There have been a number of novels, many in recent years, which explore the possibility of human society being taken over by intelligent machines. Some depict the struggle between humans and machines, others envision a dystopian future in which the machines have triumphed, and a few explore the possibility that machines might create a “new operating system” for humanity which works better than the dysfunctional social and political systems extant today. This novel goes off in a different direction: What might happen, without artificial intelligence, but in an era of exponentially growing computer power and data storage capacity, if an industry leading company with tendrils extending into every aspect of personal interaction and commerce worldwide, decided, with all the best intentions, “What the heck? Let’s be evil!”
Mae Holland had done everything society had told her to do. One of only twelve of the 81 graduates of her central California high school to go on to college, she’d been accepted by a prestigious college and graduated with a degree in psychology and massive student loans she had no prospect of paying off. She’d ended up moving back in with her parents and taking a menial cubicle job at the local utility company, working for a creepy boss. In frustration and desperation, Mae reaches out to her former college roommate, Annie, who has risen to an exalted position at the hottest technology company on the globe: The Circle. The Circle had started by creating the Unified Operating System, which combined all aspects of users’ interactions — social media, mail, payments, user names — into a unique and verified identity called TruYou. (Wonder where they got that idea?)
Before long, anonymity on the Internet was a thing of the past as merchants and others recognised the value of knowing their customers and of information collected across their activity on all sites. The Circle and its associated businesses supplanted existing sites such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter, and with the tight integration provided by TruYou, created new kinds of interconnection and interaction not possible when information was Balkanised among separate sites. With the end of anonymity, spam and fraudulent schemes evaporated, and with all posters personally accountable, discussions became civil and trolls slunk back under the bridge.
With an effective monopoly on electronic communication and commercial transactions — if everybody uses TruYou to pay, what option does a merchant have but to accept it and pay The Circle’s fees? — The Circle was assured a large, recurring, and growing revenue stream. With the established businesses generating so much cash, The Circle invested heavily in research and development of new technologies: everything from sustainable housing, access to DNA databases, crime prevention, to space applications.
Mae’s initial job was far more mundane. In Customer Experience, she was more or less working in a call centre, except her communications with customers were over The Circle’s message services. The work was nothing like that at the utility company, however. Her work was monitored in real time, with a satisfaction score computed from follow-ups surveys by clients. To advance, a score near 100 was required, and Mae had to follow-up any scores less than that to satisfy the customer and obtain a perfect score. On a second screen, internal “zing” messages informed her of activity on the campus, and she was expected to respond and contribute.
As she advances within the organisation, Mae begins to comprehend the scope of The Circle’s ambitions. One of the founders unveils a plan to make always-on cameras and microphones available at very low cost, which people can install around the world. All the feeds will be accessible in real time and archived forever. A new slogan is unveiled: “All that happens must be known.”
At a party, Mae meets a mysterious character, Kalden, who appears to have access to parts of The Circle’s campus unknown to her associates and yet doesn’t show up in the company’s exhaustive employee social networks. Her encounters and interactions with him become increasingly mysterious.
Mae moves up, and is chosen to participate to a greater extent in the social networks, and to rate products and ideas. All of this activity contributes to her participation rank, computed and displayed in real time. She swallows a sensor which will track her health and vital signs in real time, display them on a wrist bracelet, and upload them for analysis and early warning diagnosis.
Eventually, she volunteers to “go transparent:” That is, to wear a body camera and microphone every waking moment, and act as a window into The Circle for the general public. The company had pushed transparency for politicians, and now was ready to deploy it much more widely.
- Secrets Are Lies
- Sharing Is Caring
- Privacy Is Theft
To Mae’s family and few remaining friends outside The Circle, this all seems increasingly bizarre: as if the fastest growing and most prestigious high technology company in the world has become a kind of grotesque cult which consumes the lives of its followers and aspires to become universal. Mae loves her sense of being connected, the interaction with a worldwide public, and thinks it is just wonderful. The Circle internally tests and begins to roll out a system of direct participatory democracy to replace existing political institutions. Mae is there to report it. A plan to put an end to most crime is unveiled: Mae is there.
The Circle is closing. Mae is contacted by her mysterious acquaintance, and presented with a moral dilemma: She has become a central actor on the stage of a world which is on the verge of changing, forever.
This is a superbly written story which I found both realistic and chilling. You don’t need artificial intelligence or malevolent machines to create an eternal totalitarian nightmare. All it takes a few years’ growth and wider deployment of technologies which exist today, combined with good intentions, boundless ambition, and fuzzy thinking. And the latter three commodities are abundant among today’s technology powerhouses.
Lest you think the technologies which underlie this novel are fantasy or far in the future, they were discussed in detail in David Brin’s 1999 The Transparent Society and my 1994 “Unicard” and 2003 “The Digital Imprimatur.” All that has changed is that the massive computing, communication, and data storage infrastructure envisioned in those works now exists or will within a few years.
What should you fear most? Probably the millennials who will read this and think, “Wow! This will be great.”
“Democracy is mandatory here!”
Eggers, Dave. The Circle. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013. ISBN 978-0-345-80729-8.