The story hinges around a young woman named Mae, who accomplishes her dream of being hired by The Circle. She is a combination of naivete, talent, and ambition, and the book covers the changes in her life and values that result from the progress in the company in accomplishing its goals. As the company grows, it attracts more and more people into its beliefs and services, which include great break throughs in such things as miniature video cameras and data handling, with the result that personal privacy is drastically reduced, and people spend the majority of their time interacting and communicating over the radically improved equipment and network that is available. Finally, everyone has the ability to watch, listen to, and communicate with everyone else —pretty much total transparency and no privacy. There are hold-outs, including Mae’s parents, her ex- boy friend, and finally, one of the three founders, but they will obviously not succeed in remaining free of this brave new world. I would have been with them. I found the book chilling.
When our children were young, people would talk about tree people and phone people. When tree people had a problem, they would climb a tree and think about it. When phone people had a problem they would proceed to call all of their friends and talk about it. My wife and I and two of our sons were tree people, our daughter was a phone person, and as my wife would say, our other son would climb a tree with his phone. Now we have social networking people and non-social networking people.
Two or three years ago I began dabbling in social networking, partly because my publisher convinced me that I had to or people would not know my Good Products, Bad Products book existed, and partly because social networking is somewhat a function of age, and since I have a relatively large amount of that, I wanted to make sure that my resistance was due to me, not my age. I am now sure. And I feel in good company. A few years ago Don Knuth, a professor emeritus of computer science at Stanford , and a person I like and respect told me that he was going to cease communicating on e-mail to make more time for thinking about important problems and create a bit more spare time in his life. He is a hero in the field (He is the author of “The Art of Computer Programming”, a classic set of monographs beginning in the 1960’s and still continuing, and a god in the area of fonts) and I would be surprised if he has taken up social networking.
There is a discernible increase in criticism of the internet. I mentioned the books of Evgeny Morosov in a previous post, and he recently wrote an article published in the October 28 edition of the New Yorker Magazine entitled Only Disconnect, with the subtitle Two Cheers for Boredom. It is here. In the article he decries the disappearance of free time to think and ponder important problems among internet addicts. He mentions three books I have not read; The Present Shock—When Everything Happens Now, by Douglas Rushkoff, a media theorist and consultant, The Distraction Addiction, by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, a futurist trained as a historian of science, and Ambient Commons—Attention in the Age of Embodied Information, by Malcolm McCullough, a professor of design and architecture at the University of Michigan. I have ordered all three and will let you know what I think of them when I read them. Incidentally, Morosov also admits that he is now the owner of a safe with a built in timer in which he can lock his smart phone and internet cable. Such is the power of the habit.
I am perhaps hypersensitive, watching Stanford students live a life of constant interruption and escape via their smart phones and the internet. They think they are multi-tasking. But I read the literature, and know that they are just kidding themselves.