In hindsight, I probably should have thought things through a bit before I packed David Eggers' new book 'The Circle' as a beach read for my trip to the Hawaiian Island of Lanai last week.
Sure, on the surface it made sense. A best-selling book that takes a fast moving narrative journey through the almost sci-fi world of 'social media' seemed like a frothy read for tech geek like me.
And Lanai was certainly a beach, a pretty swanky private one at that. Followers of the 'Forbes 400′ list may remember that Oracle founder and CEO Larry Ellison bought the former Dole Pineapple plantation island, and then scooped up the airline that services the Island to add to his passel of uber-rich trophies.
Ok, so that's all good.
But here's the trick, I was in Lanai to attend the somewhat secretive gathering known as The Lobby, an annual pilgrimage of entrepreneurs, startup folks, venture capitalists, and bankers. The premise of the invitation only event is to visit, brainstorm, and hold informal conversations about the future of tech and the web.
The only problem with reading 'The Circle' among the folks who've created the real world companies the book fictionalizes is -- well, to put it bluntly, Eggers doesn't think it all ends well.
The Circle is a book about a fast growing, popular, social network. It's a morph of Google, Facebook, and Twitter -- and blurred together into a social media juggernaut. It's hard to call it science fiction. Science fiction is fun, in part, because the futuristic tales of space travel and runaway robots are happening a few generations from now. Eggers' future is way closer than that. He waxes poetic about tweets -- which he calls 'zings' and self driving cars, and most hauntingly - video. The invention that changes everything is called SeeChange, a tiny solar powered camera that can capture video in 360 degrees, and transmit it to the cloud for live viewing or a permanent record of any place or person's activities. Connect it to facial recognition -- and you're on Candid Camera for the rest of your life.
In Egger's dystopian vision, we're moving quickly toward a world of total transparency. "Sharing is Caring" the faux-Googleplex campus shouts out. And at first, it all seems kind of awesome. Politicians agree to be on-camera, all the time, and the book's leading characters all seem to agree that privacy leads to crime, lack of accountability, and bad behavior. If we're all on camera, with searchable cloud files and facial recognition we'll see a dramatic drop in crimes of all time. ALL THAT HAPPENS MUST BE KNOWN is another Circle rallying cry.
Technology will set us free. And among the folks at The Lobby, it all seems to be in keeping with the overall vision. I can't tell you who was there, but suffice it to say -- the book's characters and The Lobby's attendees are closely related. Founders of Twitter, former Facebook folks, Google folks both present and past all lounge by the pool. And conversations about -- for example -- how Google Glass will change the behavioral norms of society turn up some reasonably cautious responses.
So, is The Circle a good take on the opportunities and dangers of the always-on social web? Strangely, I have to say no. Rather than an unnerving unveiling of the risks for society, Eggers instead paints a picture that seems unavoidable. Somewhat as if we've all contracted an incurable disease called Social Media, and are now in the throws of decline. Hardly a prognosis that deserves to be delivered with the shrug of shoulders. Privacy is over, democracy is no totalitarianism, now that we agree -- moving on. Wait, not so fast!
And to the credit of The Lobby attendees, many of whom must struggle with the daily challenges of how to keep their Tesla Roadster charged, the need to balance connectivity and sharing with other human needs seems far more top of mind than for Eggers characters. Even after characters die, families are destroyed, and intimate and illicit acts are broadcast around the globe, Eggers' characters seem far to willing to write it off as the last vestige of our prior lives and non-transparent humans.
In real life, we all have secrets. And the folks at The Lobby seemed to see the balance of public and private as an interesting if not complex tech challenge, rather than a forgone conclusion.
So after three days in Lanai talking tech, and three days reading The Circle -- I have to say, I like the real-world web thinkers far better than Eggers' eager and naive techno-revolutionaries.
The Circle could have been a powerful glimpse at a world gone out of control, made on connected tech. Instead it's a pedantic and obvious narrative of a Facebook-mandatory future. A view of the future so obvious and creepy that you can't imagine smart people will let it happen. Pretty sure my Lobby friends will invent smart ways to balance connectivity and personal control of our individual data. How does that happen? Well, that's a book I'd really like to read.
The Morning Email helps you start your workday with everything you need to know: breaking news, entertainment and a dash of fun. Learn more