Dave Eggers’s novel The Circle, still popular over two years after its publication, is set in the near future and describes an eerily omniscient technology giant. Eggers devotes a lot of attention to the dangers of allowing our privacy to be compromised by a corporation, but he barely touches on a key reason why we might be tempted to succumb to ever-greater surveillance.
An idea that’s only briefly mentioned in the book, but described as being very popular among Circle staffers, is: “The Circle helps me find myself.” The glancing nature of that mention is consistent with the fact that it’s a promise we rarely hear from online services today — but I suspect that it’s going to grow in prominence in coming years, as detailed self-knowledge becomes an increasingly tantalizing prospect.
Right now, many of us allow Amazon to remember our purchase history, and Apple to remember where we’ve gone, and Spotify to track our listening choices, out of convenience. Amazon can alert me to new books similar to those I’ve enjoyed in the past, Apple can automatically tell me how traffic is between my work and my home, and Spotify can recommend music I’m likely to enjoy if I’ve been listening to a lot of Grimes lately.
More and more, though, a benefit of allowing technology companies to know us is that they can remind us of who we are — and who we’ve been. The popular app Timehop aggregates feeds from a user’s social media feeds as a reminder of what he or she was doing one, two, three, or four years ago. Facebook early adopters can even be reminded of what they were doing exactly ten years ago today.
One of my favorite social networks is Last.fm. It tracks music listening across multiple platforms, and tallies charts — so you have your own personal Hot 100 for any time period you choose, or for your entire history on Last.fm. I’ve had an account since 2007, and it’s started to replace my subjective answers about my favorite music.
Now, when someone asks what my favorite bands are, I don’t have to guess, and there’s no risk I’ll name a band I happen to be just temporarily obsessed with: I can answer with great authority that, at least since 2007, my most-played artists have been Bob Dylan, Tegan and Sara, and the Magnetic Fields. Embarrassingly often, I’ve found myself wishing the charts reflected my listening history over the previous 31 years of my life. Who is my true all-time most-played artist?
Eerily, that’s a service promised by the Circle: it’s depicted as scouring all available records to fill in its — and, of course, your — knowledge of the pre-Internet past.
“Talk therapy” is premised in large part on recalling, sharing, and analyzing past experiences so as to better understand what we do and why we do it, so that we can change things we don’t like about ourselves. What if a service like Facebook could help us process our past actions and help us spot undesirable patterns — and, conversely, desirable ones? Where are we, and who are we with, when we’re our best selves?
To return to the simpler topic of musical preferences, consider how close Spotify is to making smart recommendations based on not just the broad strokes but on the specific details of our listening history. The service already recommends certain playlists based on time of day — what if it discovers, for example, that when I put a folk album on in the morning I tend to listen to it all the way through, while if a folk song comes on shuffle at 5:00 on a Friday, I tend to skip it? The service could help me remember what kind of music I like at particular times and places, and could help me avoid wasted time experimenting with music that won’t satisfy me — even if it’s music I might enjoy in other circumstances.
Take that idea (as the Circle character Bailey likes to say) one step further: what if Spotify considered not just what music I enjoy at what times, but who I’m with? Via GPS, for example, it could tell when I’m in the same location as my college roommates — so it could automatically suggest Men at Work and Kate Bush on my home screen, even if (maybe even especially if) I haven’t listened to those bands since the last time I hung out with my old friends.
That kind of thing would be super convenient — so convenient, in fact, that it seems almost inevitable — but would it help me understand myself at a deeper level? That’s a question bound to become more and more intriguing over the next few years, as technology allows us to map our history of actions with ever greater precision.
We’re moving towards a world where technology can tell us, with surprising accuracy, what will make us happy. Facebook’s algorithm weighs both my own behavior and the behavior of others in my social network to populate my news feed with content likely to be of interest to me — and it’s right, a lot of the time. That’s why Twitter has started to incorporate algorithmic features into its feeds as well. The same principle could apply to dining choices, dating prospects, and even places to live.
Soon, my phone will know what I want better than I do. Is that a good thing? Millions of us are happily using technology that predicts our desires — not just to meet them, but to help us know what they are. That’s crucial for navigating our increasingly wide and deep sea of options; for example, on Spotify, where we might find ourselves paralyzed by the near-infinite listening choices without a little guidance.
There’s a danger, of course, that such technology will tend to steer us into ruts. If I listen to a lot of EDM, my Spotify Discover playlist will fill with EDM, and when Spotify detects me listening to that playlist, it just tends to reinforce Spotify’s impression — and, crucially, my own self-impression — that I’m a guy who likes EDM.
It’s like the facial feedback hypothesis: when we smile, we get happier so as to pull our emotions and our actions into alignment. If we’re encouraged to act as we have in the past, even if that action has been manipulated, we’ll tend to interpret that action as somehow reflecting our preferences — and our newly reinforced beliefs about our own preferences will in turn affect our future actions.
This is likely one reason the American electorate is becoming increasingly polarized: technology, though presenting us with a vast array of information and opinion, tends to steer us in the directions we were already headed. Like your friend’s Facebook status about a presidential candidate, and Facebook will show you more posts about that candidate. If you liked that person before, you’re likely to like that person again — and again and again, until you start to see the other candidates only through that one’s eyes.
As technology advances, though, it will surely also get savvier about the human need for variety of experience. Our tools will offer novelty and comfort in proportion to one another. They’ll get better at responding to our changing desires — which, of course, tend to change in predictable ways. You don’t have to be a total determinist to believe that in deciding what we want at any given moment, our minds tend to follow certain types of paths — whether or not we see or fully understand what those paths are.
At one point, the Circle seems to be considering brain scanning. Brains are so incredibly complex, hinge on the movements of such tiny particles, and are so inaccessible that we’ll likely never be able to maintain a perfect map of a working brain in real-time — but we’ll get much, much closer to it than we can now, and we’re already brushing up against the point where you can’t be a scientist without being a philosopher. What is consciousness, and what does it want?
What if Facebook could tap straight into a scan of your brain? That would be incredibly creepy…but it would also be convenient. Theoretically, we could all end up living in a virtual Garden of Eden, where all our desires are understood and met — in a way that we couldn’t ourselves manage, because we don’t understand ourselves as well as our devices will. It’s then, truly, that the Circle will be complete.