A programmer invents software to forestall dementia, but risks turning a whole generation into 'glitches'.
Can the digital networks that record our footprints hold us steady when dementia threatens to push us off the path?
This question has real stakes for data analyst Charlie Sanders. His best hope for a father succumbing to Alzheimer’s comes from assistive technology that Charlie helps design for a scrappy startup. Despite early successes, Charlie has growing doubts about the motives of each of his colleagues - the eccentric CEO in Seattle, the call center guru in India, and the Trump-loving Aussie transplant who keeps the books. His worries grow when the company takes on a clandestine client who occupies the Oval Office. Will Charlie keep his father and his country on track, or turn a whole generation into glitches?
Click on the circles below to see more reviews
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars. Gray Matters is based in a near future, alternative earth, very similar to our own timeline. The internet has evolved into "The Loop" which uses algorithms to show people what it thinks they want/need to see,, no more searching for answers, they just appear. It's similar to the way your Facebook feed shows you what it thinks you want to read, but on a much larger scale. Based in both the United States and India, the company Gray Matters has found a way to use technology and tele-assistants to prolong the independence of people living with dementia. Told from the viewpoint of a number of different people including the CEO, one of her employees and his father, and one of the Indian tele-assistants, the book explores both the good and bad of this rapidly evolving technology. As a female computer programmer myself, it was refreshing to read about a technology CEO and programmer who was also female. There are tiny smatterings of code written into the book, but you don't need to understand them to enjoy the book. Politics is also heavily featured, and the book considers how technology and people can be used to influence elections and policy writing, for good and for bad. It's very believable and a good warning of what could happen as technology continues to advance in our own world. It certainly makes you stop and think. I highly recommend this book. ~ Amy B (Reviewer) , NetGalley
5.0 out of 5 stars Title: A tale of technology, algorithms, agency, and free will Gray Matters tells the story of Charlie Sanders, who works as a data analyst for a company that designs products that are supposed to help aging people suffering from dementia (walker talker and the elder compass). “Smart devices” that are programmed to remind you what you are supposed to be doing (based on your past behavior) and are connected to human beings who help you navigate your way through the world. The technology that is being sold to people to help their aging parents is found to glitch, such that the live voices can give instructions that serve as a sort of brainwashing – or, perhaps worse, that the AI tells people what to do. Behind all the artificial intelligence is the “loop” a sort of internet on steroids, that uses unique algorithms to make predictions about what each individual will do and say and think. Lots of questions arise through this story about agency and free will. If these devices are programmed based on past behaviors, then how are human beings able to change? And while we don't have devices in our ear telling us what to do based on our past behavior (not yet), how different is this concept really from the functional effect of algorithms on our daily lives through social media and commerce sites. Underneath these considerations are questions about the nature of knowledge, the essence of what it is to be human, and how intelligent we might actually expect "artificial intelligence" to be. Gastil is himself a political scientist whose work on political deliberation and decision-making comes through in the novel. The characters even talk about the Citizens Initiative Review (CIR), a citizen-led process of researching and distilling referendum items to provide voter information prior to an election. Gastil is known for his research on the CIR, as he has studied its effects on individuals and democratic health. As someone who has read his academic work for years, getting the chance to explore these concepts through this fictional world is a delight. ~ Dr. Danna Young, Associate Professor of Communication and Political Science at the University of Delaware (USA) - https://twitter.com/dannagal, Amazon.com review
Technology is replete with new advances every day. Imagine being able to create a software that can enhance the minds and capabilities of people with declining mental abilities. Charlie Sanders is watching his father; Barry slowly decline and fall into a world that only he can understand and be a part of. One where memories are limited, events are often distorted, and his life will someday be a total blur. Hoping to create a technology that will help enhance his mind and others too, Charlie and his colleagues devise an internet called the Loop that can almost think for itself and predict or anticipate what you want to do, gives pushes and forces people to share their personal information without realizing how dangerous that is. Barry is Charlie’s father and he’s created a system where he receives a daily phone call from Sailee in India reminding him of his daily schedule, shopping needs which is part of a new app created called The Walker Talker which is more than just an app and more than just a custom hardware that mounts on a walker. This is a service that employs and links with great talent and this call helps users with the help of the personnel guide the senior who wants Gray Matters to walk them through their day. This would give seniors the ability