I was introduced to Dave Eggers’ novel, The Circle, by Professor Andrew Murray – one of the pre-eminent scholars in IT Law in the UK, and also on of my PhD supervisors. I know I’m very late to this game – the book came out in 2013, and all the cool people will already have read it or reviewed it, but in this case I think it’s worth it. And the fact that someone like Andrew Murray would recommend it should give pause for thought: this isn’t just an entertaining piece of science fiction, it’s a book that really makes you think. It’s not just a dystopian vision of the future, it’s one that is far, far closer to reality than almost any I’ve read – and dystopian novels and films are pretty much my favourite genre.
It’s a book that reminded me why, unlike most of my schoolmates, I always preferred Brave New World to 1984 – and why, of the various privacy stories of the last few months I suspect, ultimately, the Facebook Experiment and the ruling over the Right to be Forgotten will matter more than the passing of the deeply depressing DRIP. In the end, as The Circle demonstrates graphically, we have more to fear from corporate domination of the Internet than we do from all the spooks and law enforcement agencies.
The Circle from which the novel gets its name is a technology company that combines a great deal of Google and Facebook with a little dash of Apple and a touch of Twitter. It dominates search and social media, but also makes cool and functional hardware. Egger’s triumph in the Circle is that he really gets not just the tech but the culture that surrounds it – little details like sending frowns to paramilitaries in Guatemala echo campaigns like #BringBackOurGirls in their futility, superficiality and ultimate inanity. The lives portrayed in the Circle should send shivers down the spines of any of us who spend much time on Twitter or Facebook: that I read the book whilst on a holiday without much Internet access made the point to me most graphically.
Privacy is theft
Eggers echoes both 1984 and Brave New World in using slogans to encapsulate concepts – exaggerating to make the point. For the Circle, these are:
Secrets are lies
Sharing is caring
Privacy is theft
All three are linked together – and connected to the idea that there’s something almost mystical about data. We don’t just have no right to privacy, we have a duty to disclose, a duty to be transparent. A failure to disclose means we’re depriving others of the benefits of our information: by claiming privacy, we’re stealing opportunities and advantages that others have the right to. If we care about others, we should share with them. This is Facebook, this is Google Flu Trends – and it’s the philosophy that implies that those of us who oppose the care.data scheme through which all our health data will be shared with researchers, pharmaceutical companies and many others, are selfish Luddites likely to be responsible for the deaths of thousands.
It is also the philosophy behind a lot of the opposition to the right to be forgotten. That opposition is based on the myth – one that Eggers exposes excellently – that the records on the Internet represent ‘the truth’ and that tampering with them, let alone deleting anything from them, is tantamount to criminality. Without spoiling the plot too much, one of the characters is psychologically and almost physically destroyed by the consequences of that. Eggers neatly leaves it unclear whether the key ‘facts’ that do the damage are actually real – he knows that this, ultimately, isn’t the point. Even if it all were true, the idea that maintaining it and exposing it would be a general good, something to be encouraged and fought for, is misguided at best.
It’s about power – and how it’s wielded
In the novel, The Circle has the power – and it wields it in many ways. Emotional manipulation, keeping people happy and at the same time keeping them within the Circle, is the key point – and the echoes of the Facebook Experiment, about which much has been written, but much has missed the deeper points, are chilling here. One of the real functions of the experiment was for Facebook to find ways to keep people using Facebook…
Another of the key ways that the Circle wields power is through its influence over lawmakers – and the same is sadly evident of Google and Facebook, in the UK as much as in the US. In the UK in particular the influence over things like opposition to data protection reform – and the right to be forgotten – are all too clear. It would be great if this could change, but as in the novel, the powers and common interests are far too strong for much chance. More’s the pity.
As a novel, The Circle is not without fault. I guessed the main plot twist less than half-way through the book. There’s a good deal of hyperbole – but this is dystopian fiction, after all – and the tech itself is not exactly described convincingly. What’s more, the prose is far from beautiful, the characters are mostly rather two-dimensional, and often they’re used primarily to allow Eggers to make his points, often through what amount to set speeches – but Huxley was guilty of that from time to time too. Those speeches, however, are often worth reading. Here, one of the dissidents explains his objections:
“It’s the usual utopian vision. This time they were saying it’ll reduce waste. If stores know what their customers want, then they don’t overproduce, don’t overship, don’t have to throw stuff away when it’s not bought. I mean, like everything else you guys are pushing, it sounds perfect, sounds progressive, but it carries with it more control, more central tracking of everything we do.”
“Mercer, the Circle is a group of people like me. Are you saying that somehow we’re all in a room somewhere, watching you, planning world domination?”
“No. First of all, I know it’s all people like you. Individually you don’t know what you’re doing collectively. But secondly, don’t presume the benevolence of your leaders.”
In that brief exchange Eggers shows how well he gets the point. A little later he nails why we should care much more about this but don’t, focussing instead on the spooks of the NSA and GCHQ.
“Here, though, there are no oppressors. No one’s forcing you to do this. You willingly tie yourself to these leashes.”
That’s the problem. We don’t seem to see the risk – indeed, just as in the novel, we willingly seem to embrace the very things that damage us. Lawmakers, too, seem not to see the problem – and as noted all too often allow themselves to be lobbied into compliance. The success of Google’s lobbyists over the right to be forgotten is testimony to this. Even now, people who really should know better are being persuaded to support the Circle sorry, I mean Google’s business model rather than address a real, important privacy issue.
Coming to a society near you…
We’re taking more and more steps in the direction of the Circle. Not just the Facebook experiment and the reaction to the ‘right to be forgotten’ ruling – but even in the last week or two a House of Lords committee has recommended an end to online anonymity, effectively asking service providers to require real names before receiving services. This is one of the central planks of the way the Circle takes control over people’s lives, and one which our lawmakers seem to be very happy to give them. There are also stories going around about government plans to integrate various databases from health and the DVLA to criminal records… another key tenet of the Circle‘s plans… The ‘detailed’ reasons for doing so sound and seem compelling – but the ultimate consequences could be disastrous…
Anyway, that’s enough from me. Read the book. I’ll be recommending it to
my Internet Law and Privacy students, but I hope it’s read much more widely than that. It deserves to be.