Monday, March 3, 2014

The Circle

Normally I review books on my private blog, but I found this book so disturbing and relevant to the topic of scientific misconduct that I decided to review it here.
Eggers, Dave (2013) The Circle. Toronto/San Francisco: Knopf/McSweeney's.
This disconcerting book was published late last year. The parallels to a current article in Der Spiegel (Thomas Schultz: "Google: Die Welt ist nicht genug", Nr. 10, 1 March 2014, pp. 58–67) are quite unsettling.

The book is about a company in the Bay Area called The Circle. Everyone wants to work there, because the Circle is going to change the world. The working conditions are great: wonderful offices, excellent health care, free food, lots of activities on campus for the people who work there. Google, by the way, is in the Bay Area and offers great working conditions, wonderful offices, excellent health care, free food, and lots of activities on campus for the people who work there. But "The Circle" is a novel, a work of fiction. "Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental", the author notes.

The novel illustrates quite vividly what can happen when computer scientists are allowed to freely invent technical systems to solve perceived problems. They delight in finding a solution, enjoy the challenge presented, measure and store all possible data without a thought for what is so nicely called in German the Technikfolgenabschätzung, a technology assessment as Wikipedia translates it.

Computer scientists are not trained ethicists, indeed, many have never had a course in ethics in their lives. They are not used to looking at how society will change if their systems come under general use. "That's not my job," they tend to say. That's the job of politicians and religious leaders and teachers and others to determine the moral implications, to decide how we best train people to deal with the new technology. Computer scientists tend to develop something and then move on to the next great thing. It's all just a game, really.

Is this scientific misconduct, to develop tools without thought as to how these tools will be used? The ethical guidelines of the German computer science society softly reminds its members to consider such effects. The German research funding counsel makes no statement on this in their guidelines on good scientific practice. VDI, the German engineering society, is well aware of this problem and makes it quite clear in their own ethical guidelines.

As Mercer, one character in "The Circle" states:
[...] all this stuff you're involved in, it's all gossip. It's people talking about each other behind their backs. That's the vast majority of this social media, all these reviews, all these comments. Your tools have elevated gossip, hearsay and conjecture to the level of valid, mainstream communication. [p. 132]
The book quite vividly and understandably demonstrates what can go wrong under such conditions. The mottos, so reminiscent of some of the newspeak from Orwell's 1984, include gems such as "Privacy is Theft", "Secrets are Lies", and "Sharing is Caring". People are expectantly awaiting "Completion", a rapture-like situation when finally all human beings on earth are connected to the Circle.

I read 1984 back in 1974 for the first time, and it was so unbelievable because the technology was so far-fetched. A screen in every room that could be used to call up information or that could watch over us? Crazy idea. Today, it is reality and Big Brother, aka as the Five Eyes, are indeed watching over us. Reading "The Circle" forty years later is much scarier. Most of the technology described in the book already exists and is in use by spy organizations like the NSA or openly shared by companies such as Google and Facebook. We are on the brink of completion.

The Google article in Spiegel describes a number of current projects and philosophies; there are surely hundreds more:
  • There is the philosophy of 10x – everything must be made 10 times better, not 10%. 
  • There is the concept of moonshots, projects like Google Glasses, self-driving cars, and something called Loon that I haven't heard of yet and am afraid to look up. 
  • One project is showing a machine lots of YouTube videos in order to train it to understand daily life. It can now recognize objects, humans, and cats. )I am not sure that YouTube videos are a representative sample of human life... -- dww)
  • There are robot projects.
  • A gas balloon project is attempting to find a low-cost way of serving the Internet to remote locations.
  • Project Calico attempts to find eternal youth, or at least to slow aging, by collecting immense amounts of medical data and analyzing them. This project seems to be quite similar to the health data collected in "The Circle". There, the protagonist Mae signs some forms without reading them, then is given something to drink that puts sensors in her body. The motto here is "To heal we must know. To know we must share." The personal data is published publicly.
  • And then there is the step from just finding something in a document to the Knowledge Graph, demonstrated to the Spiegel author by Ben Gomes asking the system who the president of Germany is. The system answers correctly, Joachim Gauck. Then Gomes asks: Who is his wife. The system not only understands that "he" refers to Gauck, but also that "wife" can be a synonym for "life partner", and answers correctly. "We are just at the beginning," Gomes says.
That's the point. They are just starting, and have never really thought about what can happen if we use all of this technology. We can't say "oops" and start over again. We are already at a point where the mob, the German Stammtisch, the commenters in online articles quickly pass judgment, violently cry "off with their heads", and continue looking for the next victim.

Germany just recently has had two such cases:
  • Sebastian Edathy, a parliamentarian, was found to have purchased legal pictures from a Canadian site that also sells child pornography. He has been active in the trial of the NSU, the right-wing group found to have murdered many foreigners, but also to have been infiltrated by the German spy organization, the Verfassungsschutz. He stepped down from his position as a parliamentarian "for health reasons" just days before the story broke. When it came to light that he had been warned that the police were working on the case, the former minister of the interior, Hans-Peter Friedrich, was forced to step down. The frightening parts are that somehow a newspaper was informed of the search of his home and took and published pictures. Edathy was "convicted" in the court of gossip within hours. The former editor-in-chief of Die Zeit, Robert Leicht, notes that we need to be careful of using the digital stocks: We need to remind ourselves of the principle of In dubio pro reo, one is innocent until proven guilty, and that Plutarch's Audacter calumniare semper aliquid haeret (slander boldly, something always sticks) needs to be heeded for us to consider ourselves a civilized society. The former publisher of Die Zeit, Josef Jaffe, has similar sentiments. Arguments such as: "People who smoke grass proceed to heroin" are false. It may be, that all heroin addicts started by smoking grass, but the converse argument is not true.
  • Anne Helm, a politician from the Pirate Party participated in a Femen action (the picture is probably NSFW in the USA) during the commemorations of the bombing of Dresden. Yes, it was tasteless. But she was trying to be anonymous, wore a mask as she protested. However, the swarm soon identified her on the basis of a tattoo that she has. In an interview for Jungle World she admitted that this was her and that she wished that she could make the action "unhappen", she had not thought it through to the end. She reports on the threats that she has received, the calls for her to commit suicide, the murder and rape threats. There is a Facebook page that I will not link to that demands her being forbidden from entering the city and in which people have written that she must be publicly hanged in Dresden. The page has almost 9000 likes, she reports. I checked this morning, the page is now above 10.000 likes. A Tumblr has collected screenshots of some of the more horrid things people wrote.
So what does this have to do with the book "The Circle" and scientific misconduct? It shows that the technology is already here and we are not able to deal in a rational manner with it. Computer scientists have created a monster, one that looked furry and fun, that is now threatening to turn global society into a totalitarian state. Should scientists have to think about what could happen if they develop their systems? Well, we won't know until we develop them, will we? And if we don't develop them, someone else will?

"The Circle" will be required reading for all of my students this coming semester. You should read it, too.

1 comment:

  1. A wonderful, literary review of "The Circle" by Margret Atwood can be found at