to be more independent and or who have children too far away to assist in their care or too busy to help them. This Walker Talker lets people like Barry, retain their dignity. My mom had Alzheimer’s and at the start of her decline even though I was her caregiver I think this app in her walker would have bern a blessing. As the scenes unfold Alice is creating a moment as her foe Golden appears and hopes to turn the audience against her but what the author created was something unique and you wonder just where this is going as Golden has expressed that the Walker Talker is not what’s needed, destroys Charlie’s and then Eisenhower the candidate appears but a reporter’s question to the candidate sends questions to the audience and then the final scene makes you wonder just how Gray Matters protects the privacy of seniors and how Alice twists Golden’s words in her favor. Each character presents his/ her own views on the Loop and how the technology they created will impact the elderly, their finances and other walks of life. Alice is the CEO and has become jaded in her thinking and paranoid. Charlie just wants it to help his father with dementia. When calls come through and Sallie has to call the patient her reaction to some patients lets you know that at times she just goes through the motions and at other times she directs them to handle their day in a more organized way. Charlie is concerned about his father whereas Alice is becoming paranoid about her company, where it is going and if she is going to make a profit. Barry at times seems coherent and yet at times disoriented and cannot focus on where he is and what Sallie has told him. He often forgets where he is supposed to eat and finds himself in other directions. As Alice meets with Eleanor Eisenhower and a great bond forms and Charlie and Jack need to find a way to make the Walker Talker work as each character has to deal with his/her own struggles and then find their own solution to what they want in life. The author explains the concept of the Loop and Charlie’s dad is one of the people they are using as subjects for the technology that he and the company is developing. The hidden truths behind The Loop and Project X and Project Y we learn that chips have been placed in many people, the elderly are the prime focus and Alice’s sales have skyrocketed but in reality those that code are busy working and typing, Charlie and Jack might have their own motives for wanting to be a part of what Alice has created, but in reality it’s all hers so she thinks. With Eisenhower as President and Golden as Vice President we begin to wonder where their loyalties lie and how much impact they have on Gray Matters. Things take on a sinister turn when the Elder Compass did serious harm to the elders who carried out serious crimes. The abused elders never realized what was happening to them and have sacrificed their dignity to show what evils await a world that cannot know its own mind. The Compass Registry bill will allow the world to see once and for all who has falling into the hands of Gray Matters. People are manipulated and used as puppets in order to get them to do as they program them to do. The scapegoat was Barry and the catalyst Alice. It gets much worse before it gets better the glitches were more than just an accident. The President, being Eisenhower was wired into the Compass was she part of the scheme that Alice was pulling off? Lies, betrayals, scams, schemes and vulnerable elderly people were manipulated at will when implants were placed but Barry’s had a glitch caused by Alice and when his behavior caused him to be arrested, Charlie had to face the issue head on. Blaming others for what she did Alice claims she trusted Charlie, Jack and Sailee. But, she was the mastermind and you won’t believe her plan or what she wanted to do. Just what happens to Gray Matters and will it be gone? Knowing that Barry was an intentional glitch infuriated Charlie and that they were planning to pass law that the Compass implants were no longer allowed and now a felony, even retroactively. Just how did the Compass mislead his father’s device? What about the President did she have on implanted in her too? What are the pluses and minuses of this device? At first it did work and enhanced memories why take away something that might give people with memory issues more time to live a normal life? Some endings are strangely new beginnings in different ways as Charlie has to set a new course, Jack has to find his own way with his new ventures and Barry might surprise you at the end. Memories are precious and valuable embrace them while you can. A storyline that brings to light just how amazing technology can be when its used for the right purposes as author John Gastil created characters that are flawed, yet caring of others in their own way and a device called the Walker Talker and weekly calls that anyone with Dementia today and a chip called the Compass that if it worked might want it to be fact rather than fiction in this thought-provoking novel. Fran Lewis: Just reviews ~ Just Reviews, Review
...................I found this book interesting and also quite concerning that our world could end up in a similar situation, as we become more reliant upon technology and readily share more and more information about ourselves online. I thought that the author portrayed Barry’s confusion and emotions as his mental abilities declined well, and I could sense how desperate Charlie was to help him to slow down its progression. I enjoyed seeing how each of these characters interacted with one another and could understand Alice’s paranoia over her company as everybody seemed to be hiding something, thought not necessarily for reasons you expected. However, I did feel that the ending was rushed, which was a shame as I feel that the “glitches” and what happened immediately afterwards could have been further explored. Overall, this book was different to any dystopian story I have read before due to the political current throughout. I was compelled to find out what would happen, even when I suspected the worst and I think the similarities between our current world and that in the book made this even more relevant and worrying for our future. ~ Stacey Kelly-Jones (Reviewer), NetGalley
