Here's to a good time, a good life, and a good death.
So I recently finished reading The Circle, a book by Dave Eggers, about a week ago for my LTLE 150 class (Information in Contemporary Society). The course itself is extraordinarily nonacademic and can be compared to a middle school discussion level class. I’m actually ashamed it even exists in our university. So why am I taking it? Well, I needed the credits to be considered a full-time student and since my roommate was in it, I figured why the hell not? How bad can it be. Well, its pretty bad, at least in terms of I feel like I’m losing brain cells in the course. That was until I read our one big assigned reading, The Circle.
The Circle is a fictional story following Mae, the main character, through her journey as she begins to work for pioneering technology company, the Circle. Much like our Facebook and Google all wrapped into one firm, the Circle seems to monopolize all innovative information technologies, especially social media. Eventually, the long-term goals of the Circle are to approach an information singularity where everyone is watched and all information is publicly available, this is known in the book as “completing the circle”. The book introduces some wild philosophical statements that bluntly demonstrate the ambitious ideas of the Circle, such as “Secrets Are Lies”, “Sharing Is Caring”, and “Privacy Is Theft.” (pg 305)*. All these statements surround the context of the Circle’s social media services, but can be applied to pretty much any information technology applications. The eventual idea is that the Circle is a company with the mission of “completing the Circle” in order to fulfill some sort of global Utopian society with everything interconnected through the Circle with all information exposed.
Obviously, its easy to see some problems/concerns with this sort of society. Do we actually want people to see everything we do or know everything we know?
Now, Eggers is poking fun at the behavior of modern day society in regards to Facebook and dozens of other digital applications that utilize personal information. He is also warning about where the direction of these technologies may lead. He seems to argue a sort of slippery slope when it comes to the acceptance of these technologies. How far do we go?
Well, my answer is we go as far as we want to, which I argue is no where near as far as Eggers makes it out to be. Firstly, humans are far less accepting of new technology than he assumes. If you look up the Diffusion of Technology subject in Wikipedia, that page offers a decent explanation as to how technology gets utilized in a society. Everett Rogers is famous for popularizing the subject to some extent.
Rogers’ Product Adoption Curve
In short, not everyone is an exuberant technology participant as Eggers largely portrays in the Circle. Now, this is often attributed to high initial cost factors, (think for example Google Glass at $1500), but as well as preferences factors. For instance, I know friends that have left Facebook or deleted certain apps because they didn’t like what it was doing in their lives. I know other people who had no desire to be on Facebook or said app, etc.
Now, someone may make the counterargument that this is just slowing the inevitable process. In other words, more invasive technology will eventually be adopted and, as future generations grow up accustomed to the technology, their expectations for what is acceptable in the social tech sphere will expand and adjust accordingly.
However, this brings me to my second point. As people do integrate more high technology into their daily lives, people delineate spaces and times that are appropriate for these uses.
Now, Eggers writes this story to demonstrate the way that technology gradually consumes Mae’s daily life. One landmark event was when “Mae goes transparent” which basically means she is wearing a video camera for each full day that feeds live HD footage and audio to the internet publicly for viewers to watch. Mae seems to largely enjoy this idea of having hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people watching her regularly. Somehow, she never considers the exhaustion of the technology around her. She seems to hardly be bothered that all of her personal interactions become suddenly impersonal because they are shared with millions of people. She never feels too overwhelmed to be responsible for managing her social profile on dozens of different platforms. She never feels overburdened at being expected to fill out about 500 survey questions daily, send out numerous “zings” (think Tweets) per day, respond to any social media that comes her way, maintain a high score in her “PartiRank” account (an extracurricular/social media participation rank), and all while doing her regular responsibilities in her fast-pace job. She even gets in trouble for overlooking an event request sent her way that she failed to respond to.
I doubt very many people would actually feel desire, let alone feel comfortable, with this idea of always being watched. Now, maybe future generations will be more accepting of this idea, but I foresee an inevitable co-emergence of regulations through the government sphere. It is probable that as HD video cameras become cheaper and more abundant in use, they will be more adopted into public spaces, but it equally likely that there will also be specified and defined uses for the technology through legal establishments. For instance, texting is illegal while driving in most states. An employee using Facebook at work can get that employee fired.
Furthermore, social norms arguably play an even stronger co-evolving process in this situation. Being on one’s phone at dinner or lunch is considered rude while present at the table. Phone calls are not to be taken during meetings. Posting certain kinds of information, such as a family member’s divorce, especially before its made public, on a social media outlet would be heavily frowned upon. Even after it’s made public, it still would be in poor taste. It is no secret that people highly respond to shame, especially from their parents and to a slightly less degree their friends.
My third point is that people are not always so friendly towards technology firms. There are plenty of people who don’t necessarily love Google or Facebook or any other social media application. I’ve known a few such people through the course of my lifetime and I respect their opinions. I’ve known people to be suspicious of technology firms, which doesn’t surprise me in the slightest. Resistance to technology is not a novel idea; it is one that is natural to people. People generally like certainty (unless the uncertainty is on their terms) and technology brings disruption, especially in the labor market context. To wrap up this point, there are always “anti this or that” groups that oppose certain companies or brands.
My final point is that we do not actually have any legally-sanctioned monopolized technology firms and nor do people take kindly to the idea of firms approaching monopolies. For example, Apple is not a large firm because no other companies are allowed to make tablets, phones, or laptops. It’s that people prefer Apple’s products, although their are plenty of competitors. In market societies, people vote with their money as to which firms grow and which firms fail. As long as there are substitutes or other “options” present, then this framework holds. For instance, in regards to Google Search, we have Bing, Blekko, Crunchbase, and DuckDuckGo. In other words, people use Google Search because it returns them the results that they expect or want. This prevents Google Search from manipulating search results “too far”. In other words, for the people who think that Google can distort information without consequence, remember that Google Search is constrained to some extent.
Furthermore, we also have well-developed institutions to handle monopolization, such as the Anti-Trust Division of the United States government, who also carries a stellar reputation in terms of its rigorous economic analysis.
Eggers does write about the Circle in the context of the legal structure of American democracy. He writes that the Circle comes to dominate government actors. However, he does so under the assumption that the general population is extraordinarily accepting of everything the Circle produces. This is quite the far-reaching assumption.
In general, Eggers ignores the crucial role of evolving institutions like social norms and government in painting his disturbing future. Social media and corresponding social technologies don’t just integrate into society without being filtered through social institutions. People do not mindlessly accept technology without delineating appropriate behavior.
How else do you explain the huge popularity of these “technology makes us anti-social” videos being produced? Or at least the high view count?
*Pages are in terms of Kindle