Closing the Circle

Imagine a world where all your social media profiles and online identities have been merged with personal information into one TruYou by a global company called The Circle. Imagine the freedom. No more identity theft. No more toxic keyboard warriors hiding behind anonymity. No more signing in and out. No more having to reset passwords because you forgot them again. No more Google/Apple/Facebook/Paypal jockeying. Just merge the whole lot. The last time I checked I have 106 online sites which require log in and password details and that does not include any that I use for work or any traditional personal platforms (social security etc).

Babies and deaconesses at Bethel Deaconess Hospital, Newton, Kansas, 1915

This is bigger than me though. Imagine that this company has a vision to crowdsource solutions to all of life’s problems. SeeChange are tiny live stream video cameras that were originally used by surfers to discover which waves were firing on any given day. With The Circle’s global push and boundless positivity they can be mass produced and used for everything from recording police brutality to allowing disabled children to see what it is like to climb Everest. Instantly crime drops and the world explodes with promise and possibility. This is a company that harnesses the best ideas and makes them accessible to all. Super!

Image from page 251 of "Bell telephone magazine" (1922)
What else can this company do? How about using real-time medical data to eliminate health problems as soon as the warning signs appear? Wouldn’t it be great if a company like this could access the world’s finest health services. How about ChildTrack – a biochemical trace implanted in the bone which will end child abductions and the billions of worried parents afraid to let their kids out to play anymore. If anyone is foolish enough to try and engage in criminal behavior anymore they will soon be caught using an app which connects with the hive mind to identify deviants (SeeYou). Once children reach a certain age ChildTrack becomes TruYouth which is a sort of junior TruYou that gathers all their social data and gets them ready for responsible adulthood.

Children riding a horse to school, Glass House Mountains

While we are at it, why not connect TruYou with automatic voting registration which would increase direct democracy once and for all (Demoxie)? Imagine politicians who sign up to use their tech to become transparent, getting rid of the whiff of corruption that we complain about. In our spare time we can use all this data to figure out what restuarant to go to on a first date (LuvLuv) and pay for it with CircleMoney.

Not sure about PartiRank though. Imagine an algorithm that personalises your online presence based on the popularity of the connections you make. That would never catch on. I can see where that could cause problems. The one way to create unhappiness for humans is to compare them against each other.

personalisation

 

This is the world of new Information Professionals like Mae and Annie. How awesome would a job in The Circle be? Doing something like Customer Experience where it is all about engaging with an audience. The latest cool bands queue up to play for you during your break. Top chefs create delightful lunches. It is the type of job that you don’t want to leave, even at home-time. Why would you when your every interest is encouraged even if you fancy counting the grains of sand in the Sahara or diving into personal genealogy (PastPerfect).

My God” says Mae, “it’s heaven” are the opening lines in this book by Dave Eggers. All you have to give up is access to your data. It’s not like it’s your soul. Of course, The Circle is dystopian fiction about a 21st century totalitarian global organisation. It is nothing like the world we live in.  People in The Circle’s world are always under observation through the internet and this is where the tension comes from. They feel this constant pressure to respond, to engage, to participate, to share. This is the new conformism. They either submit to the role or they buckle under the pressure and react dramatically (drive off cliffs or collapse into exhausted comas). If there are no limits to transparency where does that leave our private lives? Will toilets become the only places where we can escape Big Brother? The endgame of this logic is where even personal thoughts become visible to all.

The Fifties in 3D
The Circle is an interesting book in that it generates more discussion about its form than its content. As literary criticism, that is not a bad complaint and one could argue that Eggers was just mirroring the world of the internet. People say it is heavy-handed and one dimensional but so was Brave New World and 1984. Eggers does tip his hat to Orwell with his tripytich of organisation slogans that are used in The Circle.

Ironically enough, the only reason I read it was because I managed to take a break from social media and got my hands on the book in my local library. I enjoyed it just as much I enjoy most fictions that make me think about my relationship with organisations that offer me free stuff in return for just a constant supply of data that they can sell to advertisers.

Zing part – when Annie and Mae miscommunicate over text messages. Oh how I lolled.

Hope for the future symbolism part – when Mae paddles out to Blue Island and discovers a nest in a tree but refrains from looking inside because she knew that it would have negative consequences.

Best review – “This book is not very good but you should read it” – some dude on GoodReads

orwell quote

What did you think of it?

 

 

 

 

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Anonymity

When I was a teenager I predicted the importance of identity and anonymity to the internet. The Internet were a dark brooding guitar band from a small village in the middle of nowhere. Identity was a new wave solo artist that was influenced by David Bowie and 17th century Parisian fashion. Anonymity was a hip-hop duo that mixed voodoo beats with disconnected samples. They were imaginary bands that I created in the days P.I. (Pre-Internet) for my parallel Top 40 that I would dream up when I was bored (which as anyone from P.I. days will remember was a condition that happened quite a lot).

