Techno-Libertarians and <i>The Circle</i>

Posted by Pete Shanks December 5, 2013
Biopolitical Times

The new novel by Dave Eggers, The Circle, is a provocative romp and a missed opportunity. It raises a lot of very interesting questions about many topics, some — but not all — of which are listed on the dust jacket, and at McSweeney's:

memory, history, privacy, democracy, and the limits of human knowledge

That's quite a list! Add in, oh, capitalism, anthropology, politics, class, the prevention of crime and the promotion of good behavior, generational struggles and problems of entitlement, among others, and we have a very ripe philosophical stew. To which, unfortunately, this page-turner does not do full justice. But it does have something to tell us about the culture of high tech; it's a dystopia with a purpose.

There are no major spoilers here (though you'll find some if you follow the links), because I do recommend you read The Circle. I have literary criticisms: the character development of the protagonist — Mae Holland, a new and talented employee at the story's start — is unconvincing; the secondary characters tend to topple over into caricature; some of the plot twists seem either predictable (I nailed the big reveal very early) or random. But the book's considerable interest lies in its setting.

The story takes place in the near future, where the Circle has become "the world's most powerful Internet company." It's a kind of combination of Google, Facebook, Twitter ("zings" are how Circlers recommend and comment on items), PayPal and more, with a dash of Apple and about 90% market share, globally. The Circle "has subsumed all the tech companies we know of now, linking users' personal emails, social media, banking, and purchasing with their universal operating system."

Eggers has been criticized, not unreasonably, for the phrase "universal operating system" and the assumed ease of the Circle's victory. A review in Wired was titled "What the Internet Looks Like if You Don't Understand It." But it does seem that the techies are protesting a little too much, perhaps because Eggers nails some of the major characteristics of their subculture. (He was even accused, before publication and apparently without evidence, of plagiarizing the memoir of an early Facebook employee.) Indeed, much of what Eggers describes, as several commenters have noted, is already here:

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. … But in general, I tried to write a book that wasn't so much about the technology itself, but more about its implications for our sense of humanity and balance.

Arguably, the real issue is not even the implications of the technology, but the culture of the people who develop it. In the real world, that means not just the likes of Mark Zuckerberg, Sergey Brin, Larry Page and the late Steve Jobs but many of the financiers behind them, many of the engineers they employ, and many of the eccentric talents they both respect and promote. It's the culture that produces Singularity University, the idea of Seasteading, dreams of immortality — all of which trumpet idealism mixed with a greed so assumed it's not even denied. And that is all well delineated in The Circle.

There is a long dialog near the center of the book (I have to be careful here for those who haven't yet read it) that expounds what is essentially a standard, and rather sophomoric, libertarian brief for abolishing privacy, filled with annoyingly glib generalizations. This is of course a set-up: Eggers is showing us what he doesn't buy, and hopes his readers will reject. But disappointingly, he never finds space in the book's 491 pages to rebut these ideas in any effective way. Instead, he provides separate, much shorter, emotional and vaguely hippie rationalizations for opting out of the technological system. I personally find them more appealing than the world of the Circle — but no more convincing. There is a serious lack of explicit critical analysis, even though the characters are there who could provide it.

And then there are the issues untouched by the book: privilege, primarily, in manifold forms. There are some almost offhand references to inherited class, and to racism (as history); there is a family struggling with healthcare in the modern United States; but nothing about the exploitation of overseas workers who do the bulk of the work for the techno-billionaires of our just-barely pre-Circle world.

All information, for the true believers in the Circle, should be completely available to everyone: secrets are lies, sharing is caring and privacy is theft. The assumption is that with that freedom of data will come liberation for all and the perfection of society. That's a large part of what Eggers is debunking, to the chagrin of some of his techie critics, though others are stimulated by the book, or even find it already passé. However, he fails to provide a critique that is likely to convince the techno-utopians. Whether that is due to the limitations of his novel or the impenetrability of the subculture he is trying to skewer is a question worth pondering.

Previously on Biopolitical Times: