Are you inseparable from your mobile device? Can’t live without your iPhone or tablet? If true, a virtual noose is rapidly tightening around your neck, as you constantly volunteer your tendencies, obsessions, social networks, physical location and more to anyone around the world.
This month, the US Justice Department filed a suit to compel Apple Inc. to unlock data on an iPhone related to the San Bernardino bombing. Apple refused to comply—a clever marketing move more than a moral stance.
An irrelevant debate has followed: Is the government’s request for information sharing an undue invasion of personal privacy? In reality, it does not matter if Apple keeps its “back door” closed or unlocks its technology for the government, because millions have already self-sacrificed their personal privacy through use of smartphones, tablets, app waivers, game waivers and Internet sites. The effects of relinquishing this privacy to the virtual world are brilliantly examined in Dave Eggers’ instant fiction classic, The Circle (2013).
Twenty-something Mae Holland is the protagonist of The Circle. With the help of her college roommate, Annie, Mae lands a prime job at the Circle, a near-future, Silicon Valley conglomerate of Google, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft. Mae begins in the Customer Experience department and quickly masters the 24-hour feedback loop of online likes, ratings and comments, where silence is egregious. Success within this feedback loop demands more and more participation, which soon ends any of Mae’s offline privacy and non-virtual experience, like her solitary kayak trips in the bay.
To rise within the corporation (and keep her health insurance), Mae actively participates in the SeeChange program, which places video cameras everywhere, including the bedroom of her father, who is dying of multiple sclerosis. Mae exposes herself more and more, despite the misgivings of her ex-boyfriend, Mercer, and her family, who were initially quite proud of Mae’s corporate “success.”Mae gradually adopts a new morality regarding privacy, along with the mottos of the Circle: “Secrets are lies,” “Sharing is caring,” and “Privacy is theft.” Eventually, Mae “goes transparent” and completely relinquishes all privacy through 24/7 cameras and chips attached to her body, feeding data to millions of Twitter-like followers curious about her every (guarded) thought. Via Internet technology, a coworker foreshadows that soon “all humans will have the eyes of God,” an echo of Hebrews 4:13.
There are numerous positive of effects of a completely transparent, privacy-free and data-open society. Thefts are deterred and crimes more easily solved, equaling more social order and justice. In The Circle, child abductions are nearly eliminated through ChildTrack; students are perfectly evaluated through TruYouth and Youth Rank; product marketing has laser focus; politicians are held 100 percent accountable; and folks with physical challenges can tap a greater pool of virtual experiences.
In reality, investigators in San Bernardino might identify a few more people associated with suspected terrorists, and maybe even prevent a future incident, if Apple shared “its” data like the fictional corporation in The Circle. Some good might be accomplished, but at what price?
In The Circle (using SoulSearch technology), Mae and technology developers are able to locate a murderer, Fiona Highbridge, within seven minutes, while millions watch in real time. A frighteningly absurd feedback loop builds, as a huge audience watches the Circle who watches the criminal—all online. Suddenly, no one is doing anything; everyone is watching. Even the criminals begin to fear the eye of God. Quantity of interaction overwhelms quality of interaction, at every juncture of society. Deviance, the source of spiritual evolution, is strangled, and vibrancy is self-sacrificed to the Circle’s corporate-controlled static.
Corporate ownership of privacy creates a false sense of safety. Apple surely has backdoor software to unlock any of its phones. Hackers can just as easily steal this software from an Apple employee as they can from the United States government. Hackers may also develop the ability to unlock data on their own. Herein lay the danger: Once individuals have engaged the technology and waived their privacy rights through Internet use and app purchases, their data is out there for the taking, sooner or later.
Sooner or later, you should read The Circle by David Eggers or watch the movie, starring Emma Watson and Tom Hanks, due out this summer. Yet reader beware: The Circle has a potent effect. You may end up setting down your iPhone to paddle a kayak around a nearby lake, offline.
Lee Miller graduated from Cornell University and has taught writing for over 12 years at the secondary and post-secondary levels. This column connects current events with classic literature.