27.7.14

JUNIOR HIGH GOES ON FOREVER.

Book Review No. 4 is Dave Eggers's The Circle.  It's fiction, dealing with the adventures of a young lady hired on the recommendation of a highly-placed college friend to work in an antitrust nightmare of a technology company combining social-media, search engines, and business software.  This company also appears to manufacture some kind of super-smart 'phone, and thus develops proprietary operating systems.  Thus pick and choose among Google and Yahoo and Apple and Microsoft as one company offering products on sufficiently attractive terms that everybody uses them.

I adapted the title of my post from one of the supporting cast, a former boyfriend of the protagonist who is not impressed with a wired age in which everything can be seen and shared and approved of or not instantaneously.  In his view, it's Perpetual Superficial.  And the life of the protagonist does little to contradict that view: if she's not following up with customers to get favorable evaluations, she's finding stuff to like and share (this now being converted into the single action, zing) and observing and approving of the stuff others zing, lest her productivity be seen as lagging, and her uncommunicative behavior be interpreted as insufficiently part of the community.  (Yes, communism has the same root, and I'll address that before I'm done.)  So her life, and the life of her co-workers, is one of being perpetually on, perpetually superficially involved, perpetually incapable of introspection, and probably perpetually tired -- but running on designer coffee.  And when the protagonist engages in some hashtag activism on behalf of her parents, her parents then encounter the attitude of people who sent supportive electronic mails or zings or what have you and did not get immediate responses.

And yes, this is art imitating life:  how often, dear reader, have you come into work and encountered a person whose greeting is "did you get my e-mail?", rather than "good morning," and have you gone off the social media for a few days only to return to an electronic mail inbox full of "You have missed 26 alerts?"  And the people who believe in hashtag activism might not recognize the satire in the Circle Company attempting to make public everybody's behavior, all the time.

Thus, Mr Eggers has clearly written a dystopian novel, if not as explicitly downbeat as Brave New World or the Hunger Games series.  There may, be, however, a deeper political economy message.

I have long attempted to answer student questions about non-capitalist economic organization by appeal to habit.  That is, if two cigarette-rolling machines are capable of producing more cigarettes than the adult population is capable of smoking, the embedded knowledge of running the machines may be sufficient to keep the populace in cigarettes.  And embedded knowledge of other industrial processes may be sufficient for producing other things for the populace to use.  And thus might the owners and the managers become superfluous.

But what happens when one server is capable of keeping track of all the embedded knowledge, and that server (mild spoiler alert) also turns off bank accounts and social media for people who don't vote?

There's also a challenge posed to the more traditional planned economy model laid out by Barry Lynn in a Salon interview conducted by Thomas Frank.
What we needed to do, [Theodore Roosevelt] thought, was make sure that system works for the public benefit, and to do that we had to impose our public government on top of their private government. So we will hire a bunch of experts, a bunch of engineers and scientists to run this new system so that it always works for the public benefit. Rather than let the feudal lords determine how much oil and sugar is produced, and what they cost, and how much the workers get paid, we’ll have government experts do all that instead.
It's called regulating business by independent commission, and President Roosevelt failed to anticipate regulatory capture, and Messrs. Lynn and Frank would rather gripe about Ronald Reagan gutting the antitrust laws.

But when there is one company operating the servers, and the servers also tabulate public opinion and monitor the voting of the citizens, whether the automata become the de facto dictators, or whether any kind of citizen takeover of the means of production (which are now also the means of knowledge) poses an even deeper challenge.

(Cross-posted to 50 Book Challenge.)

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