I just finished reading Dave Eggers’ The Circle, and i don’t want to say I’m spooked, exactly. While it’s intended as a cautionary tale, a forward-looking premonition of a 1984 of our own making, it’s wrong to draw a straight line from the services we clutch to our smartphones’ hearts today to the fictional über-service of the book’s tomorrow.
What’s spooky about it though, is that there are all kinds of ways that parts of it have happened, are happening, or are fervently sought-after today (and i don’t just mean that their Facebook-analog actually has a ‘dislike’ button). There are any number of creeping, meandering paths to this sort of Total Information Awareness, to borrow a catchphrase. And we’re making more of them, clamoring for more of them every day.
I harken back to my college years, and the years in a boring job shortly thereafter, wherein i spent too much time reading Slashdot and hung around with a lot of Linux nerds. A common theme of the then-rollicking discussions was of what could be done, the classic Jurassic Park moral of whether it should be done, be damned (Of course you want Linux, then DOOM on an iPod, even if it did have less space than a Nomad and was lame). The giddy coupling of cheap computing with boundless talent and enthusiasm brought to bear on stuff that, was useless on small scales but fascinating, then profitable on large scales. Extrapolating from my anecdotal knowledge of where these folks wound up, I might suspect this attitude is the very core ethos of the armies of ridiculously smart people working at Google and Facebook. “Let’s see if we can do this,” turned to “Let’s see what we can do with this.”
None of that’s terribly revelatory, but it’s that enthusiasm, that insistence that it should be done, and that we should be glad of the results, combined with a newfound thirst for new fuel in the form of data, that’s what makes my skin crawl. From Zuckerberg’s implication that ‘the age of privacy is over‘ to Google’s Eric Schmidt’s “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place,” the perception that what’s good for them is rewarding for you is the start of where the novel hits too close to home. The idea, hell, the reality that their product makes your life better the more you give yourself over to it, to them, is the same in both cases.
It’s not like Facebook and Google are their only targets, either. Yelp’s unwritten practice of complimenting and expecting one back is lampooned mercilessly. I just learned that Uber drivers are basically screwed if they get less than 4.5 stars, just like the characters in the book. The irresistible allure and seamless integration, upgrading of perfectly designed products as Trojan horse is at least in part Apple’s contribution. The logical progression of Twitter’s always-on firehose sounds convincingly exhausting. The idea that “nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded” could befall any business anywhere, if enough people were reading some equivalent of Angie’s List. What if they were the same hydra-headed beast?
But let’s face it, Eggers’ real target is Google, and i think the book is an implicit prediction on his part that they swallow Facebook at some point, and not the other way around. The difference is ambition, as expressed by their stated goals, and by the manifestations of it. Google’s the one building things that exist to help you funnel information to them. Fiber networks, glasses, phones, self-driving cars all serve that end. Introducing new products of some sort or another every other week.
This thirst for information is terribly ironic, considering that the people like the people i know whom i assume work at these companies all have a healthy love of. cryptography, or did after reading Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, at least. Figure that one out.
So do i think this will all happen? Not in that way, probably not. Not just because things like tiny wireless video cameras seem like they will always be hamstrung by our old, infinitely fallible nemesis, the battery. We’re going to see people’s reaction to the first truly intrusive devices really soon now, with Google’s eyes soon to be nestled next to humans’. Honestly, i have a hard time picturing people putting up with it.
But it doesn’t take that. Soon enough, our phones, little tattletales in our pocket, will tell mall retailers where you shopped, where you browsed, and where you skipped. They’ll know if you were active or sedentary. They’ll report on what TV you watches, whether you woke up too late, and if you went straight home from work. They’ll know if your kid did their homework. And enough of any information is worth something.
Maybe some people are willing to make that trade. Or enough little trades that amount to total surrender. i often wonder if i have, and wonder what level of annoyance will cause me to go without something i maybe take for granted, if they’re selling my information too promiscuously, or littering my life with advertisements. Goodness knows we all have varying degrees of hypocrisy on this issue, says the man pimping his Kickstarter on every available social platform. Me, i’m just hoping there’s something left that’s comfortably between going full Unabomber and selling my soul to whomever’s buying. And i enjoyed reading about one logical conclusion of it all.