Getting old isn’t much fun – I’m feeling it as I hit the half-century mark – ageing begins to catch up with you in all sorts of ways, like I can walk into a room and totally forget why I even came in there… So what then can we do to help our ageing demographic live sustainable and independent lives for as long as possible? How might integrated tech be harnessed to enhance the lives of those who need reminders to buy food and take showers? (I’m not quite there yet)… Welcome to John Gastil’s Gray Matters – a near-future tale where things around us are at once familiar and alternative. Trump still won but then got beaten (by a female, though). The internet has been supercharged and is now referred to as ‘The Loop’ using advanced linked algorithms to understand people’s interests and directly feeds relevant information. A new charismatic Guru has emerged who believes that old people who have dementia are actually trying to message us things from the future; surely no one’s going to take him seriously? Meanwhile, the poor are getting poorer, and big technology is the only real growth area. The main protagonist of this story is a likeable dude named Charlie Sanders. He’s a data analyst for the titular tech company Gray Matters. He has a vested interest in trying their tech on his father, who is succumbing to Alzheimer’s. The folk at Gray Matters are led by their eccentric CEO Alice and their ‘smart’ products are the ones called upon by the great and the good to actively help ageing people suffering from degenerative conditions. The bestselling Walker Talker combines a mobility device with a state-of-the-art Loop linked device that can communicate messages with the user. It all but replaces their phones (called zunes here), learns their routines and allows both the user and their family to set reminder messages for them. It’s all very convincing as a potential solution for those whose faculties, both mentally and physically, are wearing down, but what safeguards are there that it can’t be hacked or used to try and exert ‘control’ over the user. What starts out as helpful advice from well-meaning humans could end indirect instructions and brainwashing – from those with an agenda or even a rogue artificial intelligence!? Gastil writes in an engaging manner, you can feel him channelling his experience as a political consultant, and that lends the quite in-depth politics woven into the plot a sense of authenticity. There is a sense of fun throughout, too, which extends to genius Easter egg back cover quote which reads: ‘Nothing in this book should alarm you. I have a firm grip on all the information you need and will provide it to you as required. Go back to work.” – It’s credited to The Loop, a decentralized autonomous AI. As the plot ratchets up, there are serious repercussions for many of the characters – as devious plans are uncovered, and the ‘chipping’ of humans, which so many anti-vaxxers are concerned about, even makes an appearance. I won’t divulge any spoilers here, though, as Gray Matters is definitely a trip into the near future worth taking. It is not easy to make characters relatable. It’s a subtle art that sinks too many books even when they have interesting premises. The good news here is that I couldn’t help but identify with one of Charlie’s co-workers, a wild-living maverick named Jack, who uses the company’s tech to keep his life in order. He describes both himself and his CEO, Alice, as ‘Demi-humans’ – special in ways that the mere mortals around them do not understand, which is a great concept. And one that I’ll remember for some time to come – set a reminder on my smart device so I can… I’ll be keeping my eyes out for a real-world product like the revolutionary Gray Matters ‘Elder Compass’. There is room for some intercontinental romance, guerrilla good deeding and a spike of danger mixed in to this tale of how corporate entities will influence our agency and humanity through their tech. Gastil packs in lots of concepts that will have you pondering the rights, wrongs and sheer possibilities of where we let technology lead us. Do yourself a favour and check out Gray Matters – it’s one possible road map into a very uncertain future. ~ Matt Adcock, The British Fantasy Society, https://www.britishfantasysociety.org/reviews/gray-matters-by-john-gastil-review/
"Gray Matters will have you thinking What if? for quite a while after you have finished with it and will...have you re-reading it to pull together the collective warning signs that life within the story had made clear." FULL REVIEW Can the digital networks that record our footprints hold us steady when dementia threatens to push us off the path? This question has real stakes for data analyst Charlie Sanders. His best hope for a father succumbing to Alzheimer’s comes from assistive technology that Charlie helps design for a scrappy startup. Despite early successes, Charlie has growing doubts about the motives of each of his colleagues - the eccentric CEO in Seattle, the call center guru in India, and the Trump-loving Aussie transplant who keeps the books. His worries grow when the company takes on a clandestine client who occupies the Oval Office. Will Charlie keep his father and his country on track, or turn a whole generation into glitches? Verdict: As you may well be able to immediately ascertain from the title of this riveting book, author Gastil writes about