Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Book Review - The Circle

Imagine a future where technology is heavily entrenched in almost every mundane detail of our daily lives. A future where people wake up and immediately reach for social media to connect with hundreds of friends and acquaintances all around the world. Where people wear and carry devices to monitor their heart rate, caloric intake, steps taken, time spent meditating, time spent sleeping, amount of water consumed, etc. A future where people share opinions, photos, thoughts and snippets of their life down to every trivial detail. A time when people live broadcast moments of their daily activities ranging from climbing mountains to shopping for groceries to staring idly at the clock.

It's probably not that difficult to imagine given the pervasive nature of technology and social media that's currently in our lives. Just imagine the current level of social media and our mobile and wearable technology and then ratchet it up a notch and you have the setting for The Circle.

The Circle is the name of the world's most powerful and influential technology company. Think of them as having the combined platforms and reach of Facebook/Twitter/Instagram/etc combined and then add in all of the most successful and innovative products and platforms created by Apple/Google/Microsoft/etc and you have The Circle. They have products in services in nearly every aspect you can think of where digital interacts with reality.

As the book progresses, the products and services offered by The Circle grow more and more invasive. As an outsider watching the progress it's easier to see the darker side of the changes being made. To the characters living in the world and embracing the technology they are somewhat like the frog in the story about how to boil a frog. The water around them is slowly getting hotter but they won't really recognize any problems until it is too late.

The progress being put forth by The Circle is marketed and promoted in such a way that it "goes viral" through the world of social media and gains widespread adoption and enthusiasm. Naysayers are deemed to be out of touch or even being socially repulsive or defiantly deviant. The social expectation is acceptance or ostracism.

Our technologically embedded world has not achieved the dystopian extremes set forth by Eggers. And yet, there is logic and frightening possibilities in the realistic way he shows the transformation from products of novelty/entertainment/convenience into tools with potential to destroy humanity.

These days so many people have tablets and smart phones in hand or nearby every waking moment of their day. A recent study said that 80% of people are never more than 3 feet away from an internet connected device, primarily their smart phone. Many people wear health/activity tracking devices that monitor their activity levels during the day and even when sleeping. So many people post/tweet/share nearly everything they do and those who aren't sharing are often commenting or interacting with these activities. Simply by writing this review and sharing it in the digital world I am taking a small part in the very mechanism Eggers outlines.

While the novel does not explicitly prescribe any solutions, the warning is clear. Humanity needs to be cautious in the proliferation of information. The more we share ourselves into the conglomerate digital whole the less we exist as a distinct physical individual. Beware the "hive mind" mentality. Sharing information is wonderful. The technology and advances that make it easier to interact, communicate and share with other people is amazing and fabulous. But we need to be cautious as the lines blur between online and offline worlds. We need to maintain and guard our sense of privacy and sense of self not out of shame or evil-doing but out of a need to maintain our individualism and that special unique spark that makes us human.

As I mentioned, the first few chapters were a bit of a slog for me but taken as part of the whole I saw them as being almost essential. There was some swearing that I personally was not fond of and there were sexual encounters which were not overly graphic but were more descriptive than I would have liked. I acknowledge these as personal moral/taste preferences and I also acknowledge that some of these elements had slight use to illustrate the author's points.

Overall I really enjoyed this novel. Due to the language and sexual elements, I would definitely only recommend it to adult readers. I would also pose a warning that while there's nothing particularly offensive this book is intended to make the reader feel uncomfortable and apprehensive about the state of the world. Not only the world of the novel but also the world we all belong to where the line is very blurry between Internet-world and Real-world.

A thoughtful and provocative read.

4 out of 5 stars

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**** Potential Spoilers in the high level Plot information that follows ****

The book focuses around Mae Holland, a newly hired employee working at The Circle. She isn't a top notch developer or innovator or marketing guru but she's tech savvy and smart enough to get noticed and it helped that her old friend and roommate Annie is on the executive level of the company who lands Mae a job in the customer service area emphasizing that it's really just a jumping off point to anywhere else in the company. The prestige of working at The Circle is huge and Mae starts out very star struck and intimidated. This leads to her pressing fast and furious to prove herself by going above and beyond and applying herself deeply in everything that comes her way.

