How Dave Eggers gets Silicon Valley wrong

By Felix Salmon
September 30, 2013

Dave Eggers’ new book, a dystopian fantasia about social media, is excerpted in the NYT Magazine this weekend. The mag’s editor, Hugo Lindgren, gushes about how the book walks “the line between satire and bracing details that feel all too real” — but the fact is that, at least judging by the excerpt, Eggers strays so far away from verisimilitude that his book barely even feels like satire. Instead, Eggers is preaching to a group of people which has already made up its collective mind that social media is dangerous, and who love to one-up each other when talking about where the slippery slope might lead.

I’m sure that this book will sell very well in Germany. But for those of us who have a slightly more nuanced view of the costs and benefits of social media, Eggers’ glaring mistakes, when it comes to Silicon Valley culture, make it all too easy to dismiss his whole book as the work of someone who hasn’t got the faintest clue what he’s talking about.

Eggers, at 43, is now settling into Old Man mode: “I grew up doing all my homework in front of the TV, which baffled my parents and horrified my grandmother,” he tells the NYT. “Now younger people toggle between far more media and devices than I ever could.” Eggers is weirdly proud of his ignorance of social media: he has tweeted exactly twice, back in 2009, and he says in the NYT Q&A that he wanted to write this book from a position of ignorance:

I’ve never visited any tech campus, and I don’t know anything in particular about how any given company is run. I really didn’t want to…

There were a handful of times when I looked something up, or asked the opinion of someone more tech-savvy than I am, but for the most part this was just a process of pure speculative fiction.

The result is a Silicon Valley behemoth, the eponymous Circle, which combines aspects of Google, Facebook, and Twitter — and then adds a heavy-handed overlay of thought police.

“Let’s go back to your dad and this weekend. Did he recover O.K.?”

“He did. It was a false alarm, really.”

“Good. I’m so glad to hear about that. But it’s curious that you didn’t share this with anyone else. Did you post anything anywhere about this episode? A zing, a comment anywhere?”

“No, I didn’t,” Mae said.

“Hmm. O.K.,” Denise said, taking a breath. “Do you think someone else might have benefited from your experience? That is, maybe the next person who might drive two or three hours home might benefit from knowing what you found out about the episode, that it was just a minor pseudo-seizure?”

“Absolutely. I could see that being helpful.”

“Good. So what do you think the action plan should be?”

“I think I’ll join the MS club,” Mae said, “and I should post something about what happened. I know it’ll be beneficial.”

Denise smiled. “Fantastic. Now let’s talk about the rest of the weekend. On Friday, you find out that your dad’s O.K. But the rest of the weekend, you basically go blank. You logged into your profile only three times, and nothing was updated. It’s like you disappeared!” Her eyes grew wide. “This is when someone like you, with a low PartiRank, might be able to improve that, if she wanted to. But yours actually dropped — 2,000 points. Not to get all number-geeky, but you were on 8,625 on Friday and by late Sunday you were at 10,288.”

“I didn’t know it was that bad,” Mae said, hating herself.

This is certainly creepy, but it’s also the exact opposite of the way that Valley technology companies work. The success of Facebook comes from the way in which Mark Zuckerberg managed to observe and understand his Harvard cohort, in an outsider-looking-in kind of way. Or look at Tumblr, which actively hides follower counts so as not to turn the whole thing into a silly game. The product managers at these companies are certainly trying to create something which will become broadly adopted. But they know better than to think that the best way to do that is to encourage their own employees to use the product to the point of exhaustion:

There are problems with Silicon Valley and with technology — don’t get me wrong. But they’re insidious, rather than being overt: executives compete to find products that people want to use, rather than trying to impress upon the public the need to share, or the idea that doing so is so socially beneficial that you’re a bad person if you don’t do it. The Eggers excerpt ends with a scene straight from 1984, featuring a pep rally led by the company’s CEO:

“There needs to be, and will be, access and documentation, and we need to bear witness. And to this end, I insist that all that happens must be known.”

