NOVEMBER 27, 2013
WE ARE NOT OKAY on this geeked-out, bomb-pocked, drilled and heating planet. But for those of us who remain hopeful about our hopelessness, there is good news: now, more than ever, it pays to be an optimist among the depressives. Today, optimism plus hard work meets opportunity. Our problems are both transparent and quantifiable, and in their analysis lie the solutions. Consider the new breed of thought leaders who are finding these solutions: the hackers and data-gatherers who keep our governments accountable; the venture capitalists who make bold disruptions possible; the CEO’s who are building a brighter world where the problem of being human will be, somehow, less. Head to Silicon Valley and tour its incubators, accelerators, hubs. Marvel at the range of problems these intrepid, innovating companies can address: economic disparity; obfuscating government bureaucracies; joblessness and education; healthcare; homelessness.
Imagine for yourself a frictionless life, in which a tap or swipe of your finger will resolve your bills, taxes, breakfast-lunch-and-dinner, pet groomers, taxi services, airport security, health diagnoses, insurance records.
Imagine a fully participatory democracy, like Facebook.
Imagine governments as accountable to you as celebrities on Twitter.
Imagine a world where all the dark, lurking thoughts of bad people are out in the open so that the light of communal knowledge will fade them to banality. Internet anonymity makes aberrant individuals brave and cruel and stupid, and they refuse to be accountable to the social contract and disturb the peace of our collective mind. Imagine a world without anonymity, policed by the all-seeing community. Imagine a world where the order we crave is restored, where God is all of us put together. It may be that God is the sum of our connected souls, and maybe He sees through the same eyes with which we watch one another.
Imagine a world where knowledge is pure, crowd-sourced, and easily quantified and rectified.
Imagine a world in which the social contract governs not only our physical life, but our virtual life as well.
Imagine data sorted; knowledge accessible to all; each human being transparent to any other.
Imagine the Circle.
The Circle is Dave Eggers’s newest novel. Its subject — big data collection, surveillance, transparency — is in the ether and on our collective mind these days. Jonathan Franzen published an essay in The Guardian that uses the work of Austrian satirist Karl Kraus to rant about the increasingly dystopian prospects of a connected world. “We’re told that, to remain competitive economically, we need to forget about the humanities and teach our children ‘passion’ for digital technology and prepare them to spend their entire lives incessantly re-educating themselves to keep with it,” Franzen wrote. “We need to become as restless as capitalism itself.” The question is: are we delusional about the value and effectiveness of social media? Twitter was credited for the Arab Spring, which didn’t turn out to be the new, pure democratic movement possible only through social media. Instead, it was like any other political upheaval, with its share of unintended consequences. In the United States, we live in a virtual cage built with the billions of dollars of big data funding and the NSA. Google’s “Don’t be Evil” mantra mocks us. The line between transparency and surveillance blurs. We’ve got Edward Snowden and Wikileaks and President Obama and predatory drones; and what is benevolent and what is dangerous and where is it all leading?
The Circle shows us where it might. Deadpan, paced like a thriller, and with a straightforward plot unhindered by complexity in its characters, the novel sets a 24-year-old Carleton grad, Mae Holland, on the campus of the world’s largest Internet company (an amalgam of Google, Facebook, PayPal, Twitter, and maybe Esurance). She’s got the max of student loans. Her father has MS and her parents are under-insured. She likes to kayak — one interesting thing about her — and she has an ex-boyfriend who stays relevant as the token Luddite voice in the wilderness. Mae is fresh and naive, hired by the Circle thanks to her best friend from college, Annie, who has risen to the envied position of sleepless executive. Mae is earnest, eager-to-please, conscientious. She starts out in customer service, and soon her managers and colleagues nudge, report, and analyze her until she loses the separateness between her work and private life. Her own self merges with the technology that monitors her, and what happens is the Silicon Valley version of 1984 or Brave New World or A Clockwork Orange or any other story where the human race loses what it gained in that first lesson of the Bible — its choice.
The Circle is led by the Three Wise Men, of whom the original is a college dropout named Ty. Ty started it with TruYou, which gave users “one account, one identity, one password, one payment system, per person.” TruYou dismantled the anonymous web and, probably, Reddit. At the time of the company’s IPO, Ty brought in the other Wise Men: Tom Stenton, the ruthless, handsome CEO, and Eamon Bailey, the benevolent, grandfatherly face of the company.
Together, the three form the perfect corporation for a complete humanity. With mottos like “All that happens must be known,” and cameras planted around the globe by avid ambassadors of the transparency movement — so that anyone can access any place at any time and “tyrants cannot hide” — the company turns the world on itself. Everyone sees with the eyes of God, aided by technology and informed by vast stores of knowledge disseminated through social networks. As Mae is told in her first weeks at the Circle, after getting into trouble for neglecting her social media accounts during work hours, anything said or reported through digital sharing is positive. “That’s an act of community. An act of reaching out.” You post a picture of sex slaves in a poor country and your friends “like” the photo and, just like that, you are charity itself. You post a frown to a dictator’s Circle page, and you are taking part in revolution.
As the Circle launches new projects, from child-tracking software and crime surveillance cameras, Mae becomes the face of the company and gains the world’s following and loses herself. With everything “known” via surveillance cameras and digital repositories, knowledge loses its essence. It becomes standardized and boring just as Mae, absorbing the ethics of her company, goes from bland to blander to brainwashed.
Even as satire, The Circle is disappointing as a novel: the plot is too easy, the prose simple, the characters flat and undistinguishable. Due to these same qualities, however, The Circle succeeds as commentary on the era of big data and transparency. The scary part is that the Silicon Valley of The Circle barely seems like a caricature. The easiest comparison of the Circle is to Google — whose Mountain View campus keeps its employees fed, fit, massaged, and, well, kept. The Circle’s mottos and mantras are the same buzzwords already posted on billboards and batted around in cafes and bars. Eggers lives in Northern California, witnessed the dot-com era and the evolution of the tech boom, and needed to write this book.
