Rick Wamre: A fictional world without privacy — is it that far-fetched?

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A book I’m reading, The Circle, offers an interesting take on privacy and politics in the future. Since this is an election month, maybe it’s worth thinking about.

The book’s protagonist works at a cross between Google and Facebook — hip and uber-rich. Healthcare is free. Food is free. Rent is free. And, of course, everyone wants to work there. The story is told through the eyes of a young woman who graduated from college, took a humdrum job in her hometown and promptly wished for more. A friend invites her to work at the nirvana company.

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Transparency prevents some bad things from happening. But it also inhibits people from taking chances, speaking spontaneously or just thinking aloud. People still have free will, but they no longer have the courage to pursue it.

The company is called the Circle, and at first no one knows why. Eventually, it appears the Circle refers to a way of life — there’s nothing worth doing that doesn’t start and end with the company and its endless technological tentacles. The company’s biggest breakthrough involves convincing a single politician to “go transparent” — wear a camera everywhere, all of the time, to every meeting and event, every lunch and dinner. By being transparent, the Circle reasons, wouldn’t the politician bring honesty and integrity back to politics? As is the way of the world, after the first politician signs up to “go transparent” and is universally praised, the rest of the world’s politicians clamor for cameras. Even politicians who think it’s a dumb idea succumb to peer pressure and public scrutiny. The politicians are allowed a few minutes of solitude in the bathroom, and they can turn the camera off when they’re sleeping, but that’s about it. Their constant exposure to the light of day is trumpeted by the Circle as the best way to bring enlightenment to the world and return honesty to politics. Of course, in the book, the camera-wearing frenzy doesn’t stop with politicians. Soon cameras are being installed everywhere — on beaches, at restaurants, in offices, in homes, at schools.

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The book’s protagonist stumbles from small-town anonymity to world-wide fame as she is selected to be the first regular person to “go transparent”. People spend their days watching her days. She even comes up with a series of personal belief statements that become the Circle’s mantra and support the idea that we are all better off if everyone knows everything there is to know about everyone else: Secrets are Lies. Sharing is Caring. Privacy is Theft.

Privacy is considered theft because if I don’t share all of my experiences with you, I’m stealing from you the opportunity to visit the places I’m visiting and see the things I’m seeing. It makes some sense on the face of it.

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It’s a short jump from having cameras everywhere to having everyone always wearing cameras. If secrets are bad, transparency is good. Know someone cheating on his or her spouse? Today, it’s probably a secret; if everyone is wearing a camera, maybe it doesn’t happen. Know someone stealing money or plotting a terrorist act? If they’re wearing a camera, maybe they don’t.

The problem in the book, of course, is that all video is stored somewhere, and now everything that happens anywhere is forever captured and retained. Make a mistake, and it never goes away. Say something stupid, and it can be replayed a billion times. Stumble across your parents in flagrante delicto, and everyone sees it over and over again forever.

Transparency prevents some bad things from happening. But it also inhibits people from taking chances, speaking spontaneously or just thinking aloud. People still have free will, but they no longer have the courage to pursue it. The closest thing we have to that scenario now is watching celebrities, sports stars and even Average Joes stumble in the spotlight of social media, paparazzi and self-promotion. A few seem able to handle it, but most are just like us: They crack under the spotlight, and they aren’t even on camera 100 percent of the time. Yet. Maybe this book isn’t so far-fetched after all.

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