The words appeared on the screen:

ALL THAT HAPPENS MUST BE KNOWN.

“Folks, we’re at the dawn of the Second Enlightenment. I’m talking about an era where we don’t allow the majority of human thought and action and achievement and learning to escape as if from a leaky bucket. We did that once before. It was called the Middle Ages, the Dark Ages. If not for the monks, everything the world had ever learned would have been lost. Well, we live in a similar time, when we’re losing the vast majority of what we do and see and learn. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Not with these cameras, and not with the mission of the Circle.”

He turned again toward the screen and read it, inviting the audience to commit it to memory: “All that happens must be known.”

Mae leaned toward Annie. “Incredible.”

“It is, right?” Annie said.

Mae rested her head on Annie’s shoulder. “All that happens will be known,” she whispered.

The audience was standing now, and applause thundered through the room.

There are certainly criticisms of Google which run along these lines — see, for instance, Daniel Soar’s fantastic 2011 essay for the LRB, entitled It Knows. But the point is that you’ll never find rhetoric like this coming from inside Google. And certainly, if Google tried to change the world one Googler at a time, it would get absolutely nowhere.

Indeed, insofar as Silicon Valley is gamifying the world, the last thing that any company wants is for its own employees to consistently win the game. What’s more, if the game is social interaction, then the winners are never going to be a group of software engineers.

The thing about the Valley that Eggers misses is that it’s populated by people who consider themselves above the rest of the country — intellectually, culturally, financially. They consider themselves the cognitive elite; the rest of us are the puppets dancing on the end of their strings of code.

Besides, we all share the downside of being part of an always-on, networked society, whether we participate on social media or not. If you’re going to suffer the downside, you might as well enjoy the upside — that’s all the motivation that anybody needs to get involved, there’s no need for crude coercion.

In science, there’s a phenomenon called “herd immunity”: if you vaccinate a high enough proportion of people, the entire population becomes immune. The evolution of the web is similar: enough of us are connected, in many different ways, that no one has real privacy any longer. Eggers can see that, but he then tries to reverse-engineer how we got here, and, by dint of not doing his homework, gets it very wrong.

The Circle is a malign organization; you can almost see its CEO, Eamon Bailey, stroking a white cat in his suburban Palo Alto lair, dreaming of Global Domination. In reality, however, the open protocols of the World Wide Web led naturally and ineluctably to our current loss of privacy. Tim Berners-Lee is no evil genius; he’s a good guy. And the Eggers novel I’d love to read is the one dominated by the best of intentions. Rather than the one which thinks that if technology is causing problems, then the cause must always be technologists with maleficent ulterior motives.

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Comments
20 comments so far

“The thing about the Valley that Eggers misses is that it’s populated by people who consider themselves above the rest of the country — intellectually, culturally, financially.”

There is no doubt a subset of the Valley that views themselves that way, but that’s probably true for any industry with very visible signs of success and national acceptance. However, I think many people in the industry believe that most people are intellectually, culturally, and financially similar to them. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be startups like Four Square and Quora and so many others that are ridiculously over-rated by Valley insiders, as they truly believe the mass market will swoon over these companies just like they have. And there wouldn’t be over-priced products that most of the nation will ignore – e.g., there’s a startup that, for a monthly fee, will pick up your mail from your mailbox and digitize it and then let you access it from your browser I’m serious. They actually believe the rest of the nation wants what they want.

As for feeling intellectually superior, that’s not surprising when the national media portrays anti-knowledge flat earth creationists and tea party extremists as anything more than a small fraction of society.

But the rest of the post sounds about right. I don’t know how anyone would read the entire book, even the excerpt in the Times seemed unreadable.

