Tag Archives: 1984

Squaring The Circle

“Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.”

This boilerplate disclaimer, inserted amidst various other notices on the copyright page of Dave Eggers’ latest novel, is superfluous: nothing in The Circle resembles reality in any way whatsoever.

This book administers a cudgel to the English language, among other ignominies, and, as with all such tragedies, the reader is left with only two options: remain a complicit bystander or stand firm against literary massacre.

I choose the latter. Some books are so terrible that only a review warning away potential readers has the power to absolve oneself of the guilt and self-loathing that accompany the book’s completion.

The Circle is a disaster. It is, on its face, a cautionary tale of the consequences of over-sharing and voluntary self-surveillance in the digital era, but its concerns are so explicitly belabored, its storytelling so juvenile, its characters so obviously proxies for authorial obsession, that the fictional universe is inevitably compromised in favor of absurdist dystopia.

Here, numbers — and everything else — have no meaning. Eggers tosses them around like grains of sand, wholly detached from any sort of significance. (Case in point: employees of the Circle — a thinly-disguised hybrid edition of Facebook, Google, and Twitter — actually count the grains of sand in the Sahara. It takes three weeks.) In one excruciatingly long paragraph, Eggers channels an Excel spreadsheet by quoting 40 separate numbers in mind-numbing fashion:

The total number of stats she was tracking was only 41. There was her aggregate customer service score, which was at 97. There was her last score, which was 99. There was the average of her pod, which was at 96. There was the number of queries handled that day thus far, 221, and the number of queries handled by that time yesterday, 219, and the number handled by her on average, 220, and by the pod’s other members: 198.

If there were even an inkling of a rationale for this numerical inundation, The Circle could have been at least minimally readable. But even the most disinterested reader cannot match Dave Eggers’ apathy for his own figures. In an unsurprising oversight, Eggers describes Mae’s “six weeks she’d been transparent” on page 309, then “the three weeks Mae had been transparent” on the subsequent page.

The raison d’être of the Circle — to vacuum up every conceivable data point on its users in order to better serve advertising and personalized content — is clearly borrowed from contemporary social networks. But this is where the similarities end. Eggers’ heroine, Mae Holland, achieves the Herculean task of appearing more inanimate than the Circle’s villainous algorithms, whose alleged ascendance ostensibly prompted Eggers’ hellscape.

Mae is a human being in only the most technical sense: she has eyes, ears, and a mouth, but virtually everything else suggests a quasi-robotic response to all human interaction coupled with a stunning lack of self-awareness. Mae is essentially a drone, only more predictable and less vulnerable to human emotion.

As the Circle demands ever more of her devotion — in one of the book’s rare highlights, she slowly accumulates workstation computer screens, beginning with two and expanding eventually to nine — Mae rarely betrays any semblance of human resistance, choosing instead to drown her peers’ disapproval in a pool of self-loathing.

If that metaphor sounds overwrought, you’ll have a very difficult time completing The Circle. Which brings me to the eponymous company’s “completion,” the Eggers-ian concept of absolute omniscience that, unfortunately for him, is already comically outdated thanks to Edward Snowden. While Eggers struggles valiantly to elucidate the grave danger of the creeping news feed — a phantom menace that, much like creeping sharia law, dissolves upon closer scrutiny — the nation has moved on to PRISM and XKEYSCORE: apparent mundanities belying great danger, a precise inversion of Eggers.

That is not to say The Circle isn’t terrifying, although certainly not for the reasons intended by its author. I finished the book fearing less for a grim future of autonomous digital overlords and more for the disappearance of the subjunctive tense: “For a moment, the couple watched as Mae maneuvered her way to their barge…as if this was their living room and she their night’s entertainment.”

Elsewhere: “Mercer took a deep breath, and Mae knew he was about to give a speech. If there was a podium before him, he’d be stepping up to it, removing his papers from his sportcoat pocket.”

And again: “He smiled sympathetically at Mae, but with a raised eyebrow, as if there was something about Mae that was perplexing him, something he couldn’t put his finger on.”

It’s almost as if Eggers was not familiar with the English language. In this, at least, he has his creations for company. Remember that ubiquitous movie scene where the bad guy explains his diabolical plan to the horrified hostages before carrying it out? The Circle is a 491-page version of this, right down to the expositional format and preachy condescension.

In one scene, a Circler — novelistic parlance for an employee of the Circle — explains an on-campus sculpture (designed by a literary Ai Weiwei knockoff) to Mae:

I mean, how can the Circle find a way to make the connection between us and our users stronger? To me it’s incredible that this artist, so far away and from such a different world, expressed what was on the minds of all of us here at the Circle? How to do better, do more, reach further, you know? How do we throw our hands through the screen to get closer to the world and everyone in it?

This doesn’t sound like anyone I know, and I work in online advertising. (The dead giveaway: social networks with customer service departments.) The walking dead in Eggers’ universe are categorically immune to warnings of a totalitarian eradication of privacy — their idealistic naiveté thus constituting, to borrow John Oliver’s phrase, “a straw man so large you could burn it in the desert and hold an annoying festival around it.” (Not to mention the fact that Ai, his celebrity-infused dilettantism notwithstanding, became famous for protesting surveillance, not celebrating it.)

Indeed, events of the past week undermined Eggers’ preening concern. Facebook released a study revealing that they had conducted a one-week experiment over two years ago in which approximately 700,000 users were exposed to varying levels of positive and negative posts.

Upon the study’s release, the Internet hordes went wild with speculation and fury. “Facebook and the Ethics of User Manipulation” was one of the kinder headlines. A general consensus coalesced around the idea that involuntary subjection to such an experiment was highly unethical — despite the fact that Facebook’s News Feed is, and has for years been, algorithmically curated based upon criteria that are necessarily highly subjective. Everything on one’s Facebook feed is, to an extent, the result of an experiment.

In short, on many issues we are still closer to much ado about nothing than the other way around. Yet Eggers still inhabits a 1984 world, and his star, Mae Holland, meets an end as self-nullifying as Winston Smith’s: acquiescence to her masters via the betrayal of a lover.

But even in the wake of Snowden’s devastating disclosures, Aldous Huxley’s prophesies ring truer than George Orwell’s. As a social network, the Circle may dull our senses, but it is unlikely to kill us. In fact, Eggers is at his best when conjuring a near-future world in which a frenetic, almost-constant exchange of digital messages — zings, he calls them — drives their senders and receivers into paroxysms of emotional insecurity and self-regret.

This is a society I recognize (as a participant), from the quiet desperation of Like-seeking to the more overt emergence of Internet celebrity as a legitimate vocation. And so I find it truly bizarre that the debate on the vanishing art of the negative book review — recently inflamed by Buzzfeed books editor Isaac Fitzgerald’s categorical disavowal of them — was presaged by Dave Eggers all the way back in the year 2000:

Do not be critics, you people, I beg you. I was a critic and I wish I could take it all back because it came from a smelly and ignorant place in me, and spoke with a voice that was all rage and envy. Do not dismiss a book until you have written one, and do not dismiss a movie until you have made one, and do not dismiss a person until you have met them. It is a fuckload of work to be open-minded and generous and understanding and forgiving and accepting, but Christ, that is what matters. What matters is saying yes.

This is precisely the brand of overly-sensitive claptrap Eggers now decries in his novel, many years later: honesty as a casualty of a status-obsessed generation. So do not listen to 2000 Dave Eggers. Go forth, be a critic. Social networks will not destroy you, nor will punishing book reviews.

The same cannot be said of The Circle.

How we are all unwitting terrorists

twitter

There’s been a lot of speculation in the past week or so about the Twitter feeds of Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev. Here are a few representative samples from The New York Times alone. First up is columnist Charles Blow:

On Friday, BuzzFeed and CNN claimed to verify Dzhokhar’s Twitter account. The tweets posted on that account give a window into a bifurcated mind — on one level, a middle-of-the-road 19-year-old boy, but on another, a person with a mind leaning toward darkness.

He was a proud Muslim who tweeted about going to mosque and enjoying talking — and even arguing — about religion with others. But he seemed to believe that different faiths were in competition with one another. On Nov. 29, he tweeted: “I kind of like religious debates, just hearing what other people believe is interesting and then crushing their beliefs with facts is fun.”

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had strong views on the Middle East, tweeting on Nov. 28, “Free Palestine.” Later that day he tweeted, “I was going to make a joke about Hamas but it Israeli inappropriate.”

Toward the end of last year, the presence of dark tweets seemed to grow — tweets that in retrospect might have raised some concerns.

He tweeted about crime. On Dec. 28 he tweeted about what sounds like a hit-and-run: “Just saved a bunch of money on my car insurance by switching my car into reverse and driving away from the accident.” And on Feb. 6 he tweeted, “Everything in life can be free if you run fast enough.”

He posted other tweets that could be taken as particularly ominous.

Oct. 22: “i won’t run i’ll just gun you all out #thugliving.”

Jan. 5: “I don’t like when people ask unnecessary questions like how are you? Why so sad? Why do you need cyanide pills?”

Jan. 16: “Breaking Bad taught me how to dispose of a corpse.”

Then yesterday, the Times‘ head book reviewer, Michiko Kakutani, delved in a little further:

Given the layers of irony, sarcasm and joking often employed on Twitter, it can be difficult to parse the messages of a stranger. Yet some of them can seem menacing or portentous, given what we now suspect: “a decade in america already, I want out,” “Never underestimate the rebel with a cause” or, drawing from lyrics from a Kendrick Lamar song, “No one is really violent until they’re with the homies.” But others suggest a more Holden Caulfield-like adolescent alienation: “some people are just misunderstood by the world thus the increase of suicide rates.” Sometimes, Dzhokhar sounds downright sentimental (unless, of course, he is being ironic): “There are enough worms for all the birds stop killing each other for ‘em.”

