The Future: Is it Utopia, or 1984? Review of The Circle and The Age of Context

George Orwell’s famed 1984  was written in 1948 – 36 years ahead of the title’s date. The movie 2001: A Space Odyssey  was written in 1968 – 33 years ahead of its title. With a 30-plus year head start, audiences back then saw both works as way, way out there – far enough away that it was really difficult to seriously see how we’d get from here to there.

So it’s interesting to consider two futurist books published in the last 4 weeks: Dave Eggers’ Brave New World-ish novel of life in a Google-Facebookish company called The Circle.  Then there’s the west coast’s leading in-your-face techno-geek Robert Scoble’s new book The Age of Context: Mobile, Sensors, Data and the Future of Privacy, with co-author Shel Israel.

They describe two very different views of the future. But they share one thing: in the world of 2013, there’s no way it’s going to take 30-plus years to envision either future. Each book suggests great changes, but it’ll be here in, relatively speaking, no time at all. The future comes much faster than it used to.

The Circle

The Circle is an easy read. It’s the tale of an innocent and talented young woman who rises fast in the California internet company of the future, The Circle. A clear blend of Google and FaceBook, The Circle is rapidly coming to dominate every aspect of life in the not too distant future.

A literary masterpiece it ain’t – it reminds me of Ayn Rand’s style. In other words (with apologies to Dorothy Parker), it runs the gamut from A to B.

But that’s not the point. The plot is what drives the book, and the scenarios feel all too real. Eggers is a journalist, and his strength lies in tightly drawing the tensions that arise from massive access to data, manipulated massively.  I’m not claiming The Circle is in the same literary league as Brave New World or 1984, but it shares their well-crafted foreboding of Some Big Evil Stuff coming down the road.

It’s as easy to envision the good that comes from The Circle as it is to envision the bad, even though the Big Brother aspects of it ultimately win out. The biggest clashes, no surprise, come around issues of privacy. But it’s not the usual privacy issues that take front and center.

On the one hand, greater transparency and authenticity allow for a great amount of social good: less crime, better health, more efficient commerce,  greater ease of social interactions.

But the biggest price is not lack of privacy – it’s the inauthenticity and insincerity that arises from a society that constantly has to share everything with everyone. To use Erving Goffman‘s metaphor, we end up constantly wearing masks, particularly when we insist we have abolished masks.

Eggers makes us see exactly how one gets from here to there: through pumped up Amazon book reviews, reciprocal autobot following, inauthentic LinkedIn recommendations. It’s all pimping out the rules of etiquette and reciprocity in service to self-interest.

The New Rule of Tell the Whole Truth quickly slides into the de facto rule of Say No Evil. And the price we pay is – it quickly turns to Say No Truth as well.

The Age of Context

Robert Scoble, the better known of the two authors, is the self-made techno-geek of the West Coast, most recently famous for his wife’s photo of him proudly wearing his Google glasses in the shower. Scoble’s a ham, but a very smart ham, and this is a very solid book. Not only is  he totally up to the minute on his technology, but he and Israel do a very credible job of outlining the dynamics behind the technical world of the future.  It’s far more believable than Eggers’ fictional creation, because it’s non-fiction, and very real.

They describe five very concrete forces: mobile devices, social media, big data, sensors, and location-based services, all coming together in the cloud. The Big Theme they envision is contextual computing. That is, the ability to know where we are, what’s going on around us, what we want to be happening, and what we wan to do – all contained in technology harvested to serve man.

Picture super super-powerful personalized software, integrated with cars, in wearable form, linking to the internet of things, our brain waves, and harnessed to databases that are accumulating at astonishingly exponential rates. It’s really amazing stuff, and it’s all very real; and Scoble and Israel walk you through it all.

They are not starry-eyed idealists.  They raise the issues of privacy front and center, and are critical of Google in some very precise ways. They don’t claim to have all the answers, but do a service by more sharply defining the question.

Net net, I’m left with a definite sense of optimism. The benefits of the technology to come are huge, if we can manage to deal with the (real) issues. It would be unconscionable of us to forego most of the good because we don’t have perfect solutions to privacy.

A bit of perspective: Scoble and Israel cite a university professor who banned the use of Google in research because it was cheating, compared to “real” research. That was just ten years ago.

