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To What End Are We Connecting the World?

By Chris Hoofnagle, Huffington Post

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/chris-jay-hoofnagle/the-circle-dave-eggers_b_4133864.html

In The Circle, Dave Eggers describes a near future where a single company -- The Circle -- intermediates all communication. Convinced of its own benevolence, Circle employees expand the company's offerings into creepier and creepier domains, while propounding punched-up versions of the philosophies of Larry Page, Eric Schmidt and Mark Zuckerberg. Google's "organize the world's information" becomes the Circle's "ALL THAT HAPPENS MUST BE KNOWN." Facebook's power of openness leads to "PRIVACY IS THEFT." Mark Zuckerberg's ideas about integrity and single identity are implemented as the Circle's "TruYou" technology.

Eggers uses the metaphor of animals in a fishtank to contrast the three founders of the Circle and their vision for the company. But I found it interesting to consider this metaphor as a critique of both social media platforms and the users who feed and are devoured by them. The Circle is presented as a blind, transparent shark. It devours everything, and through its visible digestive system, allows everyone to see its victims processed and turned into ash. Users are the many offspring of a seahorse, adrift in the water unattended, being drawn into the vortex created by the shark's circling. Users' curiosity, a kind of anxious energy that causes us to want to know and explore everything, is an octopus, which cannot escape the shark either.

Eggers' satire mimics rather than exaggerates Valley ideas about the world. This has led some critics to suggest that the book lacks elegance and is heavy handed. But the Circle is recognizable as a post-Facebook-world Google. Google is no stranger to promoting its own goodness while pursing an iron rule morality. Take, for instance, its recent argument that because users of Wifi did not encrypt their signals, the company was free to intercept them. Google's technical ability to capture these signals meant it has the right to. In another wiretapping case against the company, Google argued in court that when one provides data to one of its services, Google can use that data as it sees fit to improve that service or others. Eggers may be heavy handed, but one of the key products he satires was just released by Google -- "Shared Endorsements."

Those inside the Circle, in a culture insensitive to the consequences of context collision, see complaints of privacy and indignities as irrational, because any adoption of technology becomes a justification for a complete embrace of it. This is reminiscent of Google's justification for Gmail, its email service that scans email content in order to target advertising. "If you let your ISP scan your email for malware, why not let Google scan Gmail to target ads?"

With The Circle, Eggers wants readers to see adoption of social technologies as a public goods problem. It's clear he does not want to live in the panopticon that we are bringing to ourselves through Facebook and Google. Eggers has studied Silicon Valley culture carefully, levying a critique that echoes the ideas raised by Sherry Turkle, Evgeny Morozov, Jaron Lanier, and others. The Circle's public pronouncements might have been sourced from the @ProfJeffJarvis Twitter feed.

Eggers tells the story from the perspective of a young, suggestible, female employee who is hired in a subordinate customer service role, reminiscent of Katherine Losse's The Boy Kings. After this employee commits a minor transgression, she is pressed into the Circle's transparency mission. She goes "transparent," promising to wear a camera to document almost every moment of her life. But this is where Eggers' narrative goes too far. While Google and Facebook have done much to press others into transparency, the companies themselves are very secretive.

Artists' attention to the callow rhetoric of Google and Facebook signals that public attitudes towards information policy may change radically in the near future. The Circle joins Gary Shteyngart's hilarious Super Sad True Love Story in its prediction of the kind of world we might get to live in if we continue to outsource our data and decisions about it to Silicon Valley's technocrats.

10/21/2013