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?

Who Do You Trust? A Snapshot in Time

That’s the title of a recent blogpost  by Barry Ritholz, in his delightfully eclectic blog The Big Picture: Macro Perspective on the Capital Markets.  (Though, as one of his commentators snarkily reminds us, it should be “whom” do you trust).

Together with forty-odd literate comments, this post provides a perfect snapshot—a social Rorschach test—of the application of trust, the nature of trust, and the state of trust in business today. (Plus, it’s a fun read).

The application of trust.  As Barry points out, we apply concepts of trust to personal and business relationships alike. He implicates trust in the decline of mainstream media readership. “Trust” in the comments gets applied to products (ETFs over mutual funds), broadcasters (Kudlow, Kramer), directors (Spielberg), institutions (the IRS more than the Fed), and even “humanity” or “myself.”

Much of his post—and the comments—focus on the notion of trusting companies—as in, “I trust Amazon and USAA,” or “I don’t trust Microsoft.”

In turn, reasons for trusting (or not trusting) companies include:

• concerns about data security leading to identity theft
• customer service
• attention to customer experience, e.g. spam prevention
• reputation, e.g. linkage to one’s past.

Barry neatly sums up the range of trust applications in a series of questions:

Who do I trust? Who can I rely on, confide in, bank on, have faith in?
Who do you read? Who do you let get inside your head? Who do you believe? Who are you sure about?
What companies do you entrust with your personal files and passwords? Your social security number, bank account data, personal financial info, data?
Who do you trust?

The nature and state of trust. A blogpost is the furthest thing from a statistical study; then again, we’ve just seen the feet of clay of polling statistics.

The post and comments are more like a focus group; they have the ability to state a particular insight "just so." 

Barry says, “I am naturally sceptical. I see too much bullshit everywhere,” and his commenters continue the tone. One says, “People are, by nature, liars, thieves, and fast buck con artists.”

In other words, truth-telling is an indicium of trust—and the general view is bearish on truth-telling these days.

Barry says, “Yahoo (YHOO) still has some residual trust — but its waning fast. I still use Yahoo as a home page, but their inattentiveness to some of their properties is shameful.”

In other words, trust is about taking responsibility.  And how Yahoo isn’t doing it, nor is Dell, nor AIM. 

He also doesn’t trust social networking sites, because they abuse data—in turn, either because of sloppiness, and/or venality.  Trust is about motives, and about focus on something other than oneself.

One commenter says he trusts someone through their blog. Another says it amounts to risk management. One talks about trusting a very small circle of friends and family. Another talks about the essential role of trust in capitalism.

And many have hilarious lists of who and what they trust and don’t trust.

All in all, a rich real-world sample of the meaning of the word trust; not in a dictionary sense, but in an active, anthropological, here-now on-the-street sense.

It’s a great snapshot of trust in America circa January 2008. Thanks to Barry for posting.