Wednesday, 9 April 2014

"The Circle", Dave Eggers

For a while the location based social network Foursquare made a very big deal out of its badges, acquired by checking into enough places of a particular category. One of these badges, Oversharer, could be seen as a driving leitmotif behind Dave Eggers’ somewhat commented upon social network novel, “The Circle”.

In many ways society is founded on sharing. We’re taught that we should share our toys as children, share our feelings with those we care about, and sharing food and shelter with strangers is a core tenet of most religions. Where does this stop though? Does sharing become an end in itself, to the extent that it grows from “sharing is caring” to anything that stops sharing becomes bad, where “secrets are lies”, and “privacy is theft”?

Eggers has written a commentary on how social media and sharing might presage a world that destroys any notion of privacy. It’s not perhaps been the best received book, with criticism ranging from it being a dull through to perhaps more interesting comments from technology insiders who seize on Eggers’ deliberate non-immersion in the closeted worlds of Mountain View as an opportunity to plaintitavely wail that he doesn’t understand them  Interestingly though this bridling on the part of the technologists makes one of the core points. Many of those from the software industry will maintain that fundamentally different rules and norms apply to them, claiming “this is software, we do things differently”, which actually serves to make Eggers’ point - those brilliant yet insecure people in the industry have already drunk the Kool Aid.

Some of the technology critiques reflect a certain refusal to see the nuance in Eggers’ humour. To whit (from Wired) "Although the book spends a lot of time foreshadowing that The Circle as A Bad Company Up To Bad Things For Humanity, it actually accomplishes a lot of good: eradicating crime, quashing despotic regimes, deterring election fraud and making healthcare more available to Americans." - but quashing despotic regimes doesn't happen - campaigners harnessing The Circle are still working out how to send "dislikes" to Latin American insurgents, and sending multiple dislikes to the PRC results in the central character, Mae, commenting that “180 million frowns from the US alone, and you can bet that has an effect on the regime".

“The Circle” describes a world which we sleep-walk into. It’s an allegory, and as such it serves a purpose. How well however does it stand up to its ancestors from the first wave of internet technology driven fiction, typified by Bronson’s “The First 20 Million is Always the Hardest” and Coupland’s “Microserfs”? I can’t help feeling that it falls short. Both earlier books stand up to revisiting, and I’m not sure I’m in a hurry to come back to Eggers’ “Circle”. Is this a reflection that novels about a more innocent age are more engaging than one where the more final outcome of technology is somewhat more bleak?

In the interests of disclosure, I tweet (@isynge), find Foursquare quite fun, have a Facebook profile, and even try to keep my Google+ profile up to date. I like sharing, and I still find “The Circle” thought provoking. 

It’s not going to be the best book you read this year, but it should still serve to make you think about what you do online, and ask questions about whether “Don’t be Evil” is still in any way a credible company purpose.