Novelist Dave Eggers takes a dim view of Silicon Valley’s techno-utopia. His new book, The Circle, is a 500-page grump about the dangerously seductive powers of internet culture and all the gormless catchphrases that go with it: transparency, openness, sharing. In the book, one single company, called The Circle, has taken over the consumer internet: it does everything Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Amazon and eBay do. But it also invents trinkets of the sort startups excel at. For all practical purposes, the Circle is the internet.
Eggers claims not to have done very much research, relying purely on his imagination. “There were a handful of times when I looked something up, or asked the opinion of someone more tech-savvy than I am, but for the most part this was just a process of pure speculative fiction,” he told the New York Times. If that is indeed the case, Eggers might consider selling ideas to Silicon Valley startups; much of his speculation is already fact. Here are a some of Eggers’ imagined technologies, followed by excerpts from contemporary news reports.
DIY mass surveillance
“This is a video camera, and this is the precise model that’s getting this incredible image quality. Image quality that holds up to this kind of magnification. So that’s the first great thing. We can get high-def-quality resolution in a camera the size of a thumb. Well, a very big thumb. The second great thing is that, as you can see, this camera needs no wires It’s transmitting this image via satellite.” ~Eamon Bailey, co-founder of the Circle, p.60.
The Dropcam Pro is a wireless video surveillance camera with a lot of great features. It costs $199 and the DVR service costs $10 per month. This lets you record everything that happens for seven full days, offering a 24/7 view on your world. ~TechCrunch, Oct 10.
National genetic databases
“Well, because Iceland has this incredibly homogenous population, most of the residents have roots many centuries back on the island. Anyone can trace their ancestry very easily back a thousand years. So they started mapping the genomes of Icelanders, every single person, and were able to trace all kinds of diseases to their origins. They’ve gotten so much valuable data from that pool of people.” ~Dr. Villalobos, doctor, the Circle, p.156.
Islendingabok, or the Book of Icelanders, tracks 1,200 years worth of the country’s genealogical data. Beyond reconnecting with aunt Brynhildur, some Icelanders are using the site to avoid romancing the bloodline. ~Globe and Mail, Feb 10.
Tracking long-lost parents
“You don’t know where you lived?”
“No Clue. Even having pictures is pretty rare. Not all the foster families would give you photos, but when they did, they made sure not to show anything that could help you find them. No exteriors on the house, no addresses or street signs of landmarks.”
“So you haven’t tried to contact them? I mean with facial recognition—”
~Mae Holland, Circler, talking to Francis, Circler and former foster child, pp.200-201.
When he was five years old, Saroo Brierley got lost on a train in India and was separated from his family. He spent weeks wandering Calcutta until he was adopted by a young Australian couple who gave him a happy and comfortable life. In 2009, when Brierley was a recent college graduate, he thought it might be interesting to try to find his birth family, using nothing but his photographic memory and Google Earth. ~Business Insider, Oct 17.
“Starting today, I will be wearing the same device Stewart wears. My every meeting, movement, my every word, will be available to all my constituents and to the world.” …. A technician emerged from the wings and hung a necklace around Santos’s head—a smaller version of the camera Stewart had been wearing. ~Olivia Santos, US Congresswoman, pp.208-9.
He knew what I’d eaten without me saying, because that had been the weekend I spent as a lifelogger, wearing around my neck a lightweight digital camera that takes a picture every seven seconds from morning until night. The result is a jerky time-lapse video of my life, made up of about 25,000 photos. ~Research Magazine, March 2011.
Tech billionaires with a thing for reusable space rockets
Project 9, as far as Mae knew, was the encompassing name for the secret research being done at the Circle. Anything from space technology—Stenton thought the Circle would design and build a far better reusable spacecraft—to what was rumored to be a plan to embed and make accessible massive amounts of data in human DNA. ~p.218
Blue Origin wants to fly under the radar all the way into space. The secretive private spaceflight firm, which was established in 2000 by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, is developing systems to launch astronauts to both suborbital and orbital space… “It’s really about developing and using vertical powered landing to drive reusable systems that can increase reliability and lower cost,” Rob Meyerson, the company’s president and program manager, said in a rare public presentation last September at a conference in Long Beach. ~Space.com, April 2012.
“Let’s start with your vital signs, all the basics. Have you seen one of these?” The doctor held out a silver bracelet, about three inches wide. Mae had seen health monitors on Jared and Dan, but theirs were made of rubber, and fit loosely. This one was thinner and lighter…. “It has to touch the skin, of course, to measure what we’d like to measure—which is everything.” ~Dr. Villalobos, doctor, the Circle, pp.153-4.
A pediatrician in Kansas City, Mo., Natasha Bugert, said apps that track newborn feedings and sleep patterns are popular among her patients and she encourages parents to send her the data before their appointments. ~Delaware Online, Oct 16.
Cars that leave a digital trail
“I mean the trackability of self-driving cars is solving a lot of this, of course. Spouses increasingly know where the other has been, given the car logs where it’s been driven.” ~Eamon Bailey, co-founder of the Circle, p.290.
After a negative experience several years ago with Top Gear, a popular automotive show, where they pretended that our car ran out of energy and had to be pushed back to the garage, we always carefully data log media drives. ~Tesla Blog, Feb 13.