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.