Novel reboots conversation about how we use technology

New York TimesOctober 13, 2013 

Has Dave Eggers written a parable of our time, an eviscerating takedown of Silicon Valley and its privacy-invading technology companies?

Or has he missed his target, producing a sanctimonious screed that fails to humanize its characters and understand its subject?

Book critics are divided over the quality of Eggers’ highly anticipated novel “The Circle,” which went on sale last week. But in Silicon Valley and beyond, the book’s theme promises to spark an even bigger debate over the 21st-century hyperconnected world that Eggers describes.

Set in an “undefined future time,” Eggers’ novel tells the story of Mae Holland, a young idealist who comes to work at The Circle, an immensely powerful technology company that has conquered all its competitors by creating a single login for people to search, shop and socialize online.

Initial orders have lifted the book to the No. 21 spot on Amazon, no small achievement for literary fiction, and booksellers reported selling copies almost immediately after opening their doors Tuesday.

In the tech world, some readers have bristled at the reflection of their world.

“It makes me feel defensive, because it hits home,” said Esther Dyson, an investor in tech startups.

Other early readers of the book said they were reconsidering their attachment to the Internet. In an essay titled “Dave Eggers Made Me Quit Twitter,” Michele Filgate, a writer and bookseller in New York, wrote about her experience swearing off social media for a week, an experiment prompted by the unsettling feeling the book produced.

“I hope that it allows people to step back and have a conversation about how we want to use technology,” said Jennifer Jackson, Eggers’ editor at Knopf. “I don’t think that this book is really going to make people stop using social media, and I don’t think that’s at all Dave’s intent. This book is going to make people be more thoughtful – that’s my hope.”

Eggers, who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, declined to be interviewed. He is not doing any readings or events to publicize the book.

The Circle most closely resembles Google, with its Google Glass-like retinal computers, initiatives to map far-flung parts of the world, a triumvirate running the company, antitrust investigations and a secret lab for future projects. TruYou, the fictional company’s core product, has the letters of one of the founder’s names, just as PageRank, Google’s search algorithm, is named after the Google co-founder Larry Page.

Unbridled optimism

The Circle’s founders have mantras that paint a troubling, dystopian picture, like “sharing is caring” and “secrets are lies.”

Those refrains are similar in tone to remarks made by executives such as Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Eric E. Schmidt of Google, who once said, “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”

Eggers portrays Silicon Valley as a place with ostentatious goals and an idealistic belief that its technology will change the world for the better, no matter the potential consequences. The Circle’s SeeChange cameras, for instance, stick to walls and broadcast live video, so they can do things like capture protests in the Middle East when journalists have been kicked out. The trade-off is that they also secretly broadcast people’s private moments at home. Benedict Evans, a tech and media analyst at Enders Analysis, a London research firm, said that Eggers’ descriptions captured two qualities typical of tech companies: unbridled optimism and the failure to understand real-world consequences of new technologies.

“There is a massive bias toward optimism, and that’s why we have computers and all this stuff, because if people sat down rationally at every moment and said, ‘Would that work?’ we wouldn’t have anything,” Evans said.

But, he added, “The flip side is there is a sort of utopian and a Panglossian approach that comes from never having seen a failure and never having to deal with the reality of people who aren’t in Silicon Valley.”

Truth in fiction

Some of Eggers’ references ring false. He misuses technical terms like “operating system,” for instance, and there is little public outrage in the book over the privacy violations that The Circle commits, in contrast to the real-life anger that often accompanies privacy intrusions.

Yet part of the reason “The Circle” can seem unnerving is that it stops short of far-fetched science fiction. Many of the inventions are just one small step further than tech companies have already gone.

Sometimes, the book’s characters use technology that is already available. Circle employees and lawmakers “go transparent,” meaning that they wear cameras that broadcast everything they see – much like Google Glass can do. In other cases, Eggers’ dystopian imaginings seem to have come true in the time since he wrote the novel.

In the past week, articles in The New York Times have described several real-life situations that sound uncannily similar to plot twists in “The Circle,” like the privacy risks for children from schools that collect data about students and store it in the cloud, and the ability to search people’s names and find their arrest photos.

Eggers is using fiction to ask questions that writers including Rebecca Solnit, Jaron Lanier and Evgeny Morozov have raised in nonfiction. The novel continues the debate and asks whether the semi-imaginary world of “The Circle” is inevitable.

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