Through the Google Glass, Darkly

If you want to get a glimpse at what one possible future of our hyper-connected world might be, get yourself a copy of Dave Eggers’ latest book, The Circle. A dark dystopian drama that is rife with real insights about how things might be.

Eggers is one of my favorite authors. He began with his memoir, “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” and has had a series of well written novels (and one non-fiction book about post-Katrina New Orleans) since then. In The Circle, we follow the protagonist, a young woman named Mae, as she begins a new job at a company that sounds awfully like a combination of Facebook, Google, and Twitter, with a soupcon of Apple thrown in.

The Circle is quite the utopian place to work. They have free meals three times a day prepared by A-list chefs, a free dorm room to sleep if you want to work late, and the requisite benefits that the real companies mentioned above offer their employees: free exercise classes, free transportation for commuters, free lectures from the leading intellectuals and entertainers from around the world, and free health care. Eggers claims that he never has visited Silicon Valley work places, but having been to several of them I would say that Eggers has gotten the lay of the land with perfect pitch. Remember, this is a novel.

Mae is in awe of working at The Circle, and quickly rises to the top of the company, entering the Inner Circle (ha). One of the more amusing parts of the book is as she gains familiarity with more of the corporate apps as part of her job; the IT department brings her additional screens to keep track of them. (This is not too far from actual practice that I have observed.) She becomes the poster child for a new real-time video streaming service offered by Google, I mean The Circle. The service involves her wearing a webcam around a lanyard: she is online, broadcasting nearly all of her waking hours, to the Internet. Not surprisingly, she becomes a broadcasting sensation, perhaps the ultimate in today’s reality TV.

The leaders of The Circle strive for total transparency and to capture all kinds of data in their storage pods. The Circle prevails upon several Congresspeople to wear their own cameras and make sure that they are the ultimate embodiment of sunshine laws. If you are streaming everything about you online, you can’t hide those backroom meetings where you get your lobbyist kickbacks and do your sneaky deals. (Or so the theory goes.) Mae goes further than just streaming her daily life: she ends up wearing bracelets that give her real-time status of how many people are watching her feed, along with biometric data so she can keep track of her own reactions as well. She becomes widely popular, with tens millions of viewers watching her more memorable moments. Take that, Kardashians!

I won’t tell you how the novel ends, but it is disturbing reading along, seeing how Eggers has taken what passes for normal these days (posting Tweets, “liking” various things on Facebook, and developing an online brand) and taking them to the next and not-so-ridiculous level. It is a sobering world that he posits, and one that I am not sure that I would want to live in.

2 thoughts on “Through the Google Glass, Darkly

  1. It makes me think about how the ability to hide yourself, to take control of how you are represented in the world, and maintain the integrity of your own private circle is a really rare and valuable thing.

    In a similar way, but slightly off topic being able to step back and take the longer view rather than constantly respond to the electronic stimulation of the moment will be key to leadership. In our noisy, distracted world, real analysis is key. To draw it back to our own businesses, I am heartened by the fact that outlets like the Economist are doing well despite the falloff in the general news business. Change the rules, compete at a different pace.

    David Willis
    Chief of Research, Mobility and Communications, Gartner Group

  2. Real-time personal streaming is of course also like The Truman Show (movie), though she’s aware of — doing! — it and Truman wasn’t.

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