Techies and futurists are not the only ones who like to spin tales about what the future may hold for us. Telling stories about what a world with way more technology might be like is also a favorite occupation of many novelists.
Two of my favorites are The Circle by Dave Eggers and Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart. Both of these books raise the issue of transparency vs. privacy in an age of more intrusive technology. Some of their characters embrace the transparency, some are victimized by it. I don’t think either author welcomes it.
Reading these stories recalls the futurist classic 1984 by George Orwell. Most of us have thought of Big Brother as a government entity. But it could in fact be whoever controls the technology. Or the oppression could come peer-to-peer.
It is interesting that a key aspect of the future lifestyle envisioned by both of these novelists is live streaming from personal devices. And these stories were written well before anyone ever heard of Meercat or Periscope. (Super Sad True Love Story was published in 2010, The Circle in 2013.)
Both are great novels that I highly recommend. Here are short reviews:
The Circle, Dave Eggers
If George Orwell had written “1984” 60 years later, who would have been Big Brother? Would it still have been the government (think NSA)? How about the marketers who try to track and predict our behavior? Or would it be a corporate Big Brother?
Dave Eggers is going with the latter. The Circle is the Silicon Valley monolith that consumes all the others. If you get creeped out by seeing the Google car with the camera on top cruising your neighborhood you’re likely to find this a tale of horror.
It’s the story of Mae Holland, a young woman one or two jobs out of college, who scores her dream gig in a cube farm at the Circle. What she finds there is an exaggeration of a couple of trends that have become increasingly prevalent in corporate America in the last few years. One is the need to create data to evaluate job performance. Essentially this involves taking subjective information, translating it into numbers, and then pretending it’s objective. At the Circle, Mae gets a real time rating of 1 to 100 after every transaction, every email, every message. She is also stack ranked with the 11,000 other Circle employees on a participation index. That involves how active she is in off-hours company-sponsored events and activities and how much social messaging she does with her colleagues. That’s the other trend I referred to above, the movement toward obliterating the distinction between your professional and personal life.
One man’s transparency and is another’s invasion of privacy. That is the crux of what this novel is about. The Circle represents a quest for total transparency. I stand with Eggers on the other side of the issue. There is one voice of dissent at the Circle, a shadowy character who gets it on with Mae in a bathroom stall (not transparent). He warns that the completion of the circle will mean the end of humanity. I think that is what Orwell would have said.
Super Sad True Love Story, Gary Shteyngart
This Super Sad True Love Story involves 39-year old Lenny Abramov, son of Russian Jewish immigrant parents, and Eunice Park, 20-something second generation Korean-American. It takes place in a rapidly deteriorating United States, with a repressive one-party government, kept afloat by Chinese financing. Central Park has been turned into a shanty town for LNWI’s (low net worth individuals).
Shteyngart creates a world of devices and data. A world where you check your credit score on telephone poles. The devices of the time are called apparats and are worn around the neck. These devices churn out data that goes way beyond telling marketers what to sell you. The apparat guides your personal relationships as well. For example, Lenny’s apparat tells him that he does well with women who were abused. In a bar or at a party the device will point out those who fit that description. It will also rate everyone around on parameters like ‘fuckability,’ personality and income. Lenny’s forte is the latter. Eunice gets high grades only in the first of these.
You can find out someone’s body fat or blood pressure with your apparat but intelligence is not a feature considered of much consequence. The transparency has also found its way to fashion. For young women, onion skin pants have replaced jeans.
In courting Eunice, Lenny treats her to a $10 business class ride on the F train. Eunice is shocked to see Lenny actually read a book, not just scan the text for data. Lenny deodorizes his book shelf so as not to offend his lover with the smell of books.
Shteyngart is easy to read. He has a direct style, no heavy descriptions of the environs or re-jiggering of the timelines. There are lots of “is this what we’re coming to?” moments. Followed for me by the thought that I hope I’m not around to see it.