There is an old saying: “We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.” It was with this in mind that I suggested a book review debate of The Circle with my fellow Humans for Digital Health blogger David Holzer, who couldn’t see the technological world more differently than I do.
For the record, I’m in my early 30s and David won’t see 50 again.
David writes for a living. Occasionally, he teaches creative writing. He also loves the sound of his own voice – he said that, not me. This is why his answers to my questions are rather long-winded. It doesn’t mean they’re right, David points out. You need to read The Circle and make up your own mind.
First, a bit of background on The Circle. Without giving too much away, Dave Eggers’s book is set in the environs of an ultra-tech company with obvious echoes of Google, Facebook and any other Silicon Valley giant you care to mention. It’s the story of Mae Holland, a kind of young Californian everywoman, and what joining the biggest tech firm in the world does to her.
Eggers is on record as saying “A lot of times I’d think of something that a company like the Circle might dream up, something a little creepy, and then I’d read about the exact invention, or even something more extreme, the next day” (((http://www.mcsweeneys.net/articles/a-brief-q-a-with-dave-eggers-about-his-new-novel-the-circle))) but what’s interesting is that nowhere does he directly address the question of the absence of women at the highest levels of Silicon Valley and the way women are treated by the tech behemoths.
The point about The Circle is that it’s one of few books I can think of that is actually set in a world that many of us reading this blog are familiar with. Dave Eggers is very much a zeitgeist writer and The Circle is worth reading because it provokes discussion of the kind David and I had.
Campus and Workstyle
Elizabeth: I have to admit I was surprised how much I was still drawn to this style of community and workplace.
David: Belonging and collectiveness is seductive. In the history of management, fostering inclusiveness is a deliberate strategy. You’re more productive if you feel cared for and that’s what the Circle campus is all about.
E: So does Mae represent all of us?
D: For me, Mae is the villain. But she’s presented sympathetically, to draw the reader in. Mae causes damage without even knowing she’s doing it – like us, if we’re not careful.
E: I think Mae represents our idealism and naïveté. She was too young and got sucked into a machine before she knew who she was. She also hated who she was before the Circle. That is why Mae quickly internalised the Circle
D: Mae sleeps with a couple of guys but I wonder why isn’t there a (real) love story in the circle?
E: I was desperately rooting for a white Tesla into the sunset. But I guess that the impossibility of real love in the Circle environment is part of the point Eggers is trying to make.
D: Maybe he wanted things to remain ambivalent. Also, if the book became a love story, it would probably take Mae’s character outside the Circle.
E: Eggers has suggested the creation of a centre for digital ethics, saying “There are centres for ethics, bioethics, medical ethics, legal ethics, but there is not an official study of digital or techno-ethics yet.” (((http://news.stanford.edu/news/2014/october/eggers-circle-talk-101014.html))). This is really good point.
D: I agree. The Circle seems to create its own ethics and then put pressure on people outside it – politicians, for instance – to subscribe to them. Who says allowing everything you do to be filmed and recorded to prove you have nothing to hide is actually a good thing, for instance? Do the guys who founded the Circle go along with this? I don’t think so.
Also, if you’re being filmed all the time, it’s inevitable you’re going to be recorded having sex – at least, I hope so! What did you think about the sex tape part of the book?
E: Part of me wondered if he put the sex tape section into the book to drive this point home. Unfortunately, the sex tape was the least believable part of the book for me. I realise Eggers was trying to shake our assumptions but this just went further than believable. Maybe time will prove me wrong, but putting a sex tape on a corporate mainframe would throw up all kinds of legal issues.
D: Transparency is a seductive notion until it applies to us. The guy who makes the tape doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with living life online and, of course, there are people like that. But, I agree, it’s impossible to believe that there’s nothing wrong with posting a sex tape. It sort of weakens the debate about privacy in the book for me.
Technical progress and innovation
E: In the same talk at Stanford, Eggers said: “People will do the right thing when there are laws and parameters and when there’s a discussion about it”. He added, “I’m a believer. I believe we’re good. We just need to talk about how to be good.” I agree with his statement. We need to do something.
D: Activism and optimism is necessary and I have young friends in San Francisco who are genuine activists. But I see the cool stuff in the Circle and in shiny bright modern life – being able to go to work with a tattooed head, yoga at work, all the gluten-free cake and almond milk latte you can eat – as often a con or, more accurately, a distraction from the fact that business, in the form of technology, is controlling us more and more. For me, this is also true of wearable technology and digital health to a certain extent.
Health is kind of the last frontier for technology and we all want to be healthy so we’re less likely to question what digital health is all about but it’s obviously big, big bucks. To me, a lot of the health stuff is digital snake oil. When you said casually that wearable devices were more accurate 20 years ago, that really struck a chord with me.
But, to pick up on something I said and you quoted back to me – “What’s interesting about The Circle is that what I find disturbing you like” – I have to say that, in the long run, your optimism is probably going to be a lot more beneficial to society than my cynicism.
E: I hope so!
D: As long as you stay outside the Circle.
E: Or Eggers gets his wish and a genuine code of digital ethics is put in place.