Parts of Dzhokhar’s VKontakte page are harsher and more serious. Under personal priority, it says “Career and money.” Under worldview, it says “Islam.” There is a link to a video indicating outrage at the violence in Syria, and a link to an Islamic Web site that says “And do good, for Allah loves those who do good.” Another video features a blind boy talking to an older man, saying he believes his blindness will be absolved on Judgment Day; the man starts to cry, and wonders how many people who have their sight are as committed to the study of the Koran as the boy.

To her credit, she at least had the self-awareness to observe the obvious:

These posts instantly became dots that people began trying to connect. Some details ratified the views of those former friends and neighbors who said they were utterly shocked at the brothers’ possible involvement in such a horrifying crime. Other posts pointed to Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s growing interest in Islamic radicalism and possibly a dark subtext to the friendly, boy-next-door affect of Dzhokhar.

At the same time, they were reminders of the complexities of online identity — of the ways in which people strike poses and don masks on the Web (which can sometimes turn into self-fulfilling prophecies), and the ways in which the Web can magnify or accelerate users’ interests and preoccupations.

The social media droppings the Tsarnaev brothers left behind not only attest to their own immersion in the interactive, electronic world, but they have also provided everyone else with plenty of digital data from which to try to extract patterns and possible meaning — fulfilling that very human need to try to make narrative sense of the tragic and the overwhelming.

And, unsurprisingly, BuzzFeed and New York Magazine, among others, joined in on the Twitter-parsing/stalking fun as well.

You may see where I’m going with this. Yes, it increasingly looks like Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev bought into a radical fringe of Islam prior to bombing the Boston Marathon. And so it is theoretically possible that breadcrumbs from their evolving radicalization are discoverable by sifting through tweets and Russian social networking sites.

But it is much, much more likely that these tweets are simply being scrutinized with that 20/20 hindsight so familiar to tragic events: everything always looks clearer in the rear-view mirror. Even the most “menacing” of Dzhokhar’s tweets pointed out by the mainstream media reveal less “a “bifurcated mind…leaning toward darkness” and more the typical musings of a 19-year-old college student.

This voyeuristic, retrospective fine-combing of the younger Tsarnaev’s Twitter profile is not only useless. It is counterproductive and dangerous too: reading too deeply into the abbreviated, 140-character-length thoughts of a suspected bomber promotes the notion that such heinous acts could have been stopped if only we had been able to access more information earlier on — if only we had been watching earlier on.

There are signs of this mindset already. Take this article from today’s Boston Globe:

House Speaker John Boehner this morning said he was concerned that federal agencies hadn’t learned their lessons from the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and he vowed to hold agency heads responsible if they didn’t do enough to stop the Boston bombings.

The response in Washington is increasingly focused on potential intelligence failures, and a lack of sharing information among territorial federal agencies – a problem that was supposed to be fixed after the attacks nearly 12 years ago.

“I have concerns about what agencies knew what — and the fact that it wasn’t shared,” Boehner said at a press conference. “You know if the information is good enough for one agency of the government, why shouldn’t it be appropriate for other agencies of the government? We’re going to get to the bottom of it.”

It’s the same story in The New York Times:

Emerging from a closed two-hour hearing with three senior law enforcement and intelligence officials, several members of the Senate Intelligence Committee raised new questions about how the F.B.I. and the Department of Homeland Security apparently handled information about Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, the suspect who was killed in a shootout with the police on Friday.

“I’m very concerned that there still seem to be serious problems with sharing information, including critical investigative information,” Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, told reporters. “That is troubling to me that this many years after the attacks on our country in 2001, that we still seem to have stovepipes that prevent information from being shared effectively, not only among agencies but also within the same agency, in one case.”

The problems with these interpretations are twofold. First, they assume that some form of Omniscience Lite is actually achievable. Well, it’s not. There is no such thing as perfect intelligence nor perfect crime prevention (sorry, Minority Report aficionados). Terrorism will happen from time to time. Maybe instead of freaking out, we can actually try to (gasp) get a little more used to it and, therefore, manage to return to normalcy more quickly.

Secondly, the implications of this type of thinking can be quite terrifying. If, with the benefit of hindsight, we can now perfectly see the seeds of radicalism sprouting on Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s Twitter feed, then it follows that we can discover — and halt — someone’s budding radicalization taking place right now, in real-time. Many are already advocating for increased surveillance, more CCTV cameras, and so on. But even beyond the installation of more virtual eyes over our urban areas, the impulse to counter terrorism with an even bigger Big Brother is just one more step in the wrong direction for a country that’s already all too willing to surrender its civil liberties in the service of an unconvincing “security.”

Which brings me to the headline of this post. Take a look at the below tweets of mine, and then try to imagine reading them after I’ve been accused of a hypothetical bombing:

Do you see the problem here? It took me all of about ten minutes to select these tweets out of nearly 5,000 I’ve written. So yes, there are plenty of dots and data points in a Twitter feed. But connecting them arbitrarily after the fact to create a portrayal of something sinister does nothing to help prevent terrorism. And it may do a lot to help push us just a little bit closer to 1984.

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