The dark side of the tech industry

According to Dave Eggers, anyway

CB_CULTURE_BOOKOn a Monday night in late September, a young man sat on busy train in San Francisco raising and lowering a handgun. Up the pistol went. Then down. Up again and down once more. As the train rumbled on, the man pulled out the gun at least three times, according to an account in the San Francisco Chronicle. Then the train stopped. He stood, stepped through the doors and shot a complete stranger in the back. Remarkably, the man wasn’t alone in the train while he was doing this. According to security camera footage, other passengers surrounded him the entire time. And yet, lost in their smartphones, not one of them noticed a thing. “These weren’t concealed movements; the gun is very clear.” George Gascon, the local district attorney, told the Chronicle. “They’re just so engrossed, texting and reading and whatnot. They’re completely oblivious of their surroundings.”

This is a very strange moment in the culture of technology, which at this point is well and truly enmeshed in the culture as a whole. On the one hand, the business of tech remains the envy of all others. And for good reason: Apple sold nine million new iPhones over three days in September; Google earned US$14 billion in revenue last quarter; Twitter, it’s IPO imminent, is about to mint a new round of tech-age millionaires. But for every sign of financial success, there seems to be at least one more of cultural disquiet. To listen to some, the tools of technology are worming their way into ever more aspects of our lives. They’re dulling us in the process to the real world and real people around us, making us blind to anything outside our own orbits, blind even, say, to something like a young man on a train wielding a 45-calibre pistol.

This October one of America’s most lauded novelists is taking direct aim at tech culture and its effects on our lives. The Circle (Knopf, $34), by Dave Eggers, arrives on a wave of equal parts hype and skepticism. Eggers, the author of, among others, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and A Hologram for the King, is both a beloved Bay Area resident—he founded the McSweeney’s publishing empire and the 826 Valencia literacy charity—and an admitted technophobe. So, depending on your perspective, he’s either perfectly positioned or completely unqualified to pass judgment on Silicon Valley.

In The Circle, Eggers doesn’t so much take his best swing at technology as ignore its pitches entirely and chase after it with his bat. To say The Circle lacks subtlety, in other words, is an understatement. Set in a fictional future where a single company looms, Big Brother–like, over all of Internet commerce and connection, the book presents an absolute worst-case scenario for our current mass-experiment in living online. The company in the book, also known as the Circle, wants to record and share every part of human existence. To achieve that end, it spreads portable, streaming cameras all over the globe. It also equips politicians, and then later normal citizens, with cameras that broadcast their every move as part of a radical experiment in transparency.

The Circle isn’t meant to be taken literally. It’s a broad, dystopian thriller, and Eggers has admitted he did little to no research into the actual tech world before writing it. Still, for all that, he does effectively skewer some real aspects of tech culture and business. As the book’s main character, a young Circle employee named Mae, sinks deeper into company life, she becomes less and less attuned to the real people around her. Pushed to record, react to and judge everything she does and sees, Mae gradually loses her ability to connect to anyone she knew before joining the company. She lives in a bubble of her own making. Like the passengers on that San Francisco train, she’s too absorbed in her virtual world to process the real one.

On a larger scale, too, The Circle gets the foibles of the tech world at least somewhat right. The Circle’s founders and employees seem to genuinely believe the interests of society line up exactly with their own. That they happen to make billions of dollars while serving the cause of what they see as good is pitched largely as a coincidence. And while Eggers may be a bit fuzzy on the details of contemporary technology, he’s certainly familiar with the utopian optimism of the tech-age winners. Walled off by technology and geography from the realities of most of their fellow citizens, the tech elites live lives of extreme, if occasionally odd, luxury. (In a development that mirrors one plot line from The Circle, Facebook announced plans in October for an entire apartment complex to be built on its California campus.) At the same time, many continue to espouse a vague kind of heal-the-world liberalism, leavened by an unshakable faith in the power of the private sector. In that way, they aren’t that different from tycoons of other eras. They believe what’s good for them must be good for everyone.

Eggers’s novel hits shelves just as stories of the dark side of the tech industry seem to be multiplying. From so-called bro-grammers, who have brought the worst of American frat culture to the corporate world, to Google’s new plan to include user photos and recommendations in targeted ads, it’s not hard to find evidence of mainstream outrage over the industry’s excesses. More broadly, there seem to be fewer and fewer people who believe there is anything fundamentally good about the business of technology these days. That wasn’t always the case. For a long time, there was a broad, if diffuse, sense that Apple, Google and the like were as much heirs to ’60s radicalism as servants to Wall Street capital. Today it’s harder to believe that to be true. No one is shocked anymore by revelations, like those that appeared in the New York Times magazine in October, that Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey backstabbed his way to the top, or that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos views employees as abusable, replaceable cogs, as a new book by Businessweek’s Brad Stone shows. In that way, the new business isn’t that different from the old business. It’s just more pretentious and less likely to wear a suit. Silicon Valley isn’t inherently good or bad. It’s just business.