Friday, November 8, 2013

Will Eggers' "Circle" be unbroken?

     Thursday I was coming back from lunch, and saw a big metal box high atop a pole, containing three cameras. A brutish looking contraption and, for good measure, a police officer happened to be standing across the street. I felt a chill. "Maybe I have this wrong," I thought, regarding the column that follows. "Maybe we will be trapped by all these technologies." Maybe it's foolish optimism, but I don't believe it, an opinion that sprouted long ago, when I read "1984" as a teen, and thought that such a society would require so many watchers, there wouldn't be any people left to watch. Not that we won't change, we will. But we don't need anyone to compel us; we distort ourselves. What happens is, we abandon much willingly—no one forces us to carry iphones and check them constantly, we just do that because we like it. But should technology intrude "too much," whatever we deem that to be, we immediately pull back, and assert ourselves. That at least is my hope.

Franklin Street pocket park, 11/06/13
     Two weeks ago Sunday, The New York Times ran a full-page ad for the Shinola Runwell, a watch assembled in Detroit of parts made in Switzerland. An attractive watch. But if I’ve learned one thing about watches, it is that any watch that appeals to me, even a little, costs a fortune.
     “Probably $3,000,” I muttered to my wife. “If not $30,000.”
      My own watch, a smart Kenneth Cole, cost $29.95 in 1999 at Filene’s Basement on Broadway and has kept perfect Metra train time since. But lately it has had a few hiccups, and part of me is rooting for it to die, just so I can finally get a new one, and if doing so tosses some business in suffering Detroit’s direction, all the better. A watch made in Detroit; how much could it cost?
Shinola Runwell
      Curious, I plugged “Shinola Runwell” into Google, explored the options - the green-faced model is handsome - noted the price, $550. Not the fortune I imagined, but not cheap either for a watch named after a defunct brand of shoe polish that the clueless were said not to know from, er, a substance that looks like shoe polish but isn't.
     I decide that I don't want to help Detroit that much. Besides, my watch still works.
     Every day since, Facebook has dangled a Shinola watch in my face, with a small ad. There was something mildly creepy about it; Google has been spilling the beans to Facebook, tattling about my searches, rather like two friends in different realms of your life getting together, without you. "Remarketing" is the official term.
     Shinola's ad hung in the back of my mind as I read Dave Eggers' new novel, "The Circle," a cautionary tale of an enormous tech company — think Google — married to Apple, at the brink of taking over the world at some time in the near future.
    What I admired about the book is how easily the visionary founders' desire to end privacy reads as perfect sense. Eggers-raised in Lake Forest, schooled at U of I- doesn't make them villains, but sympathetic geniuses. Being monitored all the time by their omnipresent hi-def cameras, "we would finally be compelled to be our best selves," says Eamon Bailey, one of the three "Wise Men" systematically shining the glare of technology in every corner of life. " And I think people would be relieved. There would be this phenomenal global sigh of relief. Finally, finally we can be good. In a world where bad choices are no longer an option."
     Who could argue? The tendency for dystopian novels is to follow the rebel; Eggers instead makes his hero Mae Holland, an up-and-coming "newbie" learning the ropes of the gleaming California campus. As if "Hunger Games" didn't focus on Katniss Everdeen but on a PR gal for the Capitol.
     The parallels with George Orwell's " 1984" are clear, particularly when they start spouting slogans like "Privacy is theft."
     "The Circle" makes you think about technology and is a well-written cautionary tale, though also a reminder that predictions of the future are a far more accurate gauge of general anxieties at any given moment than they are predictors of anything to come. For all its fame, " 1984" was lousy augury — the next half century was marked, not by increasing repression, but spreading global freedom. IBM and Ma Bell were bogeymen in 1960s futurist fiction. Look at them now.
     For all our concern over the surveillance state, you'll notice that what technology has done most significantly is trumpet government secrets that normally would have never been whispered. The big flaw of " The Circle" is its insular world where employees shrug and permit an endless series of escalating intrusions into their lives — Mae is as real as the hero in a Chinese state opera, meeting each demand for increased productivity with renewed energy and enthusiasm.
     Could facial recognition and GPS and drones all unite into some grand web of repression? Sure, but it would be hard-pressed to top the old Soviet-style informant and jackboot repression. Teens are already bored with Facebook, and it's easy to see why. There's only so much Farmville you can play. We like technology, but we insist on it being our choice, or seeming to. You can trace an arc of increasing personal liberty for the past 300 years. A new chip isn't going to change that. We build anarchy into our systems - the speed limit may be 55, but auto speedometers still go up to 160.
     After two weeks of noting the Shinola Runwell ad on Facebook, I looked closely at it and saw a "Hide this Ad" option. I clicked and was asked why, my choices being "Uninteresting, misleading, sexually explicit, against my views, offensive, repetitive" — bingo, "repetitive." It disappeared, replaced immediately by a new ad.


  1. I found a watch on the street. It keeps perfect time. I googled the name on it [CG] & it's made in China with the lie stamped on the back that the movement is from Japan.
    It sells for $2 each in lots of 1000!

  2. Yahoo search spills the beans as well.

  3. Speaking as an educated professional, the far left does sound too elitist and condescending at times. Even moderate Democrats get whipped if they aren't pc enough.


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