I recently spent a couple of weeks in a small, rural French village cut off from the internet, and spent the time reading The Circle, Dave Eggers’ 2013 novel about people who can’t escape the internet. I’m behind on my reading, so what. As I do spend some percentage of my work week helping people sort out their social network privacy settings, manage their digital shadows and adjust their mobile phone’s various tracking settings, the issues raised in Eggers’ warning on the doom heading via our screens seemed like a relevant addition to the reading list.
I usually enjoy Dave Eggers; both his writings and other creations, and have been a follower since his Might Magazine and McSweeney’s days. And as he’s writing about the doom of over-sharing and data dystopia, I figured this would be a hit. The author has been involved in literary startups in and around San Francisco for decades, so he should know the culture of tech startups, and possibly how to capture them in words. Alas, not so much.
In The Circle, we’re introduced to a vast company that’s a kind of hybrid between Google, Facebook, Twitter, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and every other tech giant rolled into one. It’s got a glorious rolling campus where staffers can live and work on site 24/7. It’s got government investigations into monopolistic practices. It’s got three visionary leaders, borrowing from the likes of Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg.
It’s difficult to find a review of The Circle that doesn’t drop the phrase “brave new world” or mention Orwell (by which they’re referring to the novel, 1984). This essentially goes to show how frustratingly out-of-date our own cultural references are when dealing with the topic of digital. Digital is neither Orwell or Huxley, though both had visions of the world that do occupy corners of it. Digital is bigger than that, though. And The Circle is just… less.
The Circle‘s overall premise is that digital is creating a new species of human, still living alongside another pre-existing species, and that things are going to sort out the way they did when our human ancestors started competing with neanderthals. In the case of the Circle, all the digital natives are friending the luddites to death, (literally in one chapter).
The problem with The Circle is that the author is demonstratively a critic of the way things are going, but he’s not populated the novel with any characters who can articulate his point. The lead character, Mae, is hard to like, seems to have no will of her own, and essentially is this cutout of the millennial youth who unquestionably yields to each new technological trend. Except she’s not even that. She’s not a very good digital native.
Page after page of The Circle involves Mae undergoing one intervention after another with various HR hacks, company founders and colleagues who keep goading her into sharing more via her Circle account. Send more zings, post more comments, join more groups. It’s like an hours-long version of the scene where Mike Judge’s character in Office Space badgers Jennifer Anniston about wearing more flair, but without being funny.
This is the opposite from how successful social web experiences work, though. When someone isn’t sharing enough on a site, a company doesn’t haul them in for an intervention. It sees whether this is a trend and then changes the UX. You don’t share more because people are constantly irritating you about it. You do it because the user interface becomes ubiquitous with your daily life. You just want to be there because that’s where there is.
The book has some great extrapolations of existing tech. It imagines small cameras all over the world recording all the time and available to everyone. All your data, from school report cards, health records, family photos, etc. are linked up on Circle cloud servers. You can put tracking chips in your kids. Elected officials are either in awe of the company, scared of it or beholden to it in some way. Voting can be online, compulsory and not anonymous. And it explores the idea of not being able to delete something online. But it kind of squanders all these.
The problem with The Circle is that all those who don’t go along with this new big data world don’t express genuine, technologically literate reasons why. They just find it creepy and want to go live in the woods, or somewhere on a boat at sea to avoid it. And that’s where it fails. The one supposedly in-the-know critic of the Big Data Future doesn’t really have a cogent argument about why he’s not a fan.
Eggers could have based this person on anyone from Bruce Schneier to Evgeny Morozov, and made more generally accessible versions of their arguments. He could have had Mae at least have a few questions. If the Circle is so open, why isn’t its code open source? (it uses the Pirate Party “Sharing is Caring” mantra as one of its straplines) If being “transparent” is so great, why does the company invest in so much security around its intellectual property? In having a go at the increasing penchant of internet users to over share, Eggers misses out on the fact that much of the real threat comes from the lack of transparency in what the software we use actually does.
The company morphs into more of a cult as the book carries on, with more and more Heaven’s Gate like talk of The Circle “being completed”, or “closed”. A few doomsayers keep saying this must not happen, though they don’t seem sure why, except it will be a totalitarian nightmare in some generic sense. Mae and other “circlers” are ecstatic about what it means, though they don’t really know, either. And this is another slip-up. Technology companies never complete. There’s no such thing. What completion seems to suggest here, is that the author figures our future is some fait accompli. It may be, but it will be much weirder than this. The problem with large corporate technology running things isn’t the transparency, it’s the asymmetry of control in who decides what is transparent and what isn’t.