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Egger's The Circle - Google as Big Brother

IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH - Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

PRIVACY IS THEFT - Eggers, The Circle

Google's mission is to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful.

Effective dystopian novels take current trends and push them to an extreme. In his book The Circle, David Eggers doesn't have to push too hard or too far. The future he envisions is mostly here now. And that's just one of the reasons this book is frightening.

The story starts as 24-year-old Mae Holland begins working for the Circle on its large campus in California. The Circle is an none-too-subtle pseudonym for a Google which has swallowed Facebook, Twitter and a few other social networking companies. Run by a triumvirate of disparate leaders - the hoodie-wearing nerd, the kindly old social engineer, and the avaricious monetizer, the company is doing eveything it can to record, collect, and use data to both make society safer and "less messy" - and make a lot of money in the process. Their projects include nearly invisible cameras placed everywhere, planting tracking chips in children (that also include their international educational "ranking"), and having all public officials go "transparent" by wearing a live camera 24/7. As an employee, Mae is evaluated in real time not only on her customer service performance, but also on her social status with in the company and her influence she has on others' purchasing decisions.

Eggers isn't dramatic in his lessons about the decline of privacy. Politicians and watch-dogs who raise concerns about the Circle being a monopoly have child pornography and evidence of links to terrorist organizations found on their computers. Mae, when she knows others are watching, skips eating her favorite foods or having a second glass of wine, knowing that her followers are watching. As social networking seems to take over her life, a friend comments, "You comment on things, and that substitutes for doing them." Her parents and old boyfriend who resist social media are characterized as anachronisms.

At the beginning of the book, I was disappointed that Eggars made his protagonist rather dim. But I slowly realized that Mae is not stupid. She is naive, impressionable, and, has a value set more in keeping with today's youth. Mae needs the approval, the immediate gratification, the attention, the stimulation, and the faux affection of her "followers." She is not forced to give up her privacy - she is gently and logically persuaded. She is a sheep being led to the butcher, not attacked by wolves. And she echoes today's Everyman in her lack of concern over personal privacy.

The book does make a case for many potential benefits of monitored society: reduction in crimes like theft and child abuse. Better medical treatments and educational systems. A more democratic, less corruptible political process. Bailey, the social engineer, is on a mission he genuinely believes will improve the world.

The great question this book left me with is "Why do we as humans value privacy so highly?" One doesn't need to be a criminal or a pervert to still not want all of one's life in the public eye. The need for privacy is at a gut level, an inalienable right, and must have some primitive survival component behind it. But what are the tangible benefits of choosing what to share - and what to keep to oneself?

After reading this, I feel I owe an apology to Miquel Guhlin and Steve Hargadon for being an apologist for Google and others for their data collection and use practices. Perhaps I've been a bit more of a sheep than I'd like to admit. Rather than as one character put it "How do we get the inevitable sooner?", we ought to all be thinking a little bit more deeply of the implications of a know-it-all, share-it-all society. 

Read The Circle. It may not be in the classic status of Orwell, but it's an important (and enjoyable) read.

Oh, ironically this review goes out via a blog with links to Facebook, Twitter, Google+. Please like it!!!


For an excellent review that compares 1984 and The Circle, read Nocera's A World Without Privacy, NYT, Oct 14, 2013.

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