I recently chose two audiobooks from one of my local public libraries and they just happen to both be about Google. Kinda. They are Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan and The Circle by Dave Eggers.
It was a coincidence that they turned out to hinge on common themes and elements, but it was a very interesting contrast in perspective. Mr. Penumbra’s takes a rather positive view of technology and data and how it can help us solve mysteries and enjoy life more deeply. The Circle, however, takes a far warier view of our connected, internet society and the threat it poses to individual freedom and liberty.
I would recommend them both for different reasons. The first book is a fun, light-hearted mystery/adventure with lots of literary color. The second book is basically a horror story in the tradition of 1984 and A Brave New World.
SPOILER WARNING: From this point forward, I’m going to discuss these books without any concern about spoilers. So, if you don’t like spoilers you should stop reading now.
Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan (4 of 5 )
Clay Jannon is a jobless web designer who takes a job at the mysterious, titular Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. This bookstore, which is wildly unprofitable and understocked in books to sell, is actually a front for a lending library. Strange people come and go at all hours, but when Clay examines one of the books they’re borrowing, he just finds pages of random characters. Investigation uncovers a whole network of these lending libraries, a mysterious code, and a “cult” of people who study it.
The tone of this book is very light-hearted and fun. Although there’s a mystery afoot, it is rarely dark and no one’s life seems to be in danger. Clay functions as a sort of everyman in the story and connects the reader to a motley crew of smart, creative, fun, colorful individuals. Even the villains are interesting.
Once Clay has figured out that there’s a code and he starts cracking parts of it and uncovers that there’s a “cult” that is trying to decode another mystery tome, the story becomes a lot more straight-forward and the conflict becomes kind of… strange. I’ll explain in a moment. The momentum of the book is maintained by the characters and their fun, enthusiasm for one another and the task at hand.
So, the fundamental conflict is that the head of the cult is an old friend of Mr. Penumbra’s and he, the cult leader, thinks that the cult should just keep doing things the way they always have. Mr. Penumbra and Clay and their friends think that they should use the power of technology to help speed things along. After all, this mystery code has been around for hundreds of years and computers, which allowed Clay to decode a chunk of the code in minutes, could help them find success where they failed before.
There’s a bit of a heist and computers save the day. Hurrah!
Google. Google. Google. One of the characters, Clay’s love interest, works at Google. So, they go to the Google campus a lot. And they use Google computers. And Google book scanners. And Google. Google. Google. Any time Google and technology come up, it is portrayed in the overwhelmingly positive light shared by so many people who live here in Silicon Valley.
The concerns of antiquarians who derive some enjoyment from doing things in old ways are largely glossed over and dismissed. There is a slight tip of the hat toward hipsters artisans who eschew technology in order to hand-craft things, but they’re shown as exceptionally talented and obsessive individuals. But overall, technology is portrayed as something that will make all our lives better and enable average individuals to produce results on par with those of professionals and craftspeople.
This book is light and different and creative. I would recommend Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore for the person who isn’t sure what they want to read next, but definitely does not want something very long or involved.
The Circle by Dave Eggers (4 of 5 )
I haven’t seen the movie adaptation of this book, so I can’t comment on that, but I couldn’t help but imagine Emma Watson as the main character inThe Circle. She’s appealing in some superficial ways, but lacks any real self-awareness and has an overwhelming urge to please. I don’t mean that Emma Watson is that way, but I could easily imagine her acting in that way.
The Circle is a ginormous tech company in Silicon Valley that started in search and has expanded its operations into nearly all areas of life from email to social media to self-driving cars. And they’re collecting data on everyone! You could argue that the company portrayed is more like a blend of Facebook and Google because of the prominence and success of their social media platform, but with its origins in search and expansion into all sorts of unrelated areas of business says that this is primarily a thinly-veiled, evil version of Google.
Mae Holland is a young woman who is hired to work at
The world ofThe Circle is the opposite of that of Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Where technology enables the average joe to enjoy more of life and create more useful and interesting things in Mr. Penumbra’s world, The Circle presents technology as something that quickly becomes intrusive, overbearing, and emotionally crippling. People in The Circle who embrace technology are mostly antsy, fragile, and paranoid while also being co-dependent, presumptuous, and emotionally manipulative. Because of technology.
I wish there were some more philosophically-minded characters in the book who could make explicit the ethical problems with The Circle’s aspirations. The few people who do oppose the eradication of privacy never really give any substantive reasons for their opposition. They just have a vague sense of dread over being watched 24-hours a day. Spoiler: the problem really is not technology, but the altruist/community-ist ethic. Every value is bent toward the benefit that it might provide to a poorly defined “everyone.” There’s not a single egoist in the book who laughs in the fact of the suggestion that they ought to keep up with thousands of social media interactions every day for the benefit of everyone else. No one says, “I don’t have to justify not wanting to share my every private moment with you or anyone else.” No one stands up and gives a vigorous defense of consent in this book. I know those things would probably have derailed the very driven plot, but there were several moments where I felt like a soft ball was being served up with no batter at the plate.
Having read 1984 and Brave New World fairly recently, I think the comparisons are inevitable. The absolute dependency on technology such that people are brainwashed and unable to live as fully actualized individuals clearly echoes Huxley’s dystopian future minus the chemical dependencies. And the policing of thought and embrace of patently false declarations had me wondering when a delegation from Eastasia would turn up for peace talks. And the erosion of privacy is a classic theme that recurs throughout dystopian literature.
While I enjoyed this book and I share some of the concerns about privacy and social media that are given voice, I think it departs from reality at several point and, for the sake of the story, glosses over how easy it would be for a single platform like The Circle to expand in the way that it does. I’m fine with that, but I think there are a lot of people in the world who actually do see companies like Google and Facebook in precisely that light.
I definitely want to see the movie adaptation of The Circle now. I’d recommend reading this book if you’re interested in tech culture and are looking for something to temper your optimism about the future. But if you don’t have a somewhat sane notion of how online data and privacy actually works, I shudder to think that this might inform your political views of technology companies.
Read These Two Books Together!
I would definitely recommend reading these two books back-to-back like I did. The contrasting attitudes toward technology — and even the same exact company — is really interesting and thought-provoking. I think most readers could probably read both of them over the course of a week spent by a pool or beach.