Image Credit - Flickr Nationaal Archief

Image Credit – Flickr
Nationaal Archief

 

The point I am trying to make is that I always had a flexible approach to identity. In English classes I wrote essays in a voice that did not sound like me at all. An authentic voice was something that creative artists constructed if they wanted to win the Nobel prize for literature. Dropping and mixing identity was something that I enjoyed doing. It was a form of play for me and I still use it as a lens to view the world, even if it is only in the naming of a blog as Information Agent. It gives me a freedom to say things that I might never explore. Some of us just prefer that sort of communication to the more instant face-to-face method.

This ability to create identity and set different levels of anonymity is part of what makes the internet such an interesting space. Few principles cause as much polarisation as privacy. If there will ever be a Cyber civil war, you can be sure that the flags of privacy and anonymity will be flapping about there in the middle of the conflict.  How people interpret and define the level of online anonymity that they are comfortable with seems to mark them out in much the same way as Nationalism did at the turn of the 20th century. Like Nationalism, people use it for setting boundaries and limits and it can be used in a variety of ways.

Image Credit - Flickr National Archives of Australia

Image Credit – Flickr
National Archives of Australia

Like myself,  I know plenty of students who came out of second level education without great social skills. Online collaboration allowed us to blossom.  Before I took to Twitter seriously I chanced my arm as an online neolithic stone mason in the Boyne Valley. This was a collaborative project with another archaeology student. At one level we wanted to explore what it was like to put ourselves in the shoes of a person from the past, but I think a lot of it was just messing around with online characters. I also had a Tumblr account that was curated by an Edwardian Gentleman Explorer.  Nor is it all about fun and games. I use anonymous forums when I need information that gets too close to my own personal boundaries.  They allow me to explore my own uncomfortability in a safe way.  In parts of the world where it can be hazardous to speak freely, online anonymity allows people to  fight censorship and spread word of human rights violations. Real life undercover agents (whether they are military or anti-criminal) are able to protect their anonymity to ensure that they cannot be tracked. All good stuff.

However, whenever there is a way of expressing yourself without impunity, there can be trouble. Online anonymity is perfect for attacking others. You can say what you want and not have to take responsibility for it. Just look at the comments section of online newspapers. There is something about this freedom which turns the guy next door into a troll who thrives on rising arguments to nuclear level. Researchers have found that online anonymity definitely effects how people comment online. Just last night my daughter received a scary message from an anonymous profile called “Chucky” on one of her game website profiles which was warning her not to go to sleep at night. Luckily we knew that this was her cousin trying to wind her up and she will receive a lecture in return when I get home from work.

Image Credit - Flickr

Image Credit – Flickr

People want their online privacy, for all kinds of reasons. I have friends who refuse to have anything to do with social media. Growing up in small towns makes you highly sensitive to other people knowing your business. It can feel like a sort of control. Some people don’t like the idea of commercial companies using their personal information. Some just want their privacy, not because they have anything to hide, but because they feel it is their right.  All it takes is for one group to figure out how to use your information against you and you are in trouble. This is what happened to the Dutch jews when the Germans arrived and found a perfectly good archive system in place which identified each person by religious persuasion. That was the end of their freedom.

When money is involved, there is just as much at stake. I trade my own personal information in return for access to Google’s index. I am willing to do that, but not everybody is. My online behaviour is measured and scrutinised as if I were a lab mouse. Apparently, companies can learn a lot by running a few mice through mazes a couple of million times a day in return for an information hit. All I know is that this somehow allows Ryanair to put up the price of a flight after I have researched it. In this case, my personal information is tracked and connected to personal identifiers and I lose out because of it.

Image Credit - Flickr Smithsonian Institute

Image Credit – Flickr
Smithsonian Institute

Some people have a healthy dislike of that sort of carry-on. When Janet Vertasi learned that she was pregnant, she did not want marketers targetting her with their products. This behaviour was considered so unusual that the NSA were alerted about her attempts to evade tracking. When I was studying Information in university, one of my fellow students felt so strongly about his personal privacy that he used TOR, the same channel that Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden used to leak classified information.  This is a Virtual Private Network which was created by the military to help undercover agents and whistleblowers avoid capture. Although it is now funded by the EFF and it uses voluntary servers to encrypt identity instead of information, even this may not allow real anonymity. The NSA have already hacked TOR once and many of the sites on the dark web that it accesses are supposed to be honeypots for catching criminal and malicious activity.

Image Credit - Flickr National Media Museum

Image Credit – Flickr
National Media Museum

On the whole I give privacy and anonymity a bit of thought. I try to be conscious of what I share online. I grew up P.I. but my kids have a different experience. They have their own Youtube channels. I try to teach them that it is unusual to be permanently in front of an audience and that this can effect how they behave. It is a highly filtered (created, edited and amplified) experience and can be as unreal as an imaginary rock band. As someone once said on Twitter, anonymity is no longer a way to hide who you are, it is now a way to be who you are.

 

Notes

University of Houston. “Researcher finds anonymity makes a difference with online comments.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 22 January 2014. .