What if there was one place where all information about you and originating from you was stored and continually updated, and retrieved and searched in its entirety by other people, businesses and government organisations, without you having any control about it and no means of confirming its accuracy and veracity?
What that be of concern to you? Creepy thought, isn’t it?!
That’s exactly what Dave Eggers’ new book “The Circle” is about, and a good thing that it’s fiction, though once you start thinking about it you may find that life imitates art to a disturbing degree. The book tells a fascinating story of a brave new world powered by the Internet and Big Data, the building blocks of which are already in place today: Facebook, Google, online shopping, the Internet of things, tiny video cameras, facial recognition capabilities.
The main protagonist is a young woman named Mae who starts working at the Circle, a global corporation constructed of all the above mentioned building blocks (think Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon all wrapped into one) and the “Mother of All Data”, because its databases contain a high-resolution picture of everything each individual user of the Circle is doing, desiring and expressing.
The Circle is the entity that knows EVERYTHING about you, all with your best interests in mind and with the express purpose of making your life easier, safer and more comfortable, and the world a better place in the bargain.
Many of this fictitious company’s tools and arguments of their value to us are persuasive, and exist today: advertising specifically tailored to you instead of meaningless and annoying ads (got that already), a safer world because we know where you are at all times (got that one too), apps that don’t only know where you are but know where you’re planning to go (check), online marketplaces where you can browse and shop for whatever you desire (check), all the information of the world at your fingertips (and someone else knowing exactly what you’re interested in, check), instant communication with anyone (stored on so many servers and possibly accessed by everyone else, check), online platforms to share what you’re thinking and doing (computers actually do know what’s on your mind because you’re telling them about it, check), live-streaming cameras that can be attached anywhere including your person (check), apps that track how much you move and exercise (conclusions to be drawn about your health and fitness included, check), all your personal information, banking, loans, insurances, driving offences, health records, online and accessible (not only by you, check).
The only difference between our “real” world and what’s going on in this book is that here and now these databases are controlled by separate corporations and organisations, but if they were ever combined the “Circle” would be complete.
Today’s computer systems already interpret so much of the data and photos you voluntarily share in Facebook, in the cloud, email, calendar, web searches and the purchases you make.
The web knows when your children have a birthday and what you buy for them. It knows if you buy your wife (or someone else) flowers, lingerie and jewelry.
It knows which movies and TV shows you like to see and if and which type of pornography you prefer.
It knows (or at least guesses) your political leanings from the newspapers you read online and the articles, posts and comments you share with others.
It knows what you do in your business, how much you charge for your services and, if you use cloud storage (like Google Drive, iCloud or Dropbox), holds much of your intellectual property.
Just think about your own personal interactions with the web, every single one of which is stored in computers all over the world. If you pull all this data together what picture results from it? What does it tell others about you, your family and the people you connect with? How much of your convictions, values, beliefs and attitudes is revealed and can be analysed and exploited? Should all this information ever be brought together in one place what power over you would that give to the organization that controls this data? You don’t have to be a criminal to worry about this kind of transparency of your “self”.
Mind you, being paranoid about “Big Brother” doesn’t help, but surely we all should be interested when governments pursue antitrust suits against large corporations which are controlling much of our data, such as Google, Apple and Microsoft, and privacy protection measures are proposed.
This digital world is now as real as the physical world we inhabit and concern for it is of equal importance to looking after the health of our planet: looking after the privacy of our data and keeping control of what’s nobody else’s business.
As Edward Snowden, the NSA contractor who leaked information about the widespread data and communication surveillance already taking place today, said so beautifully: “Arguing that you don’t care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say.”
He also made a wonderful point about what it means to grow up in this Big Brother world: “A child born today will grow up with no conception of privacy at all. They’ll never know what it means to have a private moment to themselves an unrecorded, unanalyzed thought. And that’s a problem because privacy matters; privacy is what allows us to determine who we are and who we want to be.”
Let’s just hope that we are smart and “interested” enough to keep a lid on all this new technology, which in many ways does make our lives easier and “better”, and which is still only in its infancy. The Internet baby we know today is rapidly growing and much “Bigger Brothers” are already pulling on their boots.
Unless we’re all involved in the raising of this child, and evolve with it, we might end up like Mickey in the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, but without the wizard coming home to clean up the mess.
Read Dave Eggers’ book “The Circle” – very entertaining and deeply thought provoking. In many instances you will see glimpses of yourself in Mae. How much of her behaviour doesn’t remind you of your own?
Read the book review in the New Yorker.
Read about how much of the “fiction” in this book is already impacting us today: