(in which, yes, I discuss the plot of the book)
This week, Nest announced a ‘beautiful’ new smoke alarm that’s more advanced, more connected, more user-friendly, and more expensive than anything else on the market. Naturally, the press jumped on it like a Republican on a closed national monument.
It does a lot — it monitors both smoke and carbon monoxide, it’s wirelessly networked and internet connected so you can make sure your house isn’t burning down while you’re on holiday, and it communicates with Nest’s thermostat product.
But it doesn’t have everything. It doesn’t, for example, have a camera. Adding a camera would turn the alarm into a great home security product, one that would let you peek into every room in your house. Sounds great, right? Up until last week, I’d have agreed, but now the very suggestion brings me out in hives. The reason is because I’ve read Dave Eggers latest novel, The Circle.
The Circle is a near-future company that melds Facebook, Twitter, Google (and, to an extent, Apple). Its founders have a zealous conviction in the power of openness, transparency, and most importantly, the sharing of everything that can possibly be shared. As Mae Holland, a new customer support team member, works her way up the ranks at The Circle, we see the company driving forth its message with radically disruptive cheap technology that practically enforces transparency and sharing throughout the world. Things get very dramatic.
All of the characters in the story are basically stand-ins for Silicon Valley types (the VC, the hacker, the evangelist, the skeptic, the oldies, etc.) and the plot is rather predictable – but by god, what a plot it is! Eggers really takes Mark Zuckerberg’s belief that the world would be better if no-one felt they had to keep secrets and runs with it as far as he possibly can, which makes for a very dark world. By the end, I was appalled, and the thought of putting more cameras in my flat seemed suicidal.
Now, I expect that a lot of technically-minded people will object to pretty much every single aspect of novel; I know I did when I began reading it. Many of those objections are legitimate, but like 1984, the question is not whether the technology is correct but whether the philosophy of the world it depicts is one that we believe in — because if it is, then maybe we will end up in something like that world.
Eggers makes a strong case for why we’re heading in the direction of his dystopia. He understands our fear of crime and child abuse; he understands the seductive promise that radical transparency and surveillance could solve those problems and many others besides, like corruption and inefficiency and disaster relief. He extrapolates from our seemingly-compulsive use of social media and casual games, and sees a future where we’ll gradually, willingly, happily hand over our agency and individuality to everyone else to the owners of the communications platform that underpins everything.
It’s an awful future. And it’s one that I don’t believe will happen, and here’s why:
UNION, DIVISION, AND SOLIPSISM
In The Circle, society and humanity is speeding towards an ever more perfect union — everyone sharing their activities with one another, and crucially, everyone being interested in those activities. I can believe in the former, but most certainly not in the latter. Despite the fact that I think very highly of myself, I am under no illusions that anyone would be at all interested in watching what I made for dinner tonight, or gazing at me read an article on my iPad. It’s boring to watch me, most of the time. Really boring.
Better to watch interesting people on TV, like celebrities. Even better, play a game! Oh, the games we’ll have in the future — virtual reality games where you’ll be the hero in an action adventure, or the god of a vast simulated universe. And then there’s the porn, of course; porn of such variety and and interaction that you can’t even imagine today. These entertainments will pull us away from union and towards division. Why watch me cook dinner or watch a celebrity on TV when you can do whatever you want, whenever you want, wherever you want?
We only have a limited amount of attention and I doubt that the vast majority of people will spend all their time watching each other or reliving old experiences, as Eggers and countless others believe we will (Charlie Brooker, I’m looking at you). We don’t spend all our time reading diaries or watching old home videos or reading old tweets. We do stuff that’s more fun, like playing games or reading stories. Indeed, Eggers’ success in crafting a captivating story is an argument (albeit a minor one) against his mindlessly communal dystopia.
These countervailing forces of union and division aren’t only present in our consumption of media: they’re apparent in our very physical infrastructure. Yes, so much in our world is centralised, from power generation to political control; but we’re now gaining the ability to break away from that centralisation in small ways, with home solar power and cheaper distributed manufacturing systems. And for all their centralised power, it’s not clear to me that Google or the US has more power than the East India Company or the British Empire ever did during their heyday.
In other words, the world is not as monolithic and as communal as Eggers fears.
I enjoyed The Circle’s insidious subversion of the US government. However, let’s face facts: the organisation that’s best at planting evidence and hacking email isn’t based in Silicon Valley — it’s in Fort Meade, Maryland, and it’s called the NSA. If they caught even a whiff of a Circle-like company engaging in these adventures, they wouldn’t hesitate to shut it down.
But it wouldn’t even get that far. Don’t underestimate the trust-busting power of the US, or the regulatory capacity of the European Union, or the growing clout and protectionism of China. They are not to be fucked with. Not Apple, not Google, not AT&T, not Standard Oil could defy them. We may not like politicians, but they are not stupid.
Eggers suggests that by enforcing the use of real names, The Circle manages to massively reduce the amount of online trolling and abuse. This would be amusing if it wasn’t so sad. One need only venture onto sites that attempt to enforce such policies (such as Facebook) to see him proved wrong. Unfortunately, people are quite happy to spout bile under their own names.
This may seem like a small point, but in the book it leads to the seeming disappearance of any significant anonymity or psueodonymity online. It works well for the plot by eliminating all potential obstacles for The Circle (since opponents can be identified and dirt discovered/planted on them) but that seems like a real stretch. I doubt that the denizens of 4chan and Reddit would take this lying down, let alone the many skilled grey and blackhat hackers out there.
