asian American writing that gets you know attention deals a lot with things like the immigrant experience or the foreign experience. I would like to see a future where you know, we have more stories that just happened to have an Asian American character as the lead without mentioning sort of a struggle. The struggle is important, we need to remember it. And you know, Americans are sort of notorious for forgetting their own history. So writing about the struggle as a way of preserving that history, but at the same time, there's a whole other spectrum of humanity that is mostly missing in our media landscape, in books and TV and film. We just don't get to see Asian-Americans be just kind of normal people. 

I was thrilled when Sandra Oh was cast as the lead for Killing Eve or The Chair, that Netflix just came out where she's just an English department chairperson at a university and that's it; her dad is there and he speaks Korean, but they never comment on it. It's never an issue. It's just her life presented straight up. That's how I see the future of Asian American representation in the media.

What’s your advice for aspiring writers? 

Well, I always start with Margaret Atwood. She always says, read, read, read, and write, write, write, which is as read as everything you can get your hands on to consume media that maybe you think you might not like, because you can never know where inspiration is gonna come from. At the same time, just keep writing to exercise your voice and find out what kind of writer you're going to be.

Everyone starts out imitating their favorite authors and then eventually you grow past that and you develop your own style. So it's important to keep exercising that muscle. Beyond that, if you can afford it, go to a writing school. If you can't—join a writer's group or there's lots of stuff online that you can do a lot of communities there. Just find people who are really, really as serious about writing as you are.

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