A few years ago I found myself carrying around The Singularity Is Near, written by Google’s director of engineering, Ray Kurzweil. I had every intention of finishing it, but was only able to drag through a few chapters. It was unfortunately a really heavy 700-page book. It sadly became a doorstop after I gave up on it. The little I read was impressive, with bright ideas on technology, engineering, and futurism. Kurzweil visited Chico last spring to talk about his role at Google, and is one of the most inspiring advocates on technology and the role of it in our lives. He had this to say at his TED talk in April: “As we gradually learn to harness the optimal computing capacity of matter, our intelligence will spread through the universe at, or exceeding the speed of light, eventually leading to a sublime, universe-wide awakening.”
It’s a pretty fantastical claim—an idea that seems even a little far-fetched. Kurzweil is in love with technology, but something about his unfaltering optimism in it makes me squirm a little. Maybe that’s why I raced through The Circle by Dave Eggers (published earlier this month), because it’s critical of technology in a way that Kurzweil is not. Eggers seems to have taken stock of first-world life, and has responded to our technology-obsessed state with a public service announcement warning us of the dangers lurking ahead. It’s a parable of creepy proportions about what the not-so-distant future might look like if we continue on our current path. It does not lend itself to the kind of glowing optimism of Kurzweil, but rather warns “chicken little” style about what life might look like if we grow more connected to technology and less connected to the living, breathing beings around us.
The novel centers around Mae, a young woman who lands a coveted job at The Circle—a company that has successfully combined social media sites, banking, online shopping, and even voting into one universal account that manages every aspect of a person’s life. There is little resistance from anyone, because with many technological developments, most people find that what makes life more convenient is essentially good. Mae finds herself in an increasingly creepy world where Orwellian statements like “Privacy is theft” and “Sharing is caring” are thrown around to shame people into transparency. Eggers seems to caution that we are headed towards some kind of event horizon of information saturation, where privacy no longer exists.
I closed the book and felt a little rattled. I kept thinking back on the recent interview I read about Kurzweil. While his forward-thinking and optimism are admirable, his ideas lack the reality of what Dave Eggers writes about. Humans have always been capable of great things, but unless we evolve to be better human beings, advances in technology will not necessarily advance us. For now, we can choose the extent to which technology plays a role in our lives. Part of me worries that a day will come when this isn’t the case. Dave Eggers will be shaking his head at the masses who were too busy tweeting and updating to heed his warnings.