Posted by KenG_CA | Report as abusive

Dear Felix, quoting you:
“I’m sure that this book will sell very well in Germany.” …
“Eggers is weirdly proud of his ignorance of social media: he has tweeted exactly twice, back in 2009, and he says in the NYT Q&A that he wanted to write this book from a position of ignorance:”

In Germany there is no religion of ignorance over science. That phenomenon is born in the US. We are distrustful of the brave new word of social media, because we have just 24 years ago abolished a totalitarian state on our soil who eavesdropped on each and every aspect of its citizens. The possibilities the STASI would have had with the new media landscape are ghastly. Now we see the NSA scandal develop and realize that anything that can be done, will be done and unchecked power of the state and corporations are threatening the constitution, via the abolition of the private.

Posted by Finster | Report as abusive

Felix, It is quite hard to understand your argument.

(1) Your initial introduction casts Eggers as a grumpy old man who doesn’t know what he is talking about and should be dismissed.

(2) You then spend a long time arguing that a Mae like character would not be encouraged to make the company her whole life and to use and evangelize its products. (Really?)

This minor argument about whether internal staff might be encouraged to share is then supposed to invalidate any broader point that Eggers was trying to make about silicon valley promoting “openness” as good and “privacy” as bad while simultaneously appropriating and monetizing the “open”.

BTW you also seem to be missing the point that Mae is not a software engineer or Zuckerberg like figure but rather a lowly “customer experience” call center worker. Subject to internal ‘people opps’ style metrics.

(3) You then surprisingly go on to argue that silicon valley is MORE elitist and manipulative than Egger thinks.

(4) There is then a bit of Borgism where you say something along the lines of “there is nothing to be done, resistance is futile, privacy is dead we might as well make the best of it”

(5) Finally despite you yourself (5) arguing that “silicon valley is elitist and manipulative” you say

“the Eggers novel I’d love to read is the one dominated by the best of intentions. Rather than the one which thinks that if technology is causing problems, then the cause must always be technologists with maleficent ulterior motives.”

From the extract published in the NYT Eggers does not seem to be saying that ‘silicon valley is malevolent’ but rather that technologists have an almost religious belief that sharing and free information is inevitably a force for good and that this belief may be mistaken and oppressive.

Posted by stopthecyborgs | Report as abusive

An interesting post for sure, but Silicon Valley is hardly populated with intellectuals.

There certainly aren’t very many at Stanford, which has become little more than a (very good) job training center rather than a proper university.

I’d characterize Silicon Valley instead as a religious center, where everyone seems to possess the unfounded belief that every human problem should be solved — no matter how sweeping or trivial — with the right technology.

Here’s to hoping this tech bubble bursts soon!

Posted by David4321 | Report as abusive

I’ve lived and worked in Silicon Valley as a software engineer for 30 years, and mostly agree with Felix’s points. Whether we consider ourselves above the rest of the country or not, there is a distinct feeling in this culture of confidence, the ability to solve problems and a general optimism that I haven’t felt in other places I’ve lived (like Washington DC).
What smells really wrong about the excerpt of Eggers’ book I read in the Times and the pieces quoted here is the manager’s draconian approach to ‘suggesting’ an employee’s behavior and an apparent expectation that everyone should follow along like lemmings. In fact, a defining characteristic of valley culture is the independence employees enjoy, likely caused by a shortage of labor and company’s greater dependence upon the performance of the labor force. The resulting culture is one of respect for employees that is rare in other industries. This very culture may well explain the excellence that routinely occurs here.

Posted by joe149 | Report as abusive

The whole points-for-posts thing–that’s not familiar to anyone on Hootsuite?

Posted by Eericsonjr | Report as abusive

You don’t think the Lords of Finance consider themselves smarter / better / deserving to play by different rules than the riff-raff?

Also, when you said that the Circle “combines aspects of Google, Facebook, and Twitter,” you missed the ballpeen-to-the-skull-obvious Apple comparisons. Eamon’s speech is very obviously styled after Jobs.

