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« Who schedules your day - you or your phone? | Main | The case for social networks in schools yet again »
Sunday
Apr302017

BFTP: Egger's The Circle - Google as Big Brother 

I saw the new movie The Circle this weekend based on the Egger's book by the same name. Sadly, the movie did not do the book justice. But for those will not read the original, the movie does ask some of the same questions about privacy. Oh, I find Emma Watson as an adult actor (this and Beauty and the Beast) strangely bland. And she was sooo good in the Harry Potter films!

Anyway, I wish everyone would read the book. Here is my review from 2013...

WAR IS PEACE
FREEDOM IS SLAVERY
IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH - Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

SHARING IS CARING
SECRETS ARE LIES
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.

* After reading The Circle, I was freaked out by the obsequious customer service from Zappos after returning a pair of shoes to them. Hand written card calling me a cute name? Please.

Original post October 25, 2013

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Reader Comments (3)

Doug haven't read this book yet. Think this will be my next read. But I think I'm going to find it very disturbing. Been bothered by some of these trends for a while. Educational technology is one that very much concerns me because of the privacy issues. Thanks for this post.

May 1, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDebra Gottsleben

I read the book in anticipation for the movie, but I haven't had a chance to watch the movie. The trailer shows things that didn't happen in the book, so I'm not holding out hope that it's a good conversion, but I'll try to keep an open mind.

I'm torn on the data collection. If data collection on students can help educate the students, where do we draw the line?

May 1, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterRyan Collins

Hi Deb,

Do read the book - it's thoughtful and very readable. And important, I think. Let me know what you think.

Doug

Hi Ryan,

I'll be interested to hear what you think of the movie. Eggars is credited with the script, so it stayed pretty faithful to the book (as I remember it.)

Data collection will always be a balancing act, with different people having different tolerances for the for privacy vs service.

Doug

May 2, 2017 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

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