In 2009, after the success of Obama’s “transparent” presidential campaign, Lawrence Lessig wrote in the New Republic:
I fear that the inevitable success of this movement — if pursued alone, without any sensitivity to the full complexity of the idea of perfect openness — will inspire not reform, but disgust. The “naked transparency movement” […] is not going to inspire change. It will simply push any faith in our political system over the cliff.
Despite the fact that Lessig’s fears are partially realized today, transparency continues to gain traction as a perceived force for good (read Eric Schmidt’s gospel he’s spreading to politicians and the Davos crowd.) The Circle’s dystopian take on the transparency movement is refreshing.
Within the first few week’s of Mae’s arrival at the company, a local congresswoman decides to use the Circle’s technologies to go transparent. From the time she wakes up to the time she goes to bed, she’ll wear a camera around her neck so that constituents can join any closed-door meeting, witness every signature, listen in on every phone call. Fired up, the American public (90 percent of whom are Circle users) demands that all politicians go transparent.
And there was a wonderful thing that tended to happen, something that felt like poetic justice: every time someone started shouting about the supposed monopoly of the Circle, or the Circle’s unfair monetization of the personal data of its users, or some other paranoid and demonstrably false claim, soon enough it was revealed that that person was a criminal or deviant of the highest order […] And it made sense. Who but a fringe character would try to impede the unimpeachable improvement of the world?
In the novel, transparency is justified through the buzziest buzzword, “community.” In the name of community, all infringements of individual rights are supported in the name of the common good. What spreads from the Circle is the ethics of ruthless, uncorrected capitalism, whose control center is made up of the users themselves. As cultural historian Siva Vaidhyanathan wrote in The Googlization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry), “We are not Google’s customers: we are its product.” In the novel the physical world becomes a community of bots. Where the plot brought me, as a reader, was to an old essay by Anthony Burgess, reprinted last year in The New Yorker. In it, Burgess refers to the psychologist B.F. Skinner, whose belief in the importance of improving human behavior plays out in A Clockwork Orange:
What [Professor Skinner] wants to see is more positive reinforcements. Given the right positive inducements […] we shall all become better citizens, submissive to a State that has the good of the community at heart. We must, so the argument goes, not fear conditioning. We need to be conditioned in order to save the environment and the race.
The Circle’s users condition one another. Through the technologies released daily by the Circle, everyone is out in the open, watching everyone else, ensuring that crimes are stopped before they can be conceived of, that strangers never trespass in neighborhoods to which they don’t belong, that children never wander far from their parents, that knowledge never passes silently away. Everything is shared. Virality takes on its full, insidious meaning. As Mercer, Mae’s ex who tries to disconnect from the connected world, says: “There’s a new neediness — it pervades everything.” Cultural glue, it turns out, is indestructible when it’s virtual, and supports the tyranny of bots.
The Circle’s empire isn’t far from what Burgess depicted 50 years ago. Utopia, or any major evangelizing religious system, is generally conceived of as unified and peaceful, and dystopian literature has to show at what cost. “[I]t is better to be bad of one’s own free will than to be good through scientific brainwashing,” Burgess wrote about the conditioning that his anti-hero Alex endures in order to become a good citizen. In the Circle’s world, “bad” means not participating in the community. But thanks to social media, it is easy to condition people participate (Think of a groupthink exercise as sweet and banal as Upworthy, and how it’s gone viral through Facebook.) They become addicted to their screens, to tracking one another. They hinder the free will of everyone else — unconsciously at first and then with intention.
I read The Circle in San Francisco, where I’ve spent the past several months building a digital publishing venture for readers of contemporary fiction. Reading is valued by the tech innovators and thought leaders I’ve met. It is not valued in business at all, as is obvious in the companies birthed in Silicon Valley, which ultimately shape the world we live in. Little thought is given to unintended consequences. Executives will speak of pressing problems and the need for solutions, yet solutions only matter if they have a billion-dollar valuation. Since valuation is often based on data-collection over commerce, the benefits of throwing so much money at them in the first place — when the national job market remains so shaky — are questionable. So the problems that seem to require solutions turn out to be the venture capital craving for big returns. After giving me a tour of the old San Francisco Chronicle building — now transformed into a startup hub — a young biz dev told me he knew he was born for something big. He would solve the problems of homelessness, global poverty; even, he said, “Egypt.” And in his solutions lay massive profit. He hadn’t been to Egypt, he hadn’t talked to anyone homeless. This didn’t matter. All the problems of people could be measured and solved. You mean the problem of being human, I said. Yes, he said, and he was serious: “But you can’t put it that way if you want to make money. You have to put it in terms of data.” Once you put global morality in terms of data and its monetization, you get The Circle, which, in the words of a preacher Mae meets at a SOMA bar, will save all the souls, get everyone in one place, teach them all the same things. There can be one morality, one set of rules, imagine.
The unification and standardization of the world through tech have become a big problem, and maybe the only solution is what is wrong in the first place: the endless messiness of the human race. Franzen, in his essay collection “How To Be Alone” says that while science long ago sapped the power from religious mystery, “it was not until applied science, in the form of technology, changed both the demand for fiction and the social context in which fiction is written that we novelists fully felt its effects.” Is the human problem so simple as to be solved in a new way, without ritual or sacrifice or mystery? It is consoling to know that it’s not. While the lack of realistic depth in the characters of The Circle makes its plot possible, in the real world we are too violent, sad, and volatile. We’re not capable of these dire utopias.