US TRADITION OF PRIVACY
The US may not be the most privacy-conscious country in the world, but it’s close (the NSA notwithstanding). I admit that there’s an element of hypocrisy, or at least confusion, in most people’s understanding of privacy — we expect others to open their lives to us yet we prefer to have much greater control over our own privacy — but I would expect US citizens to be markedly more hostile to mandatory transparency.
Yes, The Circle takes place around 10-20 years in the future, but attitudes don’t change quite that quickly. Armed insurrection would be expected.
THINK OF THE CHILDREN!
One of the most appealing elements of The Circle’s plan was that it would help protect children. Who doesn’t want to protect children? You? Then you must be a child abuser.
Here’s an interesting fact: we have reached ‘peak baby’. The world’s population is still increasing, but that’s largely because people are dying at an older age; fertility is now steadily decreasing. That doesn’t mean that people will suddenly stop caring about children — on the contrary, since we have fewer we invest more in each one.
Yet I’m not so sure that arguments in favour of children’s safety above all else will continue to hold sway, particularly in ageing, rich countries. There will be fewer and fewer children in the future, and we will realise that there are other people we need to protect as well.
AN OPPOSITE REACTION
The Circle’s lollipop-sized cameras are depicted as an unstoppable wave, so cheap and numerous that they can’t be destroyed quickly enough, and so small that they can’t be detected by criminals or authorities.
Oh, really? Surely if their video feeds are public, it would be the work of seconds to pinpoint their position on a map and then dispatch someone with a hammer. And while $59 isn’t cheap, it’s not nothing.
I’ve been to Tianemmen Square, and the Houses of Parliament, and Washington D.C. Let me assure you that if anyone tried sticking cameras on walls, they would be gone within hours if not minute, and whoever put them there swiftly arrested. As for other public areas, let’s not underestimate the boredom and abilities of teenagers. The Circle’s cameras wouldn’t survive a week in most environments.
Eggers draws a direct comparison between The Circle and evangelical religion. Their gospel is stated very plainly by Mae (“Secrets are Lies, Sharing is Caring, Privacy is Theft”), the rewards are freedom and happiness, and the punishment is exclusion from, well, everything.
Like Christianity’s ‘Love your enemy’, The Circle’s gospel is original and powerful enough to spread extremely quickly. And like Christianity, like Islam, like Mormonism, The Circle’s message would meet with much more opposition than Eggers suggests — no doubt from those same religions, who don’t share an overriding concern for openness.
Not long ago, the US National Security Agency and the UK Government Communications Headquarters — the two foremost surveillance organisations in the world — were barely known to the average person. In fact, very little about them was known to the public, including their hierarchies, budgets, and capabilities.
All of that has changed. For now, at least, we are much less accepting of blanket surveillance, and while we do share a large amount of information on social networks, we still feel uneasy as we do it. Perhaps our secrets will be bought as easily and as cheaply as Eggers thinks, with special offers and discount coupons; perhaps The Circle’s friendly face will prove more acceptable than the blank mask of the NSA.
I wouldn’t count on it. There’s a reason why Apple made special pains to isolate ‘fingerprint’ information on a secure section of the new iPhone’s processor, and it’s not because they like spending money for no reason. They realise that privacy and security is important to people right now, particularly to tech-savvy early adopters who are having second thoughts about keeping everything on Google.
ON THE OTHER HAND…
I’m interested in looking at how cultural and societal attitudes change in the long term, hand-in-hand with demography and technology — and by long term, I don’t mean years, I mean decades and centuries. It’s what I do in A History of the Future in 100 Objects.
Televisions have been commercially available for a little under a century. I’m sure contemporary commentators, on seeing the first TVs, would have noted the parallels with cinema and wondered if having such a screen at home would result in millions of addicts, watching for hours every day. A couple of decades later, Orwell’s ubiquitous ‘Telescreens’ combined a television with CCTV, transmitting virulent propaganda that told everyone how to think.
Perhaps, if I had lived back then, I would have come up with a similar list of reasons why television wouldn’t become so dominant in by 1984 or 2014 — but here we are, in a world where every person in the UK watches four hours of TV a day, on average. Four hours. Besides sleeping and working, I don’t do anything quite as much as that.
It wouldn’t be fair to say that those four hours are filled with propaganda and mindless soap operas; nor could we claim that Breaking Bad, The Wire, and BBC documentaries somehow dominated viewing hours either. The reality is that some people, maybe too many people, watch far too much TV; and that most people are probably just fine, even if they hold opinions that seem a little too close to news talking points.
But I don’t know if Orwell would agree. If we teleported him from 1949 to today, maybe he’d be truly horrified at our ‘media landscape’. The thing is, we don’t have time machines, and technology does not transform overnight — not even if you have Google’s billions behind you. Every step takes time, and every step is shaped by our societal attitudes. Google tried moving too quickly with Streetview and they were slapped down by the US and EU. My hope is that we see the development of personal agents, either open source or paid-for, that can provide us with the services that The Circle would offer, but explicitly in our own personal interests (although how those are formed and assessed are a completely different question…)
Still, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if, in 2075, attitudes towards sharing and privacy were markedly different from today’s. Things change slowly, but they do change. They would have gained a lot from The Circle’s vision; less crime, less corruption, less child abuse. They might be happier and more well-adjusted than the fearful folk of 2013. Or maybe they’ll just think they are.
Also related: The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling by Ted Chiang