Is Our Tech Future Headed in a Dystopian Direction?

Dave Eggers’ 2013 novel The Circle caused lots of well-earned hype for the technological future it painted. With a distinctly Orwellian tone, the novel (also a major motion picture as of 2017) predicts a future without privacy, filled with a world of digital connections. Is this future possible, with everyone wearing cameras around their necks and privacy on its way to becoming illegal? As it transpires, some of the technologies Eggers envisioned already exist. We haven’t (yet) put them to the creepy uses the book describes, but is it possible someday we could?

Ubiquitous Cameras

One concept in The Circle is tiny cameras you can position anywhere, to give you a live video feed of what’s going on. In the book, these “SeeChange” cameras are so small they’re almost undetectable. You can’t yet buy a wireless camera that’s almost invisible, but you can buy small cameras to create a home surveillance network. Nest Cam Indoor is a line of small video surveillance cameras that send feeds right to your cellphone.

These cameras record everything, let you review your footage, and send you alerts. They know when a human appears on screen, and if anything happens in your designated “activity” zones (like where you’re hiding your valuables). If you don’t think this sounds enough like the SeeChange cameras, just remember how many CCTV cameras are already out there. We’re not as far away from Eggers’ dystopian surveillance as we might want to believe.

Broadcasting Your Life

Another odd concept in The Circle centers around the idea of “going transparent,” which means you agree to broadcast your life on the internet for anyone who wants to see it, via a wearable camera. LifeLogger makes a wearable camera very similar to what Eggers’ describes. You don’t automatically broadcast to the internet, but you can create live videos with the LifeLogger apps.

Privacy Laws

The most chilling aspect of The Circle is the idea that humans need to know everything, and that privacy is against the greater human good. In March of 2017, the House of Representatives voted to remove certain FCC privacy protections, adding their “yes” to the Senate’s earlier positive vote. On April 4, Trump signed the bill. Now telecom companies are allowed to sell the data about us they gather while we use their services.

If this doesn’t sound like a big deal, it is. We pay for these services, and they don’t have to legally tell us when they’re gathering or sharing our data. From a business standpoint, it’s a big success. But throwing out these FCC regulations (which were so new they hadn’t even been enacted yet) could set a precedent about how we view our own internet privacy.

Thankfully, one tech company doesn’t run most of the world. We can still create anonymous identities on the internet and enjoy private lives. But we’re closer to the technological level envisioned in The Circle than many of us realize, in part because we don’t leverage the technology the way the characters in the book do. Could 1984 be in our future?

Image via Flickr by jonathan mcintosh