Transparency: Our New Social Contract

New-Apple-Campus-Renderings_1Maybe you’re familiar with Dave Eggers’ novel, The Circle. It’s about a utopian technology company, The Circle, dedicated to social transparency.

One character in the book is an employee named Francis. Francis is typical Silicon Valley—smart and sardonic, witty and awkward—but with a twist. He was a foster child. His project, ChildTrack, uses implants to track children. If a child goes missing, the authorities will know where to find him or her.

Francis got the idea for ChildTrack from another project. Years ago the government of Denmark installed chips into kids’ wrists so parents would know exactly where their kids were. It worked initially. Then seven kids went missing in one day. The police followed the chips and found them in a parking lot stuffed in a paper bag, which was covered in blood. A week later, they discovered the bodies and the government abandoned the program.

Francis believes that the government screwed up. “They think the chips caused the kidnapping, the murders, that somehow the chips provoked whoever did this, made the task more tempting.”

ChildTrack implants chips in the bone instead of the wrist. “Sure, it’s insane.” Francis admits. “I mean, some people freak out about chips in our heads, our bodies, but this thing is about as technologically advanced as a walkie-talkie.”

“It doesn’t do anything but tell you where something is. And they’re everywhere already. Every other product you buy has one of these chips. You buy a stereo, it has a chip. You buy a car, it’s got a bunch of chips. Some companies put chips in food packaging, to make sure it’s fresh when it gets to market. It’s just a simple track. Think about a world where there could never again be a significant crime against a child. None possible.”

In one reading ChildTrack is about how information technology, though well intentioned, makes us paranoid about unlikely events. According to this reading, we end up worrying about people and things that we don’t really need to worry about. No kid wants to go missing, but no kid wants to be followed. Every parent dreads the thought of losing a kid, but they also appreciate moments of ignorance and solitude.

In another reading, ChildTrack is about living in an era of constant connection, where we’re encouraged to share the details of our life and consume the details of others. There’s something loathsome about spending too much time being connected superficially. As Eggers puts it, a digital binge feels like eating a bag of chips. “You feel wasted and hollow and diminished.”

In yet another reading, ChildTrack is about how we worry about serious problems only after technology begins to improve them. Before the chip project in Denmark, most Danes did not lose sleep over missing children. After the chips were installed, every parent began to worry even though the project dramatically reduced the number of missing kids. Denmark was safer with the chips, but parents felt it was more dangerous.

In my reading ChildTrack is a social contract. It trades safety for anonymity, trust for transparency. In Republic Plato writes about the Ring of Gyges, a magical ring that renders its owner invisible. Plato’s point is that when no one is watching, we’re less virtuous. The logic of ChildTrack is the same but reversed. When everyone is watching, we’re more virtuous.

The irony is that this is not a social contract. It’s despotism. The top executives at The Circle—the Three Wise Men—envision a future where everybody has a Circle account, everyone wears body cameras, everybody shares everything, and 100 percent of the world’s searches go through the Circle. Two of the Circle’s slogans are “SECRETS ARE LIES” and “PRIVACY IS THEFT.”

The Three Wise Men believe that complete social transparency will improve the world. But, if a company controls the flow of all information, it controls everything. And if such a company should exist, its power will erode an essential social ingredient: trust. In a truly healthy society, we are virtuous even when no one is watching.

In the beginning of the book Mae Holland, the protagonist, arrives at The Circle for her first day. Someone from IT gives Mae a new tablet and a new phone; both are backed up on the cloud and stored in The Circle’s servers. “Your music, your photos, your message, your data. It can never be lost.” The IT employee notices Mae’s personal laptop. “You want me to get rid of it?”

That’s the question of the information age. Should we threat our bodies like nodes in the flow of data? Are we willing to agree that the details of anyone’s private life are a public good?

“Maybe tomorrow,” Mae says to the IT employee, “I want to say goodbye.”

I wonder if most of us already have.