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In tech, as in all else, balance is the way forward

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Last week I finished reading the novel “The Circle” by Dave Eggers.

It’s about a young woman named Mae who goes to work at a technology company in the San Francisco Bay area called “The Circle,” which is meant to be an approximation of Facebook/Google/Twitter and about a hundred other tech startups in Silicon Valley.

Hired to work in “Customer Experience,” Mae starts off as an enthusiastic but naive acolyte, goes through a period of trouble and doubt and emerges on the other side a fully brainwashed devotee of unbridled technology, eager to push the boundaries of privacy to the point where she can read the thoughts of others.

“The Circle” brings to mind such novels as George Orwell’s “1984” and Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” and is also meant to serve as a warning about the perils of a totalitarian world view.

The main difference between those earlier novels and “The Circle” is that the characters in “The Circle” volunteer for the surveillance to which they are subjected. “Social” media — the process by which we make so much of our personal information public — is a major focus of the novel.

“The Circle” has risen to number seven on the New York Times best-seller list, which seems to indicate that a lot of people are in the midst of questioning their relationships with technology, particularly social media.

But whereas the audiences reading “1984” and “Brave New World” in their freshly published forms had decades to contemplate the ramifications of the technology forecasted in their pages, we are living on the very cusp of the events portrayed in “The Circle.”

And if the speed with which we have arrived at this moment is any indication, very shortly we may be living in a world where privacy is an afterthought, at best.

By way of example, I think back to my own experiences with technology. I’m 28 and I graduated high school just ten years ago. But even in that relatively short period of time, things have changed fundamentally.

Back then, only a couple of my friends had cell phones. They were primarily for emergencies.

But you could play games on some of them. One of the games was called Snake. You would use buttons on the phone to steer a long, pixillated reptile around the screen, guiding it toward various foodstuffs that would cause a growth in length. As the snake grew longer, it became harder to steer, because the snake couldn’t hit itself and the screen was only so big. As you advanced in levels, the speed of the game would go faster and faster, making it more difficult. My friends and I would play it, taking turns on the two or three cell phones at our disposal.

When Snake II came out, we went nuts.

But then it seems like, overnight, Snake and its ilk fell by the wayside, replaced by ever more complex games and programs. All of a sudden, people started using their phones to listen to music, watch movies and post pictures of themselves and their friends online along with location information.

You could navigate your way around an unfamiliar town, find a restaurant recommendation and ASK YOUR PHONE QUESTIONS THAT IT WOULD ANSWER FOR YOU, all on the same device.

People stopped using their phones for their original intended purpose and the art of texting became the predominant form of communication across all age ranges.

Now, all of us, if we chose to, can live in public. Viewed in a certain hyper-cynical light, the revelations about the National Security Agency’s vast surveillance operations are of little concern. We already choose to share so much of our private lives online.

Cautionary tales abound. There are often stories in the news about teachers, restaurant workers and scores of other employees who have lost their jobs as a result of over-sharing on social media. Just last week several media outlets reported on a White House national security staffer who was fired over his tweets.

I am, personally, very skeptical about social media. I enter each new form with great trepidation, grow comfortable with it, binge on the twin delights of narcissism and self-affirmation and then swear it off for good. I did it with MySpace and I did it with Facebook for a year. I haven’t sworn off Twitter, mostly because I so rarely use it anyway.

While I realize that I am not the only one who struggles with social media this way, I also recognize that I am largely in the minority. The tide of the culture is swelling toward the ubiquity of this form of communication and I must either reconcile myself to it or seek refuge from it completely.

And I know that social media is not all bad. I recently asked a friend of mine who worked for a time at two of the biggest tech companies in the world to lend me his perspective on social media.

After confessing to being a bit like me in his relationship to technology and social media, he provided an inspiring description of how Facebook helps him relate to colleagues and friends across the globe, moving barriers that previously were intractable.

He provided me with a few links to websites that focus on the research of scholars who are working to use technology to see the other, get to know people and to build empathy.

“Once we have empathy across borders, there is less hate and violence goes down,” he said.

But he also acknowledged that social media can be an outlet or sounding board for antagonistic messages.

On the whole, “talking is always better than not,” my friend said, making the case that technology and social media platforms do promote peace. I have to say that, having lived in an international community for three years, I agree with him.

I guess that with social media, as with all else, it’s what you make of it. Balance is key.

In a pivotal point in “The Circle,” Mae has a transcendent experience that has nothing to do with technology: using a kayak to paddle out into the middle of San Francisco Bay, she spends a few blissfully tranquil moments reflecting on the peace and power of nature. It’s beautiful, both in concept and in prose.

Ironically, it is this event that precipitates Mae’s descent into a lifestyle that is completely consumed by technology and co-opted by the company for which she works.

But for a brief instant, technology and humanity are in harmony.

That’s the moment I’d like to hold on to.

Daniel Flatley is a staff writer covering Jefferson County government and politics for the Watertown Daily Times. He writes a column once a week for the local section of the paper. He can be reached at dflatley@wdt.net.

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