On privacy…




The Circle by Dave Eggers

One of the ideas explored in Dave Eggers’ novel The Circle is the loss, and even voluntary relinquishing, of privacy in a world where everything is filmed and nothing is ever deleted. Considering the revelations this year about the NSA’s electronic snooping, and the knowledge that big companies like Facebook and Google are monetizing our personal information, we should be asking whether privacy is dying or dead. And if it’s not, how can we protect it?

Given the advances in technologies like information storage and retrieval and facial recognition, it almost seems inevitable that anonymity will go away. Rather than struggle against this reality, it might make more sense to figure out how we can best live within it. David Brin suggests that total transparency is the best way to do this–no more secrets for anybody, including corporations and governments. The emerging dystopia portrayed in The Circle also advocated this, except of course, there were ways to circumvent even total transparency, if someone was powerful enough.

In The Circle, most people opted in to the emerging system. They willingly went transparent in exchange for the benefits they were offered: convenience, simplicity, security, popularity. In this dystopia and similar ones like Feed by M.T. Anderson, it is easy enough to see that privacy may become an anachronism, something the young folks shrug off as “not such a big deal.”

In order to remain truly anonymous, you must turn into something of an electronic hermit, or even a literal one. But with face recognition software, cameras installed in every convenience store and stoplight, and private drones manning the skies — all technologies that are either here or coming soon — even that might not be enough.

I think the issue is more about control over our own information. People always have, and always will, demand agency over their own lives. Who has the control now: corporations and governments, or individuals? Right now, the balance is tipping toward the former. But this is a fight we could wage, and quite possibly win. It’s not a question of never posting anything to Facebook or Google or a blog ever again, although if that is your choice, it’s a valid one. But we should still be able to participate in the positive aspects of these new technologies without sacrificing our agency over our own lives in return.

For further reading: David Brin on the transparent society; A World Without Privacy (NYT opinion piece on The Circle); or just Google “is privacy dead” for about a million opinions on the subject.

Thoughts on The Circle…

The Circle coverThe last book I finished reading in 2013 was The Circle by Dave Eggers. The title refers to a fictional company that is quite obviously an amalgam of Google and Facebook. The book is a dystopian view of a near-future, a nightmarish outcome of current trends like living our lives via social networks, and the resulting monetization of our every share, the loss of privacy, and ultimately, loss of freedom.

While Eggers’ symbolism becomes quite heavy-handed, this is a chilling, sinister book that made me immediately want to disconnect my Facebook account. It was also an exciting book to read, because it depicts the world we are living in right now. This book may quickly become dated, but right now, it feels very current. The issues that it raises are issues we should all be thinking about and debating, and the point The Circle makes is that people have a tendency to accept what is new and exciting and convenient without really questioning the unintended consequences.

At its essence, I think The Circle is about indoctrination into a cult, how people can easily be persuaded that giving up fundamental freedoms is actually a good and necessary thing. Except in this case, the cult is global.

I’m not going to call The Circle great literature. But I think it is a thought-provoking read.

Here’s an excerpt from the book published in the New York Times Magazine.

Walking the world wide web…

I published my first book 17 years ago. It was called Walking the World Wide Web, and it was an edited selection of all the best websites out there, with detailed reviews. It’s hard to believe now, but the web was so young in the mid-90s that it was possible to list a large percentage of the available websites in a book, and not a very thick one at that.

I remember that one of the sites I reviewed in my book was Boing Boing. It’s one of the oldest sites on the web, and it’s still going strong. Back then, it was a catalog of wonderful things — meaning things on the Internet — and that’s essentially what it still is today. But it remains immensely popular because it’s very good at helping people find good stuff to read and look at on the web, which has become an increasingly difficult job for any casual web surfer.

Sometimes I wonder what my career would have been like if I had built on the success of my first book and become a web curator like Boing Boing or Kottke. Who would have guessed back then that such a thing as website curation could be a career, and a lucrative one at that?

I think we are going to need good curators more than ever in the near future. I have read that Google will be making some changes to its search algorithms so that websites can no longer rely on SEO and keywords to get to the top of search results. Instead, links and social networking shares will be major factors in determining which sites float to the top. This is good news for all of us web surfers, because our Google search results will be more likely to show us quality content, rather than all that search engine-optimized filler. But it means there will be a need for more curators who are finding good sites, writing about them and sharing the links with a broad audience.

And I suspect — or maybe I hope? — that busy people will be more willing to pay for good curation.