Today’s the big day. I’m on a plane headed to San Francisco to participate in the Executive Program at Singularity University. I’ll be attending a week of conferences on the impact of technologies on tomorrow’s society. Talks on biotechnology, neuroscience, artificial intelligence, blockchain, etc. will be steered by the controversial Ray Kurzweil whose unique goal is to conquer death.
With the principles of synchronicity in mind, I decide to begin my ten-hour flight by watching The Circle, a social science-fiction film in the style of Black Mirror and starring Emma Watson and Tom Hanks. It’s about a company (a cross between Google and Facebook) that develops a social network which continuously collects data from everyone, all the time, through small cameras people carry around with them at all times. The company’s long term ambition (spolier alert) is for the social network to become a sort of ID card for every single person on Earth, even allowing them to vote, pay their taxes, etc.
Although the film itself isn’t extraordinary, it does raise certain questions that are central to the program I’m about to attend. Here are a few.
Where does privacy stand in an ultra-connected world?
As soon as the main character becomes the first person ever to wear a camera that allows millions of The Circle members to constantly follow her, we begin to wonder what she’ll do to maintain a shadow of intimacy. What about romantic dates, ensuing frolics, things you’d only want to share with family and friends, conversations about doubts and weaknesses, etc.?
The social network’s founders continuously encourage transparency, calling into question the very foundations of our privacy. The underlying assumption here is that our darkest sides tend to surface when we’re alone, unobserved. If you knew your dietician was watching you on a permanent basis, would you venture to your refrigerator in the middle of the night to excavate a slice of leftover pizza? Would you start smoking again in the presence of Allen Carr?
According to the founders of The Circle, secrets are pure lies at the root of all our weaknesses. So, are you ready to turn into an open book?
Can absolute transparency make us better people?
If we knew we were being watched 24/7, we’d maintain a certain level of decency and constantly attempt to show the more attractive aspects of ourselves. With a mounted camera and millions of followers, would Harvey Weinstein have committed all those assaults? Would crime still exist? Would you dare to refuse to give a begging child some spare change? Would you cheat on the one you love?
In light of the above, does this resemble a dehumanized world or does it appear, on the contrary, more humane? The very essence of humanity is its weakness. Humans are full of doubt, pain, and experiences that can be as embarrassing as they can be rewarding. These wounds and frustrations are responsible for both our successes and failures. Should we accept these or attempt to avoid them?
The film aims to reveal the extent to which technology, and in this case the reflection it sends of ourselves to the whole world, encourages us to be better people – or at least show the best of ourselves. We can therefore question whether Instagram encourages us to do amazing things for our own pleasure and that of our followers, or whether it gives us the impression of leading monotonous lives in comparison to all the incredible things those we follow seem to be achieving.
The very concepts of “better” and “best” are being called into question. What does this entail? “Better” according to whom, what, which standards, which rules? We have to ask ourselves these moral and ethical questions in the ultra-connected world we live in, before it also becomes ultra-automated.
How far will this voyeurism go?
Another interesting thing about the film is that it extends its analysis beyond social media itself. Aside from the main character actually daring to wear a camera, making her life an open book, what’s even more surprising is that millions of people follow her life. Since when did it become interesting to watch someone wake up, brush their teeth, phone their parents, eat, or go to work? How many hours of useless broadcasting does it take to catch a scene worth watching (I’ll let you be the judge of what that could involve)?
It’s quite funny how I’m literally listing all the questions that people were asking themselves at the beginning of the 2000s when countries all over the world launched their first ever reality TV shows, featuring dozens of hours of incomprehensible conversations and absurd scenes of interactions between participants, whose experience, for some, drove them downhill for years following the end of the show.
A few years earlier, in 1998, The Truman Show brilliantly told the story of a man, born on a huge TV set and whose entire life was uninterruptedly followed by millions of people. It truly laid the foundations of what stimulates us today to log on to social media, Facebook especially, 25 times a day to see what life moments our friends have decided to share with us.
Maybe the time has come for us to look at, from a psychological and sociological point of view, what this says about us and about what society is steering us towards.
Where do we draw the line between assistance and interference?
The film also raises the interesting issue of assistance. Setting up cameras on your car can prevent all types of accidents thanks to artificial intelligence taking control at the right moment. This technology is already up and running and will probably be systematically built into vehicles in the future – obviously a good thing if this means we can avoid deadly accidents. But push the reasoning a little further.
The day we’ll all be connected to biological sensors enabling our (robot) doctors to monitor our health, will we be free to get up in the middle of the night to eat that leftover slice of pizza (that’s twice I’ve mentioned pizza – I promise I’m OK)? Will this kind of technology stop us from smoking? Seeing as we’re on the topic, why do you still smoke when you have all the information you need to know that smoking is harmful for your health? And if you do continue smoking, what could give a particular authority the right to stop you from doing so? Would you accept such a situation?
My aim this week is to find out about the projects of those who have plans to write the pages of our future. I don’t, and probably won’t ever, have the answer to all of these questions. But one thing is certain: now is the time to think about these issues and try, collectively, to find answers to them. And given that nature abhors a vacuum, someone is bound to come up with something.