A Couple Of Trips To The Future

During my year end vacation, I read a few books and saw some films. The two I want to talk about today are Dave Eggers’ The Circle and Spike Jonze’s Her. I am a fan of both artists and have consumed most of their prior work.

Though they are very different works, both take us on a trip to the near future and show us what our lives may be like. And, though I am more than a little bit involved in the industry that is taking us to that place, I came away from both disturbed and a tad bit agitated.

Banksy says that “art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable” And in that context both the Circle and Her are great art. If you are disturbed by the ever increasing role of technology in our lives, both works will comfort you. For me, they shook me out of my comfort zone and made me wonder whether all the things I believe in and advocate for are going to work out so well.

In The Circle, a young woman named Mae goes to work for the top tech company in silicon valley which is called The Circle. Eggers creates a company that to my mind is mostly Google with a fair bit of Facebook thrown in. Anyone who has spent any time in Silicon Valley will instantly recognize this company and all the great things about it. But the way Eggers tells the story, the dark side of The Circle is revealed slowly and surely. I don’t want to ruin the story for anyone who is reading it or will read it but I will say that the idea of radical transparency, something that I have advocated for many times on this blog, is taken to an extreme that even I would not be comfortable with.

I kind of hated The Circle. Many times I wanted to put it down. My wife and daughter urged me to finish it. Though I really like Eggers and his writing, I absolutely hated Mae and her story. It made a mockery of an industry that I love. And it made me uncomfortable loving it.

Her is about a man named Theodore who is depressed coming out of a recent divorce. He mopes around all day. He installs a new OS that is “personalized” and all of sudden he is in a relationship with Samantha who is a lot like Siri, his very own personalized operating system. Again, I am not going to describe much more than that in case you want to see it. The thing that made me literally squirm in my seat was the idea that a real person could have such an intimate relationship with a machine. I was completely uncomfortable the entire two hours.

However, I loved Her. It did not mock, but it sure did question. And all I wanted to do coming out of the movie was think about it and talk about it.

I know a lot of people in tech who are excited about the coming of the Singularity. I am not one of them. While I love machines and artificial intelligence/machine learning and all that it can do for us, I love humans and humanity a lot more.

These two works of art are, to my mind, about that human vs machines question and are an attempt to ask society if its happy with the place we are going to and getting there fast. If you work in tech, you should watch Her and read The Circle. Those of us who are building this future ought to subject ourself to this kind of art most of all.