Sharing is Caring – Technology, Privacy, and The Circle

It’s summer….

and so I’m inundated with books! Each year, I make the attempt to read all the books on the summer reading lists and all new books being taught in English courses over the next year. I also get distracted with my own reading and recommendations from friends. So while it’s an admirable goal, it’s one I’m as happy to have “in progress” as complete. Each school does summer reading a little bit differently. In our school, there’s one community book that everyone reads (1), 14 sponsored books, of which students choose one (15), and four professional books of which faculty choose one (20). One of the reasons that I enjoy doing this is that it leads to authentic (ie. not “small talky”) conversations with all students and teachers in August. It’s a shared experience, and you can always glean something from a book, even when it isn’t a book you’d choose yourself. Which leads to the other reason that I enjoy this. I am exposed to a variety of books I might not otherwise read, and there is a deadline that motivates me to read them.

One of the sponsored books this summer was The Circle, Dave Eggers’ most recent book, which was published last fall. While it could be described as a near-future technology dystopia, I’m partial to Margaret Atwood’s term “satirical utopia.” Imagine Google, Facebok, Twitter, YouTube, and Apple as one company, a happy company that just happens to wield a lot of power. When one of my English teachers requested this book as his sponsored summer reading, I thought back to Atwood’s favorable review in the New York Review of Books, where she writes statements like,

“The outpouring of ideas is central to The Circle, as it is in part a novel of ideas. What sort of ideas? Ideas about the social construction and deconstruction of privacy, and about the increasing corporate ownership of privacy, and about the effects such ownership may have on the nature of Western democracy. Dissemination of information is power, as the old yellow-journalism newspaper proprietors knew so well. What is withheld can be as potent as what is disclosed, and who can lie publicly and get away with it is determined by gatekeepers: thus, in the Internet age, code-owners have the keys to the kingdom.

This, then, is the “real” world to which Eggers holds up the mirror of art in order to show us ourselves and the perils that surround us. But The Circle is neither a tract nor an analysis but a novel, and novels always tell the stories of individuals. …It also incorporates passages of symposium-like Socratic dialogue by which the central character is manipulated, through rational-sounding questions and answers, into performing the increasingly outrageous acts that logic demands of her.” (http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2013/nov/21/eggers-circle-when-privacy-is-theft/)

Turns out, the teacher in question was not familiar with Atwood’s critique but had read one by Ellen Ullman three weeks prior in the New York Times Book Review. Ullman’s conclusion about the book’s literary merit is radically different from Atwood’s.

“This potential dystopia should sound familiar. Books and tweets and blogs are already debating the issues Eggers raises: the tyranny of transparency, personhood defined as perpetual presence in social networks, our strange drive to display ourselves… “The Circle” adds little of substance to the debate. Eggers reframes the discussion as a fable, a tale meant to be instructive. His instructors include a Gang of 40, a Transparent Man, a shadowy figure who may be a hero or a villain, a Wise Man with a secret chamber and a smiling legion of true-believing company employees. The novel has the flavor of a comic book: light, entertaining, undemanding.” (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/03/books/review/the-circle-by-dave-eggers.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0)

After reading the book, I began to question further these competing claims. Consider these excerpts.

LA Times: Even as satire, The Circle is disappointing as a novel: the plot is too easy, the prose simple, the characters flat and undistinguishable. Due to these same qualities, however, The Circle succeeds as commentary on the era of big data and transparency. The scary part is that the Silicon Valley of The Circle barely seems like a caricature. (https://lareviewofbooks.org/review/dave-eggerss-the-circle)

Booklist Starred: Eggers brilliantly depicts the Internet binges, torrents of information, and endless loops of feedback that increasingly characterize modern life. But perhaps most chilling of all is his notion that our ultimate undoing could be something so petty as our desperate desire for affirmation.

Kirkus Reviews: Eggers thoughtfully captured the alienation new technologies create in his previous novel, A Hologram for the King, but this lecture in novel form is flat-footed and simplistic. Though Eggers strives for a portentous, Orwellian tone, this book mostly feels scolding, a Kurt Vonnegut novel rewritten by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

The Guardian: There are a few weaknesses. Eggers struggles here and there to balance psychological plausibility with the outlandishness of his satirical flourishes; he sometimes needs his characters to behave in ways that seem – certainly when you put the book down – to be wholly implausible. …But this is a prescient, important and enjoyable book, and what I love most about The Circle is that it is telling us so much about the impact of the computer age on human beings in the only form that can do so with the requisite wit, interiority and profundity: the novel. (http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/oct/09/circle-dave-eggers-review)

This reminds me that book reviews aren’t perfect, and they certainly aren’t impartial. A plot that makes us examine what we intentionally and unintentionally share online is bound to have readers’ personal beliefs on the subject mixed in. Because I’ve appreciated Eggers’ other works, I’m inclined to believe that some of the bits that I found clunkier were in fact purposeful. There is humor through word play and situational humor. There is no doubt that we are voluntarily giving away some of our privacy. Our phones track our location street by street for GPS or restaurant apps but always know where we are. When we take photos, the technology knows the location, and social networking sites can automatically recognize faces and tag them. Cool but also a bit scary in the wrong hands. Real-life face tracking software was in the news yesterday. The Circle made me stop and think about the ways that technology is using me as a product for companies just as I use technology to make my own life easier. Too often, a book retreats to the back of my mind after reading it. “Good” or “bad,” this is one that returns to my mind as I’m watching the ad with the surfer looking at current wave conditions from his home computer. How can I disagree with The Circle’s motto that “Sharing is Caring?” And yet I have reservations…

If you can’t tell, I’m partially writing this post because I can’t wait until August and so desperately want to discuss the book with someone. If you’re read it or have thoughts on the subject of technology and privacy, I’d love to hear it in the comments below!

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