Friday, June 7, 2019

Reflections on the book "The Circle" by Dave Eggers--transparency versus privacy

When I first read The Circle by Dave Eggers, I expected it to become the 1984 of our time. It took to the logical extreme a number of problems that were already visible—reduced privacy, an increased sense of insecurity resulting from too much social media, and the constantly increasing requests for feedback from every quarter. Instead, as far as I can tell, the book just disappeared in the ever-growing flood of new books.

I’m of two minds about recommending it to other people. On the one hand, I thought it raised the issues very cleverly. On the other hand, I wouldn’t exactly call it a fun read—though it is much more entertaining than 1984, The Jungle, or The Grapes of Wrath, all of which I’m glad I (was forced to) read, and none of which I enjoyed.

I’m going to focus on privacy versus transparency for this post, setting aside the mostly separate issue of too much emphasis on feedback (really, there are areas in which asking for feedback is just a terrible idea!). There is a moment near the beginning of the story in which our main character, Mae, tries to wring clever changes on a trite phrase and ends up saying something she never meant to say. Ouch. But

“it didn’t matter. He was laughing now, and he… made her trust that he would never bring it up again, that this terrible thing she said would remain between them, that they both understood mistakes are made by all and that they should, if everyone is acknowledging our common humanity, our common frailty and propensity for sounding and looking ridiculous a thousand times a day, that these mistakes should be allowed to be forgotten.” (p. 34)

Mae is new at the company when this happens, and hasn’t yet absorbed the company’s view of things, expressed by one of their founders as “All that happens must be known.” And by “known”, he pretty much means accessible to anyone, anywhere, and at any time. It isn’t Big Brother that’s watching you, it’s your peers—everyone with an internet connection.

One of the things that kept me caught up in the book was the way the company’s spokespeople somehow managed to make the most outrageous claims seem not just plausible, but positively progressive. (I spent a lot of time mentally shouting at Mae to get a clue and realize why they were wrong.) The founder in question, Bailey, gives two main reasons for promoting transparency.

The first is that people behave better when they know they are being watched. He thinks the only reason people have for wanting privacy is that they are ashamed, either because they are doing wrong (in which case we should know about it) or unnecessarily (in which case we should all just get over it.) If we know we are watched, we will be our best selves—and don’t we want to be our best selves?

The second, lesser reason is that we owe it to others to share with them experiences that they may not have an opportunity to have for themselves.

To take the second reason first, no, we don’t owe that to others. Furthermore, sometimes part of what makes an experience special is that it is unrepeatable or rare. Sometimes the fact that an experience is shared with only one or a few people is what makes it special. Recording the experience wouldn’t really convey what made the experience special to anyone else, and might take away from it for those who were there. There are plenty of people happy to create logs of interesting places and events, and  enough places and events to fill several lifetimes, without having to record everything.

The first reason Bailey gives for transparency is more interesting. People almost certainly do behave better when they know they are being watched. But people can have good reasons for wanting privacy. As Mae noticed early on, we are terribly prone to making mistakes and we hate having everyone know about them and judge us based on them. People who don’t know us well may take our mistakes for character traits, and people who are malicious may use them as an opportunity to pounce on us and malign us to others. When we know we are being watched, we are likely to play it safe. Not only do we avoid doing wrong, we also won’t say or do anything risky, that might be taken wrong or go badly. Unfortunately, making mistakes is a large part of learning, and taking risks is how we (sometimes) make progress. So if we are constantly watched, we won’t be our best selves, we’ll just be our most conformist selves.

The other reason for wanting privacy is that we don’t necessarily want to be judged even in areas where there are no “mistakes.” I don’t want to hear what the world has to say about my taste in paint colors. It’s none of their business if I want to live in a house decorated in Easter egg colors. Some of them might think the color scheme enchanting, but others will not, and as Mae discovers when only 97% of fellow Circlers think her awesome in a silly quiz, “she could only think of the 3 percent who did not find her awesome.” (p. 405) Negative evaluations are disproportionately upsetting.

On top of that, some people are mean and will say nasty, critical things about your paint colors (or whatever) just to make you feel bad. Who needs that kind of unsolicited comment?

So we should have some control over what is offered up for public comment. Things I post on this blog are fair game; things I say to my family over dinner are not.

Other times, the benefit of producing better behavior does outweigh the value of privacy. Security cameras, open meetings, proctored tests… sometimes these are worth it. But there is usually some cost to be taken into account.

I won’t say how the book ends.

Till next post.