BOOKS OCTOBER 15, 2013
It is by now well-documented that Dave Eggers’s brutal takedown of digital culture has very little interest in the real logistics of digital culture. Jessica Winter at Slate may have put it best: “The Circle sometimes reads like a satire of NASCAR in which all the cars are played by freight trains.” Felix Salmon wrote in a column for Reuters that “Eggers strays so far away from verisimilitude that his book barely even feels like satire.” Eggers himself went on the record to proclaim that he did not “read any books about any Internet companies, or about the experiences of anyone working at any of these companies.” Also: “I’ve never visited any tech campus, and I don’t know anything in particular about how any given company is run.” He neither Tweets (to be fair, two Tweets since 2009) nor has a Facebook page. So here are some of Eggers’s most egregious misreadings of technology:
1.) What an “operating system” is: “Ty had devised the initial system, the Unified Operating System, which combined everything online that had heretofore been separate and sloppy—users’ social media profiles, their payment systems, their various passwords, their email accounts, user names, preferences, every last tool and manifestation of their interests.”
But actually: Operating systems are computer software (a la iOS and Windows) that manage system tasks and resources, not a way to assemble all your favorite digital tools in one place.
2.) Barriers to entry: In The Circle, as soon as technologies are birthed, they immediately take over the world. A program called TruYouth that involves a tracking device inserted into children is an instant blockbuster: “In the states where we’ve been testing the program, there’s been an almost 90 percent drop in all crime, and a 100 percent drop in child abductions.” And then there’s the massive “operating system” at the heart of the novel, TruYou: “Though some sites were resistant at first, and free-internet advocates shouted about the right to be anonymous online, the TruYou wave was tidal and crushed all meaningful opposition,” Eggers writes. “TruYou changed the internet, in toto, within a year.
But actually: launching a new technology does not a global phenomenon make. Namely, the social media marketplace is crowded and acquiring a critical mass of users is hard. How did TruYou lure humanity away from all the other social media sides and search engines they were already on? is one of the many irrelevant, unproductive questions you could ask about the world of this book.
3.) The extent to which 2013 is the future: In one flashy new technological development chronicled in The Circle, “the actual buying habits of actual people were now eminently mappable and measurable.”
Except they already were: take Facebook Ads, Apple ID for Advertisers, and companies like AdRoll, all designed explicitly to map and measure our buying habits.
4.) Just how obsessed tech companies are with their own products: Eggers's protagonist, Mae, is constantly pressured to ratchet up her presence on the company's many social media platforms. "I’m looking at your profile,” one supervisor tells her, “and I’m finding nothing about you and kayaking. No smiles, no ratings, no posts, nothing. And now you’re telling us you kayak once every few weeks?"
But actually: Startup employees are often discouraged from overusing the products they've made. As Natasha Tiku pointed out on Gawker, there is even tech industry slang for this. It's called "eating your own dogfood."
5.) The power of anonymity: “It started with the commerce sites. Why would any non-porn site want anonymous users when they could know exactly who had come through the door? Overnight, all comment boards became civil, all posters held accountable. The trolls, who had more or less overtaken the internet, were driven back into the darkness.”
But actually: "Overnight, all comment boards became civil." So who cares about hiding their identity on the Internet? Porn lovers and message board trolls, that’s who. Meanwhile the rest of us drifted happily into the bright, open pasture of transparency, offering up nothing but “likes” for the rest of time.