Friday, October 18, 2013

The Politics Of: David Egger's The Circle

The Ministry of Ignorance
Gifted and celebrated author David Eggers has given us The Circle--a story set in an alternate modern-day where the world's most popular and powerful Internet company, The Circle, dominates the electronic frontier. It follows the young Mae Holland as she leaves her soul-killing job at a public utility to join the glamorous campus at 'the best job in the world.'

It has been called the 1984 for the computer age.

This review will first review the book (relatively non-spoliery) and then look at the politics (with spoilers).

The Circle
The world is a lot like ours (but apparently without like, the ACLU, Libertarians, Anti-Trust laws, or an NSA that doesn't like its turf getting stepped on). In the Circle-verse there is pretty much just one company which has swallowed all the others (Google, Facebook, and Twitter make appearances by name--but seem to no longer exist as separate entities). Its Google-like campus is a wonderland of glass walls, clean corridors, and endless corporate funded elite activities (a champion racquetball player is on retainer, famous chefs and musicians vie to work for free for the eager young 'Circlers').

Mae Holland isn't a super-genius--she gets her job there the old fashioned way: a college friend who has gotten high up brings her in. She's 'rescued' from her crushing, foul-smelling, unfulfilling, barely-challenging job at a public utility and brought in the heaven-on-earth that is The Circle in the first chapter.

The Circle then follows her journey deep into the world of total connectivity and total knowledge-sharing. The Circle forces ('forces') its employees to participate. She has to Tweet--sorry, Zing--her colleagues several times a day. If she hurts someone's feelings for not showing up at their party it's a formal HR write-up.

She has to 'Smile' and 'Frown' on their Facebook analogue all day long (note: one of the things that makes Facebook Facebook is that it doesn't have a 'dislike' button--that's how you know they know their business and you don't). She also has to handle customer-service requests ... but with a human touch (no 'robots' work at The Circle, even when she's sending boiler-plate answers to their queries).

Of course things are not exactly all good. Her friend, Annie, seems to be chronically overworked. There's a mysterious guy who she sees around the campus that even their super-surveillance can't seem to locate. Oh, and The Circle is rolling out things like 'SeeChange' which involves crowd-sourcing the placement of solar-powered networked cameras everywhere (apparently they even have, like, satellite connections, somehow: I guess Iridium still exists in this world too).

As she gets deeper and deeper into The Circle's culture things begin to take a darker turn as she has to share more and more of herself and the company begins to tighten its grip on society. Public figures start to go 'transparent' by wearing camera and voice rigs almost 24/7--and those who don't quickly find themselves out of a job. There are some unsettling events and revelations that I'd like to say make Mae doubt the company--I'd like to--but I really can't.

The Circle has a fascinating set up. We don't need to hear about how it broke the Anti-Trust legislation because that's not important. It doesn't matter that the tech works flawlessly or that digital cameras scattered around random beaches, streets, and forests probably wouldn't actually work as well as they're supposed to--at its heart it's science fiction.

We also don't need to worry about how the foundational 'TruYou' product that establishes an ultimately traceable non-falsifiable online persona for everyone took off: it's legitimate enough that we can buy it.

No, the problem, really, is Mae: she gets exposed to humiliations (she is semi-forced to wear one of the transparent necklaces to broadcast everything she does, she is chided by HR for not participating) and violations (a boyfriend makes a secret sex tape of them and puts it, forever un-erasable, on The Cloud) but she never loses faith. Sometimes she feels sick but she just goes and tweets some more.

Her shallowness is, I suppose, a necessary vehicle for the story. In 1984, Winston gets to fight back some--for sure--but the story won't work if, for example, as a final act of defiance (before he is broken) he suicides a hijacked jetliner into the Ministry of Truth. She has to be a true believer to get as far as she does down the rabbit hole. On the other hand, it's annoying.

I kept waiting for her--and this is like a little less than half-way through--to wake up to the fact that she was being abused. Getting called on the carpet by HR for not tweeting enough is made fun of in Office Space with the 'minimal amount of flair' line. There's no way she'd like it. She might capitulate to it for the time being*--but like it? Buy it?

It's also pretty basic. One of the 'big reveals' is obvious from the beginning. How the various characters sort of 'turn out' (to the extent they do) is very much straight-line extrapolation from their starting conditions. The writing is excellent: Eggers knows what he's about--and the concepts are vividly laid out--but in terms a power-house of plotting? The Circle isn't there (its metaphor for the big company devouring small companies gets 'made flesh' in a way that a high school junior might write it--just with much, much better execution).

