Wednesday, May 07, 2014

The Most Terrifying Book I've Read All Year...

...is about a corporation.  That's right-not zombies or vampire or werewolves or serial killers.  The most frightening book I've read all year-in fact, in the last several years-is about a technology company.  Now, plenty of people are scared of technology, in the "I don't know how to work this" sort of way, but this fear goes right to the heart of so much of what is happening in our world right now regarding internet safety, social media, and privacy.  This particular nightmare is brought to us by Dave Eggers in his 2013 book, The Circle.

The titular Circle is the largest and most powerful corporation in the world.  Calling it a technology company
is a little like describing the Louvre as a building with some paintings on the walls.  The Circle has their fingers in everything.  Imagine if Mark Zuckerburg suddenly owned not just Facebook, but also Instagram, Ebay, Amazon, Twitter, and Google.  The Circle has access to every post, comment, like and dislike (which they call smiles and frowns), customer review, photograph, document, and piece of electronically collected health information in the world.  They also control most of the country's surveillance feeds, with an eye to attaining the information from every country in the world.  They built this empire one piece at a time, adding features and combining services with the aim of making things more safe, efficient and convenient-at least, that's their stated aim.  Their goal is something they call "completion"-that moment when every person on the planet is connected with every other person on the planet, and everyone on the planet knows what every other person in the planet is doing and thinking, all in real time.  (Scared yet?)

The main character is Mae Holland, a young woman in her 20s who at the start of the novel is working at the utility company of hometown.  Feeling discouraged, like her life essentially has no meaning, she is thrilled to be recruited by The Circle. After all, with their beautiful corporate campus, gobs of cash, and prestige, who wouldn't want to work for them.  She goes to work in their customer service department, and quickly begins working her way up through the ranks of the company.  Her friend Annie-a very important executive at The Circle-gives her a leg up whenever she can.  As she takes on more responsibilities, she is given more and more "screens".  She is expected to communicate with customers, answer/comment on people's posts and comments on The Circle's social media platforms (the Inner Circle and Outer Circle), answer endless survey questions designed to gauge consumer habits, and attend on-campus social events, all with the goal of increasing her participation rank, so that she can be given more responsibilities and more screens.  (How 'bout now?  Scared now?)

At one event, she meets a mysterious stranger named Kalder, who says he works for the company, but she can't find him in the staff directory, nor does she ever see him working on any projects.  She feels very drawn to him, but there is something about him that she senses just isn't right?  Is he a corporate spy?  Will she get in trouble for being seen with him?  Her life becomes less about her, and more about they ways in which she can help the company attain "completion".  When strange things start to happen to her friends, she is troubled, but is always able to push away her doubts-usually by what I would call hypnotizing herself by spending hours on social media, "smiling" and "frowning" and "zinging" (their equivalent to tweeting).

Essentially, what makes this book terrifying is the fact that it is not at all implausible.  This may technically be science fiction, in that the technologies that make The Circle's complete domination of every aspect of life have not all been developed yet, but they are all technologies that could exist.  It would not surprise me if there are companies around the world experimenting with some of the very same concepts that The Circle has perfected in this book.  And the arguments that The Circle used to infiltrate the private lives of every person, regardless of whether they use The Circle's social media or not, are ones that I can see swaying Americans now-in fact, they are arguments that do sway people now, arguments about curtailing civil liberties to "keep us safe" or to "expand human knowledge".

The most frightening part for me was the complete erosion of the separation of private and public spaces.  The masterminds behind The Circle were able to convince the world that everyone has the right to ALL knowledge-even things that people would traditionally keep private.  So not only can The Circle access the feeds from cameras placed all over the world, but so can everyone else.  In true Brave New World fashion, they come up with some slogans for what they believe, the most pertinent one for this conversation being Privacy Equals Theft.  People begin to feel that they have the right to know what everyone is thinking all of the time, because according to The Circle Secrets Equal Lies.  It creates a society where everyone is constantly reaching out to everyone else, but no real connections are made.  Personal communication and private relationships are replaced by smiles and frowns and comments on a newsfeed.  And what does The Circle get for all of this knowledge?  A way to monetize everything, a way to keep tabs on what people buy, who they spend time with, where they go...I sincerely hope that we NEVER end up living in the world of The Circle.

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