“…How much information about me will I disperse? How much privacy am I willing to give up?…”
Three years ago, before I arrived in Thomasville, I took some time off and hiked the Southern section of the Appalachian Trail. I broke an outback rule and took a Kindle with me and read a book, The Circle. After three days in the wilderness my mind sometimes wanders into boredom and a little reading saves me from myself. It was a dystopian novel, which I will admit is rather ironic when I was supposedly disconnected in the forest. The publisher’s description reads that it “tackles surveillance, privacy and the frightening intrusions of technology in our lives.”
While the story is from the author’s imagination, the circumstances of an internet company that stores our emails, social media, banking and purchasing in a universal operating system felt entirely possible, and troubling. It was as if Google, Facebook and Amazon became one and held the details of our lives under a unified password, which we could argue separately they do.
Eamon Bailey, the CEO of the author’s giant tech company, envisions a world in which there are no secrets – the reason being that when everyone knows everybody’s business there is no reason for shame, and no reason for hiding or lies. After all, he says, we behave better when we are being watched. If a campaigning politician pledges to be implanted with a micro-camera upon his election, it will keep him honest. If on condition of coverage an insurance company requires the installation of cameras in the home of your parent who is on the downslide from MS, healthcare providers will know if he is forgetting to take his medication or if he falls. Closing the Circle, as in closing the gap between what we keep confidential and what we choose to make public is subtle in this book, and so has it been in life. Consider Facebook Live. It is a real-time disclosure of your life and just a step away from the old Facebook account most of us have.
When I left the hiking trail I had expected to hear a media buzz about the book, but I didn’t and never spoke to anyone who had read it. Then two days ago I heard a radio interview with Tom Hanks, who is starring in a new movie based on it. The Circle had hit the big screen. The word was out. Now maybe more of us would begin to ask some important related questions.
I will not pretend to deny the benefits I receive daily from the internet and its associated technologies, and it is not lost on me that this essay was delivered through your email account. I read the newspaper on my phone, enjoy the life of my grown children through Facebook and Instagram, make purchases on Amazon, pay bills electronically, email and text constantly, and use the web whenever I want to know something about anything; but I am beginning to think twice before I power-on. How much information about me will I disperse? How much privacy am I willing to give up?
Perhaps it is innocuous that corporate America knows I have an interest in the next installment of Doctor Who from my web search, or is it? At what point does the circle become closed, and my private and public life becomes indistinguishable? Technology has given us amazing access and convenience, but when will the required daily disclosures become more than I am willing to tolerate? I value my privacy, even if it means when I turn eighty-five I cut the cord on the surveillance in my home and find myself lying on the kitchen floor for ten hours waiting for my son to call. As long as my mind is healthy, I’ll take my chances and ramble through the house in my boxers without anyone watching my old man body.
I suppose the faint outline of The Circle appeared many years ago. I recall my mother commenting on an episode of the Phil Donahue Show, when a housewife was telling-all about her sexual escapades. She turned the TV off and simply said – “unnecessary.” It turns out much of it still is, the format has just changed.
Will we allow the circle to be closed? It is a question we should be asking. There is personal access that should be denied, information that should never be sold, and stories about us better left among family and trusted friends. I hope we remain vigilant because our privacy is sacred.
“… and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:4)