The Circle, a film adaptation of the best-selling novel by David Eggers about a mega-Silicon Valley company that has sinister plans to control the world, opened recently to tepid reviews and unimpressive box office. That shouldn’t obscure the fact that the issues it attempts to address—and which the novel brilliantly took on—are ones that need to be dealt with, urgently.
To wit, what happens as our lives more and more are lived digitally? What are the implications for rights, freedoms, and privacy when the desiderata of our digital incarnations are channeled through only handful of massive private companies who want to use our data not just to reduce the frictions of everyday life but to augment their own bottom lines? And what happens when technology moves towards ever-more automated and augmented reality when more of our key interactions take place in a digital realm that exists only on the servers that those companies control?
Instead, our public discussion is dominated by parsing the current presidency’s first 100 days, a marker without meaning, anchored to little more than the ease of digesting the number. The preponderance of attention goes to Washington these days, when what goes on in Washington is only one variable designing the future. While the fate of the Trump administration certainly matters, it may shape the world much less decisively in the long-term than the tectonic changes rapidly altering the digital landscape.
As the media attention has veered from whether Congress and the White House would manage to repeal and replace Obamacare (spoiler: they did not) to grading Trump’s 100 days, three things happened that received considerably less play and will have considerably more impact. At the end of March, both the Senate and the House voted to roll back broadband privacy regulations that had been passed by the Federal Communications Commission in 2016. Those would have required internet service providers to to seek customers’ explicit permission before selling or sharing their browsing history.