I have to admit that I was a little bogged down by the first few chapters of the book. We accompany Mae on her tour of The Circle's company campus, visiting the common area, the cafeterias, the parks, research areas, etc. We sit at Mae's desk as she is given orientation on the software programs that will track her incoming customer service calls and ratings, the inner-office chat software, the expectations around internal and external interactions with social media. We go with her to company meetings announcing new products and concepts. We join her for her first discussion with her direct boss regarding a small misunderstanding on one of her activities. Honestly I almost gave up on the book worried that it would just be a slog through the mundane aspects of working at a large company. Admittedly the company campus sounds great and reminds me of when I walked around the Microsoft campus or images I've seen from Apple and Google. I must also say that I admire the fluid nature of some of the software and processes that they use and I wish that some of our own company methods worked as smoothly.

The first few chapters are definitely a little dry plot-wise but they serve a very important role. Slowly but surely we see the nature of interactions get more and more questionable. At first the "questionable" nature isn't something that would be considered illegal or harshly invasive it's just a little uncomfortable with a subtle sort of pressure. For example, Mae is expected to maintain an acceptable level of customer interaction and satisfaction through surveys and social media interaction with the customers that contact her. That grows from a simple follow up survey to needing to interact with the customer and their company/persona on social media. Initially this comes in the form of reciprocal surveys and reviews but extends to interacting more personally and in-depth with letters of recommendation, reacting and commenting on photos or events and trying to be more active online friends. Similarly, Mae is expected to have internal interaction with the many teams, clubs and organizations within the company. She is graded on her level of activity with the internal forums, in-person meetings, and direct interaction. She even gets a slight reprimand for insufficient interaction with a group to which she had just shown a passing interest.

All of this starts out fairly innocuous and given Mae's desire for approval and mobility within her new job it's easy to see why she enthusiastically agrees and actively pursues each request which helps us understand the company-wide acceptance of the policies and procedures.

As time goes on we see The Circle's influence expand outside of the company. Their technology and platforms are widely used around the world. Within the United States, The Circle works to expand the influence of their online identity management with proposals to link it into corporate and government proceedings.

The company eventually reveals a new product called SeaChange. Using wearable audio/video technology, people are encouraged to go "transparent" meaning that they are broadcasting their life at all times and in all places. No more "back door" conversations or secret deals. No more lies and subterfuge. Everything will be out in the open and available for public scrutiny and accountability.

The high level presentation of this concept sounds very idyllic in that it will effectively force greater honesty and cooperation between corporations, governments and even individual people. All of this comes at the full removal of any form of privacy. The top executives at The Circle present (with the help of Mae) somewhat convincing arguments as to why there is no need for privacy. They come up with 3 mantras:

  • Secrets are Lies
  • Sharing is Caring
  • Privacy is Theft

Essentially they put forth the idea that the only reason for someone to want to keep something secret is because of shame. Thus by forcing transparency they would be helping to moderate and potentially get rid of shameful behavior. A person would be less likely to behave badly if they knew they were being watched and could be held accountable.

The public excitement for SeaChange is overwhelming. Any voices worried about "Big Brother" scenarios are quickly put down as being evasive and having something to hide. Social outcries are made against people trying to stay "off the grid." Some of Mae's family and old friends are very apprehensive about the pervasiveness of this technology and the removal of privacy. They argue and fight with Mae about benefits of privacy and staying off the grid. There are even a couple of employees within The Circle who have some apprehension about the direction taken by the company (I won't say more than that as you need to read it to see what happens).

It's somewhat terrifying to see subtle way The Circle expands their influence and the voracious enthusiasm the public shows towards the innovations and concepts put forth. It hits just a little too close to reality and feels a little too plausible. I hope and believe that there are enough checks-and-balances in place to keep such a thing from happening and I also hope that each of us is smart enough to see potential warning signs. However, the small and simple ways The Circle puts forth their arguments and makes everything seem like an obvious natural choice makes me worry that we truly could see the disintegration of privacy and the progression towards a frightening "hive mind" state of existence.

A lot of food for thought in this. Plenty to munch on for days/weeks/months to come.


Unknown said...

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Okie said...

There's not much to my header but you're welcome to link. Thanks for asking.

Unknown said...

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