‘Individually you don’t know what you’re doing collectively’

I’ve just read The Circle by Dave Eggers on the recommendation of Pete Phillips from the #MediaLit17 Conference I’ve just blogged my way through.

‘Prescient, scary, unputdownable.’

The Times got it right with that comment. With no chapters, only three ‘books’, I raced through this book with seemingly unquenchable curiosity — what would happen? would Mae copee? and just how plausible are the technological scenarios envisaged in this ‘parable for the twenty-first century’? Between the blurb on the back and the trailer for the movie adaptation starring Emma Watson you should get a feel for what it’s about.

The Circle runs everything — all your internet activity in one easy, safe and visible place. No wonder it is now the world’s most powerful and influential company. So when Mae Holland lands a job at its glittering California campus, she know’s she’s made it. But the more her ideals and ambitions become aligned with those of the Circle, the closer she comes to discovering a sinister truth at the heart of an organisation seeking to remake the world in its image… — Blurb.

The story, well written and engaging as it is, is only secondary to the actual argument of the book; it truly is a parable in that the story enables Eggers to ask some pertinent questions about the increasingly grey boundaries between information and privacy.

Could it be acceptable to microchip every kid, for their safety? 
Could it be possible to make government transparent by live-streaming every official’s every move and conversation? 
Could direct democracy not only be possible but mandatory? 
Is there even such a thing as privacy any more?

One of the lines which is blurred itself is whether the Circle is talking about the future, or the present. At times the future depicted seems so plausible that it seems like less a prediction of the future but rather a persuasive inevitability of and from today — and, realistically, yesterday.

‘Individually you don’t know what you’re doing collectively’

There were many moments in the book which resonated or seemed poignant, but this quote above was the one which seemed the most insightful, and the most damning. Mae, advocating for the Circle and the ever expanding collection of all forms of data, is routinely puzzled by an ex-boyfriend, Mercer, who provides the counter-argument for privacy. This line is one of his.

It would be easy to view it as an indictment of those who work for the Circle, or in the real world for any of the tech giants — Google, Facebook, Snapchat. In reality though it’s a condemnation of the collective, not just those who design and run those services but those who use them and participate in the cultures which arise with them.

That is, you and I don’t know what we are doing collectively with everyone else online.

There’s a degree of irony in writing that here on Medium, and having shared it on twitter. But the point stands.

What are we doing with social media?

Where is it taking us as a society?

Can we do anything about it?

Or is it already too late?

I’d read the book,
watch the film,
and think

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