I wish someone besides Dave Eggers had written The Circle, a book about an Internet company that takes over the world.
I wish Jonathan Franzen had given The Circle the convincing female characters that tend to feature in his work, instead of the flatness and predictability of protagonist Mae and her best friend Annie, an up-and-coming Circle luminatus who hires her best friend from college into an entry level “Customer Experience” job. Quick plot summary: without really much emotional turmoil, Mae succumbs to corporate logic that technology has all the answers and that privacy is unequivocally bad, and ultimately helps the Circle to worm its way into dominant control over human activity writ large. I wish DFW had provided his sharp, brutal insights into corporate stagnation and hollow, apostatic greed, coupled, perhaps, with Douglas Coupland’s humor and particular flair with Silicon Valley. More than anything, I wish Jesse Ball had leant his far, far subtler allegorical vision and tidy but tender character interactions, rather than Eggers’ brutish (if earnest) attempt to steer a conversation about the politics of technology.
I wish all these things because we really need a much more convincing, more clever version of The Circle to intervene in ethical discussions of what it means to be online, to build relationships with and to and through data and algorithms. The last week has seen a raging debate on social media, privacy, experiments and research. The recap: Facebook researchers designed a technological intervention into the news feed of 700,000 users, tweaking the feed for two weeks based on semantic analysis of emotions. Results of the study were written up in a top research journal, and have leant themselves to some fairly scary headlines about Facebook manipulating the emotions of users without their knowledge. The fallout has stretched across mainstream newsmedia and the techno–elite, provoking corporate apologies and much academic debate.
I’m grateful for this debate, but that’s not much of a surprise: Like Mae, I work for a giant technology company that is often accused of trying to take over the world, and I struggle with what it means for me to devote my time and energy there. (For the record, I *love* my job, my colleagues and my role at Microsoft, but then again, so did Mae!) Like Jeff Hancock, the Cornell professor who helped design the study, I conduct research on online behavior, although I do qualitative work that always involves a face to face discussion of consent and confidentiality. Like the 700,000 people whose Facebook pages were altered, I use social media, although not Facebook, in my everyday life without having paid much attention to the terms of service. At the convergence of these factors, I’m hopeful that this dustup could actually produce some changes, like demands by consumers for legible, bullet point-like statements of what’s actually entailed in the legal gibberish that constitutes terms of service and user agreements. I also think it’s possible that people working on social media research will be forced to confront some of the difficult realities of obtaining consent. These would be good and socially just things to have happen.
And what of fiction? What role does fiction play in helping people come to terms with the society in which they live, the technologies that those societies produce? In the fall, I saw a screening of The Fifth Estate, based on the whistleblowing efforts of Julian Assange. In his introduction to the film, screenwriter Josh Singer explained that after graduating from Harvard Law School, he decided to become a Hollywood script writer, wanting to help shape public discourse on politics through shows like The West Wing. This admission both saddened and encouraged me – sure, I’d prefer people to engage in serious, political debate as a result of measured study of current events as well as political history, but the pragmatist in me is grateful for any source of discussion and consideration. If Alison Bechdel can provoke serious conversation about gender disparities in the media in a single Dykes to Watch Out For comic strip, why not embrace a discussion of the estate tax that stems from watching Sam and Leo hash it out for the benefit of President Josiah Bartlett? Is good fiction required to be a good citizen? I’m wary of rehashing the debate of associating serious literature with good citizenship, but I am nonetheless interested in the kinds of ideological debates that fiction can produce.
The fact is, The Circle is so free from any substantive character development, so unapologetic for the predictability of its plot lines, so flat in the dynamics between people and their surroundings—in short, it’s *so* poorly written—that I’m tempted to ask whether Dave Eggers deliberately dumbed himself down so as to reach a wider audience. This may in fact be the kind of fiction we deserve as people who blithely surrender privacy in exchange for convenient communication and the comfort of conformity, but it’s not the kind of fiction we need. We need fiction that is complicated without being alienating, that portrays the ethical tensions of significant technological development, that shows people struggling to make sense of the socio-technical world around them, that gives readers the tools to do that same kind of sensemaking work in their own lives. Reading The Circle depressed me, not because Eggers has succeeded in casting a pall over unchallenged technological engagement, but because he bored me, and I worried that part of his selling so many books to so many people was due to his facilitating boring discussions of online technologies, conversations that were simplistic rather than subtle, binary rather than gradated. In its lack of depth, The Circle leads people to feel as if they’ve had a conversation when in fact they’ve just participated in the same vague interactions with media that in fact should be subverted by thoughtful, powerful fiction on technologies of everyday life.
– Jessa Lingel is a robot masquerading as a librarian masquerading as a scientist.