My Anti-Social Tendencies
January 28, 2014 4 Comments
Late in David Eggers’ fine new novel The Circle a character drives off a cliff to avoid the aggressive attack of total strangers demanding that he “be our friend.” Eggers’ portrays a kind of dystopian world where fictional social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, etc. have infiltrated every nook and cranny of daily life, and he raises serious and legitimate questions about what Ellen Ullman in her New York Times Sunday Review calls the “tyranny of transparency.” In the novel, Mae Holland works for the Circle, a company determined to convince an all too willing public that “Secrets are Lies” and “Privacy is theft.” The Circle manages to reduce humanity and human interactions to various algorithms and patterns, tracing, predicting, and anticipating the hopes and desires of just about everyone. The goal, of course, is to make the world a better place. Totalitarianism always seems to begin with such noble goals.
As with so many of these kinds of novels, the scariest part isn’t how easily the technology might be mastered to pull off such a feat.
The frightening part is how willingly humanity participates in its own annihilation.
Eggers’ novel, to be fair, doesn’t actually end with the death of humanity, but he certainly seems to imply that things like secrecy and privacy are, in fact, vital to being human. In The Circle, tuning out is not only rude but indicative of some vaguely defined evil. Politicians begin wearing cameras and every interaction is recorded. Those who refuse simply don’t get elected. Voting, by the end of the novel, is mandatory through a Circle account; hence, citizenship requires an account. That account requires other accounts and the inputting of various pieces of personal data. Privacy implies, the Circle says, guilt. We are our online identity and our online avatar is us. The Circle closes as the lines of demarcation between who we physically are who we are online collapse.
Characters share (and share and share and share) every last detail of their lives. In many ways, Eggers imagines a world where our self-esteem outpaces our discretion and we imagine that because mom told us we were special (and little league gave us a ribbon for showing up at the fields twice a week) our opinions matter, regardless of our qualifications. In essence, not telling people what you like or don’t like is equivalent to robbing your friends and neighbors of valuable data, even if you are ill-informed, idiotic, or imbecilic.
It used to be rude to speak out of turn. In Eggers’ novel, it’s always your turn. And my turn. And his turn. And her turn.
There is, I realize, a certain amount of irony involved in blogging about the possible dangers of social media. Once I post this blog, I will add a link on my twitter account that automatically posts to my Facebook account, creating a digital trail leading folks back to the blog. Each of those sites will troll for data, searching for key words, collecting frequencies, and making assumptions about what ads to send to my email and what images to stick on the left hand corner of my next google search. Each morning the little elves in my computer will do everything possible to trick my mouse into clicking on the pretty pictures, thereby adding to the digital database that is John Wegner.
And if you are reading this sentence, WordPress has already gotten everything they need from you. Feel free to click on any ads you see if you want, but the cookie crumbs are already working their way into the belly of the beast.
“Based on your search history, we just know you will also enjoy . . . Click here.” Please and Thank you.
Anyone who reads my blog, though, might notice how infrequently I’ve posted lately. Even before I read Eggers’ novel, I knew my writing would slack off heading into the holidays. I had a major project for work to complete, and, since I spend too much of my workday staring at little pixels, my goal was to take about a month off. Let the fingers rest, I told myself.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve enjoyed blogging, and, quite honestly, writing twice a week for a year has helped me write much more gooder :). I’ve written around 150,ooo words in a little over a year. That’s a novel full of essays.
Not a very good novel, mind you, but you get the idea. Writing well, I tell my students, takes three things: Practice, More Practice, and Practicing again. Blogging certainly provides such a thing.
But I also realize the truth of Eggers’ novel. Every key stroke makes my life far more public than I might have ever imagined. Each search, tweet, post, “like,” or click creates an identity and gives external forces opportunities to shape my internal desires. I’m a red-blooded American, heterosexual male: of course I want to see Scarlet Johanson’s wardrobe malfunction and Beyonce in that sheer, see-through dress.
Am I better person if I avoid the temptation? Or am I a bad person when I don’t click because I’m not being true to myself? If it’s NSFW is it Safe For Home (unless my wife finds out)?
Our public identity has always been a construct in which we “prepare a face to meet the faces that [we] meet,” as J. Alfred Prufrock tells us, but never before, it seems to me, have we so willingly invited the public into our own private space. Our face is in a constant state of preparation or, perhaps more aptly put, constantly being constructed and reconstructed for us with each and every click. When are we every ourselves? Or, Eggers certainly seems to ask, are we every really supposed to be ourselves?
I could, I guess, turn off, tune out, and power down.
But what would my friends think if I did?