So it's a mixed bag. On the other hand, I actually felt the tension of her having to balance information overload ... and for what it's worth, I've also gotten people employed and been 'given a job' by friends when I really needed one--so all that rang very true to me.

The Circle, though, ultimately, is not today's 1984. I think it's trying (it has ominous slogans--although SHARING IS CARING isn't really one of them, it has the requisite ending, it has Total Surveillance down pat) but it doesn't arrive. You see 1984 was stark, brilliant, and blinded you with despair. It created a language that would control the thoughts of its speakers. Each ministry was cleverly named the opposite for its true function. When Winston is tortured it is horrific, even by today's jaded standards.

The Circle never makes it anywhere close to any of that. Sure, they may eventually control the world and put everyone on camera--but then what? It doesn't answer that.

Let's do the politics.

The Politics of The Circle
There are three elements to the Politics of The Circle. The first is crowd-sourced Total Surveillance, the second is Electronic Democracy, and the third is Total Corporate Knowledge (of us).

Crowd-Sourced Total Surveillance
Here is a commercial for Google Glass. Google Glass, if you don't know, are "eyeglasses" that can record what you see and interface with the web to give you all kinds of augmented experiences. Watch it: the Google guys know what they are doing (here's a commercial for fucking gmail that will make you cry).

Here is Penny Arcade's take on Google Glass for comparison:
Can't Say They're Wrong
The politics of The Circle are not that dissimilar to those for Google Glass. That's not the whole story--but we need to start there.

Google Glass gives you the ability to record people without having your phone out (apparently it has a light on). Several people have built facial recognition modules for it that have disturbed various people and politicians. It does not (unlike The Circle's tech) automatically broadcast to millions of watchers--but it sure could. Easily (assuming the servers held up).

The Circle assumes the Penny Arcade version of this technology while making the case for it in the bluntest possible way: Mae is encouraged / required to put cameras in her parent's house when they get on her medical plan to treat her father's illness. Once, towards the end, with her broadcast unit on (she's not allowed to turn it off--just the audio when she's on the toilet**), she bursts in on her parents having sex.

They also use crowd-sourcing to locate a 'friend' of hers who has gone off the grid in disgust of The Circle's coming world. When the raucous crowd finds and hounds him, finally chasing him with private drones, he drives off a bridge. In The Circle-verse, no one is sued.

This is all terribly blunt and an incredible worst-case scenario and the problem with plot is compounded by the fact that no one in the story makes a really compelling case against it. We don't exactly expect Mae to: (a) she is, I'm afraid, quite shallow and (b) she wants to keep her job--okay--but Eggers never gives us a valid voice on the other side of the aisle (the semi-boyfriend is long-winded and doesn't make a sophisticated argument--and he writes on paper which is maybe supposed to make the comparison starker--but if someone handed me 4+ pages of handwriting I'd be daunted too).

We're expected to form our own conclusions (and those conclusions? They're fired at us, like out of a cannon) but there's a very simple argument even The Circle would buy against what they are advocating (that everyone should always share everything): Intellectual Property.

Mae is reprimanded for "not sharing" her private family illness (after all, she could benefit from sharing with others doing the same thing, no?)--but doesn't she own those experiences (at least her end of them?). If she goes out on a lake and takes photos (or not) doesn't she own those? She does--and Terms of Service aside, if she wants to charge for them, she gets to,

The Circle would have to agree with that: they must deal with vendors who sell their IP all day long. They can argue that Mae ought to share (sharing is caring) but that she has to? When they accuse her of having low self-esteem (which is why she doesn't share) she should answer that it's the opposite--she thinks her bay-trips ought to be charged for if people want to see 'em.

It's also clear the ideological leader of The Circle doesn't like any secrets--but the top brass ... um ... has them. They're loading child porn on to people's computers (at least one of them is). Secrets, they feel, aren't good for little people--but no one--NO ONE--not even the guy who (naively) wants his counter-manifesto read online makes these arguments. It's a blank space in The Circle.

Electronic Democracy
The Circle's plan for world domination is electronic voting--and actual enforced electronic voting: everyone MUST have an account and then everyone MUST vote (because participation is good) and your vote will be public. This is nuts. The results would be the instant dismantling of democracy (the secret vote is a virtual necessity for all kinds of reasons). Enforced voting would lead to the creation of candidates named  "I Don't Care."

If we did this in real life, Rick Astley would be president.

The problem is, we're gonna do something like it sooner rather than later. While the Founding Fathers never envisioned from-your-house voting, they foresaw the problem and created the Electoral College (and for that matter, the Senate and life-terms for Supreme Court justices--all bulwarks against populist flavor-of-the-moment voting to one degree or another). However, the Democrats (presently, rightly) would benefit strongly from increased popular turn-out. It's going to be hard to argue that everyone deserves a voice and we can now deliver that over TCP/IP.