Imagine what could happen in 30 years?

Trust and Golf: How Neither Makes Sense

I’ve been reading Trust Agents by Chris Brogan and Julien Smith.

I was particularly struck by the way they told Robert Scoble‘s story (a success story, but not usually painted as a trust story).  They call Scoble one of the first trust agents ever on the World Wide Web. 

Though hindsight is 20-20, many people watching Scoble’s moves at the time would have labeled him at best irreverent, irresponsible, and committed to career suicide … at worst a complete idiot. But looking at him through the lens of what it takes to become trustworthy, I’m siding with Brogan and Smith—what he did was brilliant.

The Scoble Story

In 2004, Scoble, then a Microsoft employee, took to blogging about serious issues Microsoft and its end users were experiencing. He even candidly sung the praises of Firefox, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer competitor.

Not only did Scoble not get fired, he got readers. And Microsoft got business. Brogan and Smith report, “People began eating up everything he said. If his very next blog post had praised Notepad as ‘the best app ever,’ his readers probably would have said, ‘You’re so right!’”

Scoble attributes part of this phenomenon to something he learned when he helped run retail stores in the 1980’s. If he told a customer that a competitor had a better selection, they often came back and asked to do business with him anyway, “’cause I like you better.”  (Maybe he got it from the Macy’s Santa Claus in Miracle on 34th Street, who recommended competitor Gimbel’s on occasion).

What’s Golf Got to Do with It?

One of the reasons trust is so hard to get a grip on is that it’s rife with paradox. For example, the thing we’re most afraid to say or do is precisely what will build the most trust. Or, in Scoble’s case, the best way to generate sales is to have the courage to be brutally honest about your product’s weaknesses and your competitor’s strengths.

Here’s the link to golf (pardon the pun): I am not a golfer. To me, the only logical way to get that tiny little ball to travel hundreds of yards off the first tee towards that tiny little cup is to hit it as hard as possible. If you’re a golfer, you just shook your head in dismay because you know what my strategy will yield: a nice left hook into a thick forest of trees.

Scoble came to be seen as someone who could be trusted because he knew that building trust is like a golf swing: hype your product and you hook the ball; be honest and land it square on the green.

Golf Aside, Motives Matter

Leaving the golf metaphor behind for a moment, it’s important to remember that motives really do matter. Buyers have a sixth sense for manipulation. Had Scoble been talking trash about his products with the intention of closing deals, his strategy would have backfired. Which leads us to another paradox: the more you try to build trust with the intention of closing deals, the less deals you close.

Take a look at your business model. How might the lessons of golf—and Scoble—improve your game?

Trust Networks vs. Search Engines

Those who understand the technical aspects of current hot themes like social networking (think Facebook ), are all a-twitter over a post last weekend by Robert Scoble, a (deservedly) influential tech blogger.

Nominally about whether Google will be dethroned by some upstarts , his post has generated many over-heated comments of the “Yankees suck” variety. (A notable exception is “Turbo” Todd Watson’s posting on the subject).

But commenters aside, Scoble is pouring some very good old wine into some very promising new bottles. The issue is: who do you trust?

Do you trust:

a. A compilation of information (encyclopedia, Blue Book, Google, classified ads, Yellow Pages), or

b. Your friends?

The best known net-based version of the former, of course, is search engines.

The net-based terminology du jour for the latter is trust networks—think Old Boys’ network, bowling leagues (going way back), and more recently Friendster, MySpace, LinkedIn and Plaxo, and—todays’ hot item—Facebook.

The right answer is—as it always is in these cases—it depends. In this case, it depends on what problem you are trying to solve.

If you’re trying to buy a used car, you probably value masses of information over your friends’ recommendations, no matter how smart your friends are—because you’re trying to assess a market. The bigger and more liquid the market you seek to tap, the more you’ll value objective, massive information. Score one for the compilation model of the world.

If you’re trying to decide whether or not you should talk to your daughter about how she’s making the mistake of her life by going out with that no-good idiot, you don’t care about markets—you care about wisdom from people who know you and your life. Score one for a network of friends; the trust network.

In the real world (I mean outside the blogosphere), there is no shortage of either kind of problem, and it will always be so. These are merely chapters in the ongoing book about how we come to trust, and to make use of new technologies to do so.