I may have been sounding really modern and really wedded to the march towards the future in some of my past articles, but I have always had one foot in the future and one in the past. I am nostalgic about the days when there were only four channels on TV. I am not too nostalgic about typewriters because word processors are too convenient for a less than great typist, but I do love photos with that old sepia tone, and I do experience a certain amount of computer shock in my life. I like paper newspapers and I really did not think that editors and publishers and even actual paper books would practically disappear before I got to publish a book. After reading Dave Eggers new book The Circle, I may have to start to separate from this computer which has so invaded and changed my lifestyle.
We notice every time our new friend Google or Facebook informs us of a new feature that promises to whittle away at our privacy, but sometimes we let it slide because the invasion seems small, or the steps to opt out of the invasion are too complicated to remember. We let the internet steal our photos, use them in ads, use our names in ads. We have become accustomed to “liking” things; so many likes, so many things and we are never asked to dislike things so it doesn’t really seem so bad. Except someone, somewhere could be compiling all of our likes and making a profile of our personality, which would not really represent our personality much at all. This is all a build up to talking about the book The Circle, so you must be starting to get a clue as to the subject of the book. Be patient, I’ll get there. What do we call those squares that we see on menus and products everywhere, the ones that look like coded bit maps? I found out they are called QR codes or Quick Response Codes. People are enjoying scanning these coded squares into their phones because these codes translate into product endorsements on Facebook or the code tells your friends how exciting your social life is based on the number of restaurants, stores, and clubs that you frequent. (You may also earn perks.) However, they also tell the person who sponsors the QR code a lot about you.
We know we are losing privacy. We know that the internet is trying to zero in on us, pinpoint where we are and what we do and what we buy and what we like and what we read and what we wear and perhaps the state of our health, our age, our gender, our sexual orientation, our address, our phone numbers, our history. Where does it end? When do we cry “enough”? These internet social sites have voracious appetites for data. They are equally hungry to find ways to sell this data to data miners and advertisers and maybe even spy organizations. We give them the data gratis, because they make us feel that we will no longer be able to use social media unless we comply and we do it. We may worry a bit that someone will steal the data and steal our identity, but we don’t often think about the fact that our identity has already been stolen by the social media. And while they may not have plans to invade our bank accounts, they often invade our lives in other ways.
This is the situation that we find in The Circle (a company with some frightening similarities to Google). Dave Eggers takes us along with Mae (Maebelline) when she gets a job at The Circle. She finally asks her college roommate Annie to help her get hired because she hates her nowhere job at the local utility. Mae begins working in Customer Experience which is basically the call center where complaints are handled. Her success on every call is rated right away and she must follow up immediately if the rating is low, find out why, and get a new rating, hopefully higher. At first Mae is nervous, but this girl is competitive, and she hates negative feedback, craves praise and high grades and high scores. She is made for this job.
She works her way up quickly through the company hierarchy and manages to find time to deal with her father’s multiple sclerosis (she believes) and meet a mysterious man who she finds very attractive but who seems to be a subversive figure working against The Circle. She is fitted with a very fine medical bracelet which constantly monitors her health and which we the reader can’t help but covet because it harkens back to that all-purpose body scanner in Star Trek. The idea that someone will lock a bracelet around your wrist that will always broadcast vitals and that is never removed also creeps us out a little. We see the potential for abuse almost immediately and we see that such control may escalate.
If, as you continue reading The Circle, you don’t get the heebie-jeebies, then you are made of stern stuff indeed. All I will say is, “wait until you get to the part with the giant blind shark”. Talk about the obvious, yet highly effective use of a symbol. Wait to you see what happens to Annie. Between the shark and Annie and a few other surprising outcomes I began to think that perhaps we should throw out our computers and back out of the internet. Is it too late to back out? Probably. But old school is looking better every moment after recent real life changes announced by Google, and recent revelations about the NSA, and then this book which is more frightening than anything we will see on Halloween, this coming Wednesday. When change is so incremental and logical it is very difficult to know when to call a halt and so when (of course I mean if) it begins to engulf our freedom and our democracy will we object? Will we be able to escape the all-knowing eye of our computer at that point? Read the book. It’s short. It has a few flaws but such a quick pace that you won’t be able to put it down. What you decide to do after you read it is on you.