Dystopia Now

google-is-evil-300x270I’ve been reading a novel called “The Circle.” Surprisingly, I haven’t heard much about this book since it’s release early last month, thought there was supposedly a whole lot of buzz about it among the digerati / Silicon Valley crowd prior to it hitting the bookshelves…well, OK, before being listed for sale on Amazon.com.

The book is listed as fiction. After hearing of a friend’s tribulations with a new laptop, I’m not so sure about that…

The premise of the novel is life within a company called “The Circle” that reads like a mashup between Google, Facebook, Twitter, maybe Paypal or Square, and a private-sector version of the NSA. As Google was built on the foundation of a search algorithm, “The Circle” was built on an algorithm that organized all the balkanized elements of a user’s online life and locked them into a flawlessly-secure, unified online existence. Eventually The Circle becomes its users sole point of entry into the entire digital universe, and from that genesis The Circle in turn begins to penetrate every aspect of its users lives.

About halfway through the novel, The Circle is putting cameras everywhere – actually, Circle users are putting cameras everywhere in a sort of voluntary expansion of the corporate surveillance state. Politicians and public-office holders are encouraged to “go transparent” by wearing a camera into every meeting and conversation that they have so that their constituents can see that nothing contrary to the common good is being conducted behind closed doors.

Eventually The Circle adopts a triptych of a corporate motto/mission statement that infers that all information belongs to everybody – the early-stage utopian Internet mantra “Information wants to be free” on steroids:

Secrets are Lies
Sharing is Caring
Privacy is Theft

There is one episode in which the novel’s protagonist – a young, enthusiastic Circle employee named Mae – has an embarrassing sexual encounter with a co-worker named Francis, and becomes distraught when she discovers that the moment was video-recorded with a phone-cam. Mae asks Francis to delete the embarrassing video, but he either will or cannot delete it – citing another cornerstone of Circle policy: nothing is ever deleted.

“The Circle” thus becomes an exploration of a dystopian not-so-distant future in which in which information is not only “free,” but also imperishable.

thecirclecoverIn the world of The Circle, where even as obscure an item as Mae’s awkward moment with Francis is certain to be lost among the millions and billions of similarly recorded moments, The Circle’s presumption is that somebody, someday, might stumble upon the footage and derive some benefit from it, learn something or gain some amusement from it. So it remains sealed in the digital firmament for as long as there is sufficient electricity to keep the servers running.

* * *

I am prompted to write about “The Circle” this morning because of several conversations I have had in the past week with a friend who has been driven to distraction with a new computer.

I don’t know why he thought he’d find a sympathetic ear with me. I mean, it’s not like I’ve ever gone off on a rant about how aggravating all this vaunted new technology can be at times….who, me???

Nevertheless, let me attempt to summarize my friend’s experience: the new computer is a Macbook Air, which has its own built-in email client software, Apple Mail. However, my friend sends and receives all of his e mail – which is pretty much the cornerstone of his work and creative life, as it is for all of us these days – via a Google Mail account.

“gMail” operates under what is known as an “IMAP” protocol – which means the client on your desktop mirrors the content stored on the server. The upside of this approach is that you can access the same email folders across several devices – a desktop, a laptop, a smartphone or a tablet will all see identical versions of whatever is sitting in your email account. The downside is that there is no way to control new message retrieval – when new mail hits the server, it shows up simultaneously on your desktop.

In my friends case, this downside of the IMAP protocol made it impossible to control the flow of not just new emails, but of every e-mail he had ever sent or received.

My friend’s issues began to surface – explode, really – when he tried to synchronize his new computer’s Apple Mail client with his gMail account – and, without prompt or warning, gMail began to deliver thousands – then tens of thousands, ultimately some seventy-five thousands! – of messages into his pristine laptop. Before long – well, no actually it took countless hours to complete the process – about a third of the available storage on his MacAir had been overrun with the digital detritus of years gone by.

What was most mystifying – and irritating, and – in the context of “The Circle,” disturbing – was the discovery that among the hundreds of thousands of unwanted messages that now occupy my friend’s new hard drive like a proverbial mountain of digital garbage are tens of thousands of messages he thought he had deleted from gMail years ago.

All those short messages that merely said “thank you” or supplied some useless nugget of extremely expendable information that he knew he would never need again, would never serve him any purpose that would make them worthy of storing… well, Google thought otherwise, and stored them anyway.

Like the fictional company in “The Circle,” the non-fictional Google had in fact permitted my friend to “delete” nothing.

So much for “Don’t Be Evil.

Or as my friend said in the aftermath of his ordeal, “The next time a driver-less Google Maps car rolls slowly by your house you’ll want to lay low and shut off all your wireless devices….”