Data-Self and Neo-Panopticon in The Circle

The Circle follows protagonist Mae Holland, a recent college graduate who had been slogging away in a cubicle in her hometown up until her friend Annie was able to secure her an entry-level job at the Circle, one of the biggest and most influential technology corporations. The Circle as a corporation makes clear nods to companies like Google, Facebook, and the general culture found in tech start-ups: everything is beautifully designed, the workplace is a “campus” with parties and endless amenities, and total participation in the group culture is required.

Mae starts out working in Customer Experience, where she fields questions from businesses that use Circle services. As the book unfolds, we are introduced to many of the technologies that Circle has developed (see below). And as Mae becomes more and more embedded at the Circle, she is consistently surrounded by more screens and becomes more engulfed in her data self, the gameification of socializing, and cult-ish devotion to the company.

The only pushback Mae gets to this acculturation is from an ex-boyfriend, Mercer. She sees him after pushing particularly hard to climb the PartiRank social system, but he tries to point out the fallacy of that so-called “social” interaction: “It becomes like we’re never alone,” he tells her. “Everytime I see you, there’s a hundred other people in the room. You’re always looking at me through a hundred other people’s eyes…Endless empty calories, but the digital-social equivalent. And you calibrate it so it’s equally addictive.” (132-134).

This reminded us of our first readers post, where we wrote about the dynamic between a self constructed out of data and your embodied self. Through this first part of the book, there seems to be a lot of tension within Mae between her embodied self and data self — in the LuvLuv demonstration where Francis put her data self on display, in the way Circlers interact on social feeds, and the way total sharing online is encouraged (Mae is scolded for going kayaking and not posting about it).

We wanted to couple the data-self concept with the idea of a neo-panopticon. We have discussed Foucault’s panopticon before in the course and Circle technologies certainly bring up the issue of total surveillance. However, an interesting development is that in the Circle world, there is not necessarily one centralized power or one central “guard tower.” Instead, the neo-panopticon can be reconceptualized as prison cells that are completely transparent and filled with prisoners who have the ability to police others and well as be policed by others. It creates a situation of tyranny of the majority and adherence to rules not because of the threat of vertical exercise of control but because of the incredibly (scary) high degree of social cohesion (arranged horizontally).

(In this line of thinking, all of life becomes a neo-panopticon that does not have specified guards — anyone around you could has the ability to exercise power over you if you step out of line. However, while there are no guards in the model, the prison is still owned by a totalitarian, capitalist monopoly aka Circle)

Our question for discussion layers these two concepts: taken in the landscape of neo-panopticon, what happens when the data self overtakes the embodied self?


Here is an overview of the technology introduced in the first 200 pages of The Circle:

TruYou: “one account, one identity, one password, one payment system, per person. There were no more passwords, no multiple identities…unbendable and unmaskable.” (21). The biggest aspects of TruYou is that is makes anonymity online nearly impossible and has supposedly rendered the web a completely “civil” place free of trolls.  

SeeChange: “[the cameras] are so small, they’ll never know for sure where they are, who’s placed them where and when. And the not-knowing will prevent abuses of power.” (66). These are tiny cameras that yield extremely high-definition live footage that the Circle plans to retail for under sixty dollars.

LuvLuv: “Scans the web and uses some high-powered and very surgical search machinery to ensure [know who your date is and where to take them].” (121). Dating for the data-selves. Match.com on steriods.

Total cloud storage: “Your music, your photos, your messages, your data. It can never be lost.” (43).

ChildTrack: chip your children in their bones, like dogs, to be able to constantly track their whereabouts so that crimes against children become “impossible.” (90).

InnerCircle/OuterCircle/PartiPank: the gameification of social interactions; participation in the social feeds boosts the Participation Ranking, which is while not technically required of employees is implicitly required to display that they “fit in” with the campus culture.  

Health Wearable + Ingestible Sensor: swallow a sensor (without informed consent) in order to track heart rate, blood pressure, cholesterol, heart flux, caloric intake, sleep duration, sleep quality, digestive efficiency…and on and on. The stats then display in a wearable bracelet. (155).

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Readers 10/3: Marketing in Physical and Online Marketplaces

This week, an article from the BBC asks, “How do supermarkets tempt you to spend more money?” The layout of supermarkets is deliberately designed to maximize the number of products bought in each visit. There are some tactics that were particularly striking: candy is placed at the eye-level of children so that they are more likely to pester their parents for it, essential items are spread out throughout the store so that shoppers are forced to walk through most aisles, the music choice is specifically slow in order to slow people down….The article pointed out that studies have shown that when classical music is played in a wine shop, people are more likely to buy more expensive wine. When French music is played, French wines will outsell German wines.

All made us think — are we really that susceptible to these marketing influences as consumers? Are we buying products because we truly want and/or need them, or are we just being manipulated by these calculated tactics? Put another way, if the French music wasn’t playing would we still want to buy the French wine?

Some grocery stores have responded to pressure from campaigners and actually removed chocolate and candy from the checkout aisles to reduce “pester power” — that is, children seeing candy at eye level and then throwing tantrums until they get it. The campaign, ‘Junk Free Checkouts’, was started in response to research which found “eight in ten parents were unhappy that stores continue to fuel obesity and pester power by putting sweets at the [checkouts].”

It seems that once parents were aware of how the design of supermarkets were influencing their children and their own purchasing decisions, there was push-back. But what happens in marketplaces where the marketing tactics are still hidden “behind the curtain”?

We are thinking specifically of online marketplaces that use data to conduct ad re-targeting, email campaigns, social media campaigns and more. How do these marketing tactics influence us, and do they empower us as consumers or manipulate us? A physical store can rely on controlling the smell, sound, taste, and sight stimuli described in the article but an online marketplace is limited to sight and sound. How are new marketing tactics developed to overcome this gap?

Observers 9/26: Does our class hate, like, or love cats?

For our observers role this week, we decided to find whether the class as a whole are cat-lovers, cat-haters, or somewhere in between (in keeping with the reading theme of cats and data).

This was accomplished by surveying the class online. We tested their knowledge of famous cats in pop culture, asked how many cat videos they have viewed and the number of cats they own. Finally, we asked them to rate their own feelings after watching a cat video. The last question was inspired by an NPR report, wherein researchers surveyed SEVEN THOUSAND people and found that when watching cat videos, people reported
“[experiencing] a lot more positive emotions and even had more energy after watching cat videos.”

We were surprised to see more than half of the sample size does not currently own a cat; however, many are familiar with online cat videos. The knowledge questions were hit or miss; overall, only about 35% of the class indicated they recognized the famous cats. Overall, based on the survey, we as a group of Davidson students  “like” cats, but we certainly do not “love” them.

The “OTHER” responses: 

Approximately how many cat videos have you consumed in the past 3 years? Other: Do GIFS count? If so, probably thousands. 

How many cats do you own? Other: I used to own a cat but not anymore. 

Do you know who lolzcat is? Other: Yes, it is an old meme. 

Do you know who Angry Cat is? Other: Not grumpy cat? No. / Kind Of. / Seen memes. / I do know who Angry Cat is. 

Do you know who Lil Bub is? Other: Yes I met him (!!!!!). 

Do you know who Meowth is? Other: Not really.