Posted by Auros | Report as abusive

The “partiRank” thing sounded to me like Klout, or the “Weekly Total Reach” score that Facebook provides if you’re running a Page for a business, non-profit, or whatever else…

Posted by Auros | Report as abusive

This commentary is missing the point.
The potential for a hypersurveillance dystopia has almost nothing to do with the good intentions of Silicon Valley culture.
The problem lies not in the intentions of those who produce the technology, but of how it is used.
Wiretaps and parabolic antennas weren’t invented by the Stasi or the KGB.

Posted by the_pop | Report as abusive

And how can you go a whole article on modern widespread surveillance without a mention of those three little letters justifiably featured in just about every article published at the Guardian over the past six months?

Posted by the_pop | Report as abusive

BTW I don’t mean to be harsh. Some of your stuff is great.

Posted by the_pop | Report as abusive

Were there any good bits?

Maybe it’s an ironic novel. It’s easy to miss the irony if it’s an American writer, you don’t expect it

I’m suspicious that you and Eggers set this up as cultural experiment where there really is no “new Eggers” book. It’s a fictional review and it’s hilarious. You two should do more of this type of sparring in literary form.

.

Posted by Foremski | Report as abusive

Wow. Did anyone notice that Dave Eggers is writing fiction? In the great American tradition of satire (see Mark Twain), hyperstatement (see Tom Wolfe) and a few other writers going back, of, a few centuries (Jonathan Swift). And honestly, Eggers’ fictional, imagined world, rings truer than most insider journalism.
Plus he’s funny. Major Klout points for funny.

Posted by KittyMorgan | Report as abusive

I know that one of the gambits of a blogger is to pronounce that another has got it exactly wrong, so let me continue this tradition. You speak of verisimilitude. Apart from the details of the culture of tech companies, which is surface-level exposition anyway, Eggers seems to me to have captured accurately one of the hallmarks of social media. At the heart of the social network is an abiding and self-perpetuating anxiety. Choosing the label “likes” is brilliant merchandising. Who doesn’t want to be liked. Or worse, be “unliked.” Marketing campaigns set quantifiable goals—the number of likes—as their measure of success. Do these “likes” actually add up to significant sales or even actions, or sincere passion-who knows. In the character of Mae Holland, Eggers attempts to make vivid the anxiety upon which social media demands. Most of us are “in on it,” but, again, the brilliance of the marketing is that so few are willing to forgo it. The economics of anxiety is a proven merchandising tactic—just look at fashion. I would love to see you write about this. As a novel, the Circle might entertain as a snapshot of the times, but is not likely to be groundbreaking in form or theme. But then again, it may do to swell some self awareness and give relief to anxious posters.

Posted by Elsinor | Report as abusive

Speaking as someone who has actually read the book, this review is pretty much spot on. I’m a little worried that all the reviews for this book are going to hail it as a “scathing indictment” or some other such cliche. It’s not. The spectre of hypersurveillance is a real and terrifying thing, but that is not what this book is about. This book isn’t about how money and government threaten the fabric of society, it’s about how twentysomethings who overshare are destroying the world.

Posted by Ford_MF | Report as abusive

Speaking as someone who has actually read the book, this review is pretty much spot on. I’m a little worried that all the reviews for this book are going to hail it as a “scathing indictment” or some other such cliche. It’s not. The spectre of hypersurveillance is a real and terrifying thing, but that is not what this book is about. This book isn’t about how money and government threaten the fabric of society, it’s about how twentysomethings who overshare are destroying the world.

Posted by Ford_MF | Report as abusive

Dave Eggers proves himself to be human. And a pompous one, at that.

If you were to take his name off the book, nobody would read past the first page. Unless you were a high school English teacher and you were forced to read ignorant generalizations made into wordy prose as part of an assignment.

Dave. You can do better. Unless you can’t. Then don’t.

Posted by indoorcamping | Report as abusive

Eggers is absurdly overpetted, overpraised, and overpromoted. Reading his books gets tiresome very quickly.

Posted by bluepanther | Report as abusive

Given the choice between Felix view of the Valley and Dave – no contest- Felix has my vote.

Posted by jj2mark | Report as abusive
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