our brains, or moreover, how they begin to fail us and come the end (much like the opening of the story being told) how aging has us seemingly focused only on where are youthfulness went, the upcoming pine box, and who we really were and are now. From the off we see things through Barry, Charlie Sanders’ fathers eyes and still-cognate, for the most part, sometimes, mind. The son works as a data analyst for his own lowbrow startup company whose internet algorithm The Loop contains a newly-created app called The Walker Talker, and which is proud to state that it can help aging people suffering from dementia. But trust me when I say that Gray Matters is oh-so much more than simply that, for it encompasses a collective myriad of other subject matters, that, if listed in full now, you would swear blind couldn’t ever become so connected to the throbbing nerve story line of a cure-all pill for dementia. But that’s the beauty of this technological and political allegory-strewn book, for Gastil leads you graciously by the hand down each and every neural pathway, stopping only to open a door into a seemingly tangential subject matter, acting as if to close it, yet leaving it tantalizingly ajar, and then moves forward with the main plot thread; always knowing that a door subplot left ajar can, most always, in books at least, provide some elegantly crafted layers of prose to the subject matter at hand. As we read on, we learn that so-called “smart devices” are connecting those entwinned with the startup (both receivers and suppliers) to a network that they can easily navigate through the plethora of seemingly endless choices and decisions, whilst providing acute personal guidance on what a person is supposed to do based on their medical history, of course. But as we quickly discover, there is a glitch in the system, let alone within one of the main components of all this new technology, a chip called The Compass and which controls those very same devices, that ends up actually performing a form of brainwashing to those who use them. A manmade algorithm that was built to supposed predict how people will think, act, and react, well, as they say, now has a ghost in the machine and without freedom of thinking, without self-awareness, what happens next? Given that we actually do have those things, currently, Gray Matters will have you thinking What if? for quite a while after you have finished with it, and will, much like it did me, have you re-reading it to pull together the collective warning signs that life within the story had made clear; and that nobody had paid heed to. Sure, it can be a little overwhelming at times, as Gastil goes deep within certain chapters to ensure that the reader is, quite literally, on the same page as the knowledge that he is himself trying to impart, but nonetheless, Gray Matters is a quite fascinatingly poignant read and will have you interested in reading seamlessly between chapters, the subject matter not only sweeping through you as you turn each page, but infiltrating your mind to make you yourself become more, well, self aware. About the Author: John Gastil is Distinguished Professor in the Departments of Communication Arts and Sciences and Political Science at Penn State University, where he also serves as Senior Scholar at the McCourtney Institute for Democracy. He earned his Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin-Madison but is now a loyal Nittany Lion. The National Science Foundation has supported numerous large-scale research programs in which Gastil served as a principal investigator, including work that led to the publication of Hope for Democracy (2020), The Jury and Democracy (2010), and dozens of peer-reviewed articles. Gastil has worked on campaigns for federal, state, and local office in California and New Mexico, but his research and writing focuses on improving democracy, not winning elections. In 2020, UK imprint Cosmic Egg Books published his debut novels, Gray Matters and Dungeon Party (available in all formats). Gastil resides in State College, PA. ~ Russell Trunk, Exclusive Magazine, https://annecarlini.com/ex_books.php?id=241
Gray Matters sets up shop in the painfully funny overlap of fiction’s near future/real world Venn diagram. It’s a rare novel that’s in equal measure heartbreaking and heartening, thanks in large part to Charlie Sanders, a character so poignantly funny and so utterly compelling that I would follow him anywhere—even into a glitchy dystopia full of AI and wonky politics. ~ Will Clarke, author of The Neon Palm of Madame Melançon and Lord Vishnu’s Love Handles
Gray Matters creates a dystopia that feels hauntingly close to where we are headed today. Gastil's first novel is a technological and political allegory that is equal parts Margaret Atwood and Dave Eggers. Rich metaphors, poignant humor, and brilliant writing kept me wiping away tears from laughing, crying, or both. ~ Genevieve Fuji Johnson, author of Democratic Illusion
It's rare that I see a novel that captures how language slides away from us--and how confusing the once-familiar world becomes--as one enters dementia. Rarer still is the imaginative grappling with our desire to stave off Alzheimer's with technology, a feat that often shows more hubris than humanity. ~ Robert Schrauf, co-editor of Dialogue and Dementia
Gray Matters is a gripping look at what may become of us as we willingly plug ourselves, and even our minds, into the Internet. Gastil’s writing is hilarious and heartfelt, foreboding and uplifting, a mass of wonderful contradictions. ~ David L. Williams, author of The Armageddon Dance Party
Nothing in this book should alarm you. I have a firm grasp on all the information you need and will provide it to you as required. Go back to work. ~ The Loop, a decentralized autonomous AI that you can’t possibly understand