Soon that turn-out will go beyond extra voting days and no voter ID required--soon someone is going to perfect Internet Voting and if that ever happens (and technical challenges will have a shelf-life, I guarantee you), we will have nightmare tickets:
And They'd Win (Yes, That's What You Think It Is)
Of course the idea in the book is that either (a) this won't happen (wrong) or (b) The Circle will control the vote-count somehow to put their candidate in (who, let's face it, is better than Jesse Ventura and Howard Stern). The problem with (b) is that the shadowy guy at the top doesn't really write the code anymore. The 'Demoxie' product has been produced by young idealistic code geniuses. So who will put the "secret control vote-counting" routine in? Right: no one (and if you think they'll just 'slip it in' in the middle of the night, you don't understand code reviews, side effects, digital signing, and source control).

Total Corporate Knowledge
I have read people online who won't use Gmail (the premier web-email) because it requires a phone number--and Google can't have that! This is stupid. The phone number is an attempt to allow recovery of your account if it is hacked--this was a must-have when people put their lives on Google. And secondly, your mobile number is of little interest to them demographically: the content of your email is what they want to scan.

But, hey, people are dumb.

That doesn't mean Google knowing everything about you isn't potentially a problem. The 'creepy' factor aside (when they recommend you a bong after you order a Grateful Dead album and you go 'How do they know?"), there are legitimate concerns about their (very, very accurate) model falling into the wrong hands.

For example, what if someone wanted to find all the 'perverts' and managed to get access to Google's models of porn viewing (yes, I know you use porn-mode ... no, I'm not certain they still don't know)? What if it was a future government administration? We already know about people who have been audited for Google searches for pressure-cookers and how-to-make-bomb links (it was their company IT department that turned them in, not Google)--but seriously?

Do you want their engine knowing you like midget-porn? Really? What might the recommendations be (Date midgets in YOUR area!).

In The Circle, though, there's no examination of what their model of people actually does. There's no "they accidentally outed a gay guy in Russia and got him killed" story-line. There is a bit where Annie's parents get outed for watching a guy drowned during some drunken debauchery--but while 'that's bad' it isn't actually model driven--just facial recognition and someone's old camcorder video or something.

Telling the wrong parent their daughter is pregnant (which The Circle would totally do--they explicitly believe in telling your mom) could get her killed. Eggers doesn't go there--but we may well get there in real life.

Ultimately, so long as they just want to privately market to you (privately) the "damage" done by a really good model of you is limited--but that doesn't mean it isn't an issue. In 1984 data mining would find potential enemies of the state before they even knew it themselves.

I want to talk about the ending for a second--not the very end--but the bit right before it (this is a serious spoiler). One of the founders wants Mae to read a statement on the air about how The Circle is bad--and then he'll come clean with some unspecified bad stuff they've done and maybe stop some of the machines or something.

The problem with this is (a) it wouldn't work --or-- it doesn't really need her (if he's got the goods, the justice department will do fine) and (b) despite the misery they (ought to) have inflicted on her she's still never really doubted them. It's like, will she flip? Nooo ... why would she!? She's totally one of them despite them alienating her parents and harassing her friend to death and seeing her mentor / best friend destroyed ...

So I found myself wondering if Eggers just figured there was no way out of The Circle or if he expected us to believe that she'd finally, in the last page, be horrified by what she had done and abetted. To really sell that, he'd need a deeper protagonist.

Eggers has written a book that will be read and will have an impact. He's very bright and he's done a great job--but it's not the new 1984. You could live in The Circle's dystopic future--you'd just need to either be shameless or careful--it isn't the image of a boot stomping on a human face forever and ever. It also isn't as sophisticated as 1984. It's far from dumb--but it has some gaps that Eggers doesn't fill in. I enjoyed it--but I can't recommend it without reservation.

* Once, in the Army, I missed a drill. I had a wedding to go to and didn't get permission to get out in time--and I went. This was an Article-15 (relatively minor) issue but I was asked by the officer chewing me out if I'd choose family over the Army again. I said "No sir--the Army!" It was apparently the right answer. Yeah, that guy was a piece of work (assuming even he believed what he was saying ... which I kind of doubt).

** She wears a 'tweet' bracelet that gives her messages from her myriad followers. Imagine what they'd be tweeting every time she was in the bathroom? Eggers has trolls go away because they're no longer anonymous--but does anyone buy that? A few trolls have been outed and dried up--but others haven't. She'd be miserable wearing that thing.

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