Some books claim to change your life but then when you pick one up, it seems banal, run-of the-mill but you glean that it is actually giving a real message. So it was with this book – The Circle by Dave Eggers.
I didn’t like it for a lot of reasons (but I did admire the logo) and I couldn’t empathise with the main character, tech worker Mae Holland -who seemed, from my point of view – exasperatingly stupid, naive, foolish or just plain insensitive – and she was (initially, anyway) on the side of the good guys. Joining a lavish and ever expanding Tech company which provided all the bells and whistles that an aspiring Google or Facebook employee could dream of – free pizza, concerts, parties, saunas, down-time, the latest proto- gadgets, all of which “newbies” like Mae are expected to not only partake of but also to recommend and support. The all-pervasive company began to take over every aspect of Mae’s life, with her lack-lustre willing acceptance.
The “baddies” were just the same but manipulative, faux-caring and determined to dominate. Their use of language irritated me, a meta-language insistence on agreement, even as their ideology is absorbed with a generous helping of sugar as in the Sound of Music song. Statements, directives and implicit orders always ended with something like “do you see the benefits of that?” or “Does that sound interesting / appealing / better?” The never relenting stream of “…, don’t you think?“, the condescending “… sound good?” or the more insistent “…, don’t you agree?” wear the reader down, as they are intended to do.
Set in near or contemporary time, the Circle is a global network linking billions of people sharing and associating with others similar to them, rather like people do on Facebook. Much like Orwell’s Animal Farm, where such aphorisms as “All animals are equal” and “four legs good, two legs bad” take the place of meaning, phrases in The Circle like “secrets are lies,” “sharing is caring,” and “privacy is theft” illustrate the philosophy of the tech company. One of the innovations of the company is a lightweight, wearable camera allowing everyone to see what the wearer sees, a bit similar, perhaps, to police body cams which monitor the actions of both the police and the suspect. Once the ice is broken by a minor politician wishing to be “transparent” to his constituents, the rush is on for everyone to allow the world to see what they are seeing at all times.
Bit by bit, witless Mae gets sucked deeper and deeper into the folds of the Circle where every aspect of her life, and that of her parents and her friends, is constantly streamed to the world. In a justification for its ever encroaching inroads on privacy, the Circle administration claims that it never extorts citizens to provide their private data – everything was willingly provided by the eager masses clamouring to hand over every aspect of their lives, from what they had for breakfast to photographs and videos of their private and domestic lives.
And then, recently, on the BBC, there was an article on the incredible advances of facial recognition technology which is increasingly used by both governments and corporations to screen and vet everyone within their gambit.
High-definition cameras – measuring such things as the distance between the eyes, the length and width of the nose, along with other “nodal points” on our faces – combine with machine learning algorithms, utilising ever-enlarging databases of videos and photos, available to individuals, organisations and businesses, and to intelligence and law enforcement agencies, sort through this vast store of data to improve security and surveillance and to identity verification for business transactions.
Technological Tools such as FaceSearch, analyse more than 350 aspects of the human face, enabling suspects to be matched to a cloud-based database of more than 15 million “mugshots” while Faception, a middle-eastern “facial profiling” company claims it can determine your personality traits, with an 80% accuracy rate indicating whether you are on a government watch list for terrorism, extortion, paedophilia, or merely an “average Joe”
The Georgetown Law Center for Privacy and Technology claims more than 117 million US adults have their images logged in a facial recognition network of some kind – a trend civil liberties groups describe as “a real and immediate threat” to privacy while New York plans to install facial recognition tech on its bridges and tunnels to scan and identify people driving in and out.
In theory, you could track down a complete stranger you snapped on the bus or train and what price is privacy then?
I remember an Irish movie from the late 90’s – The General – in which Brendan Gleeson
played the role of Martin Cahill, a prominent Irish criminal who gained a certain notoriety in the Dublin media, which referred to him by the sobriquet “The General”. During his relatively short lifetime – he was gunned down at the age of 45 – Cahill took particular care to hide his face from the media by spreading the fingers of one hand across his face. Perhaps that is what we should all do to preserve our increasingly elusive privacy.
The flip side of the coin, however is that while Big Brother and his little sister keep a constant watch on us all, the same applies to organisations and governments world-wide. Increasingly, individuals, armed with a camera concealed in a shirt button, or some other innocuous thing, can challenge the power of a brutal and despotic regime, by filming human rights abuses by soldiers, militia groups and corrupt officials. Just as cameras – think the multinova traffic speed cameras – can inhibit anti-social behaviour, the same goes for the governments as well as those governed. Let’s hope so, anyway.