The Circle, by Dave Eggers, Knopf, 2013. Also an audiobook read by Dion Graham
Ought personal information to be public or private?
Here is a signature issue of our age, presented in an engaging novel, with characters articulate enough to make a plausible case on each side.
On the one hand, we all benefit from information shared by others, and benefit even more when our own information is available in the Cloud. I can see pictures of an octopus in the Mariana Trench uploaded to Facebook by someone I've never met. I can pick up my Android phone and ask for turn-by-turn directions from an app that remembers that earlier in the day I had searched from my computer for Tandoor Pavillion in West Philly. I am writing this book review on a Chromebook, and at this moment the contents are stored only on Google Drive.
On the other hand, concentration of information in the hands of corporations permits them to manipulate our buying habits, to raise prices selectively for those who don't take the trouble to check competitors, to harrass us more efficiently with commercial spam and phone banks in Bangalore. Much worse, private information in the hands of government facilitates the suppression of political dissent. Protest movements are tracked and infiltrated and neutralized. Charismatic political leaders can be blackmailed, embarrassed and harrassed. Police raids and the enforcement arm of IRS are turned selectively against political opponents. Seven years ago, it was first reported that the Bush FBI was not just investigating crimes to find out whodunnit, but also investigating individuals to see what they could pin on them. This was considered shockingly illegitmate at the time; today it is the norm. We are none of us sick enough to imagine the ways in which government "security" agencies use personal information to harrass dissinters, but here is a timely example .
This is a book with one-dimensional characters and predictable story line, that is nevertheless engaging and hard to put down. The information technology it presents is hardly futuristic - one small step beyond what we have already in our smartphones, and yet it gives a powerful sense of the transformative potential of that technology. I listened to the audio version, read by Dion Graham, whose versatile narration piqued the melodrama and kept the plot moving.
The Circle is a Googlish corporate campus, a paradise for people employed there, with boutique medical care, extravagant recreation and exercise facilities, eateries that cater to your taste and a company store that knows your favorite brand of shampoo. Of course, there are private dorm rooms for those who work late - who would ever choose to go home? The company makes oodles of money just by asking for access to your personal information, and providing free services in return (a business model that would have been considered dead-in-the-water just 15 years ago). They are swallowing up IT startups as fast as entrepreneurs can generate ideas. 28-year-old Mae Holland is thrilled for the opportunity to work there. She's hard-working and a quick study. When the company offers to extend her medical plan to cover her father, ailing equally from MS and from Chronic Insurance Fatigue, she is grateful beyond belief.
Sharing is caring.
Secrets are lies.
Privacy is theft.
Eamon Bailey, one of the Circle's Three Wise Men, explains his utopian vision of a time when all information is public, and everyone is everyone's business. Without secrecy, criminals are instantly apprehended. Violence rates plummet. Human shame, he says, can be divided into two parts: Things we ought to be ashamed of because they hurt someone else. We will simply have to stop doing these things when the world's eyes are upon us. And things we are needlessly embarrassed about, like masturbaion and hemorrhoids. These will cease to be shameful when it becomes clear just how common they are. No more hypocrisy; no more blackmail, no more violence.
But between here and Utopia is the dangerous middle ground where some people are transparent and others are not. Those who operate in private wield a stifling power over those whose every movement is recorded in the Cloud. Think of the infamous Stasi police of East Germany, where ubiquitous internal spies were the foundation for totalitarian power. Remember the empire amassed by J Edgar Hoover over a period of nearly 50 years as FBI director, power gained entirely through veiled threats and blackmail. (Of course, the files on law-abiding citizens and prominent leaders were destroyed and abusive practices were immediately discontinued upon Hoover's death in 1972. And nothing like Hoover's domestic surveillance program could possibly continue in today's political environment. Just ask Ed Snowden.)
In the book's best scene, a California congresswoman volunteers to "go transparent". She and her staff members all carry a hi-tech webcam that broadcasts every meeting and every discussion in real time, the footage to be preserved in the Cloud, indexed and searchable forever. The Congresswoman's courageous move is enormously popular, and other politicians follow. Within months, all of Congress has been pressured by the public to go transparent, too, and word on the street is that no one still operating in the old, secretive tradition can hope to be re-elected.
Here is where the book is most visionary, and most unrealistic. This transition to public transparency is accomplished in a few lines in the book, with no shocking revelations, no fallout at all. In the political world where I live, a reality shared by many OEN readers, there is a good reason why our legislators and our President are operating in secret. What they are hiding is unspeakably evil: destabilizing governments around the world, manipulating financial markets, assassinations of political enemies here and abroad, home-made "terrorist" incidents manufactured by the FBI, computerized vote manipulation in every Federal election since 2000. But in Eggers's book, the cameras turn on but none of this is revealed, and presumably the only consequence of transparency is that politicians have to cease the petty bribery that has filled their campaign coffers.
As the book approaches its climax, we learn that the Cirle will soon "close", though the meaning of this phrase is foggy to everyone except a few top executives at the Circle. Many OEN readers will agree with Eggers that closing the circle has to do with taking control of the computerized machinery for counting votes. It's convenient, it's instant, it's great for voter turnout, and private enterprise is oh-so-much more efficient than the stodgy, bureaucratic way that governments go about things.
And would the Circle ever tilt the machine-tallied votes to elect a candidate they favor? What are you, some kind of conspiracy theorist?
As something of a Utopian myself, I would like to offer a Modest Propsal concerning privacy. We now have a situation where private citizens' every move is tracked and every communication recorded by the NSA, while the White House operates in secrecy (just from the terrorists, of course), and Senators make our sausage in the company of lobbyists, behind closed doors. I propose that we reverse this relationship. Private citizens have a strict right to privacy, and maintain control of all information which, for their own convenience, they choose to upload to the Cloud, or which they allow to be tracked. But elected officials give up the right to privacy as a condition of employment. From City Councilmen to Congressional staffers to the President himself, everyone will be tracked by webcam throughout the business day. They are free to turn off the camera at home with the family or in the bathroom, but if ever they are caught conducting public business off-camera, they forfeit their office.
Read this book or not, but don't fail to think deeply and often about the power of transparency, about who controls information and disinformation, about the trust we invest in those who paint a picture of the world for us in our news media, our culture and entertainment. Democracy is more than a procedure for choosing leaders; it's also a model for the flow of information. In a democracy, power flows from the bottom up, and information flows from the top down. In a dictatorship, power flows from the top down, and information flows from the bottom up.
Here are four organizations devoted to transparency in government: