Get out to vote: What if Facebook influenced our elections?

Dave Eggers, in his work – The Circle – warns of a company so powerful that eventually they will run national elections. (See my review below.)

Today, the USA is holding its congressional elections, and, according to the NYTimes, Facebook has its own “Get out the vote” campaign. This raises some issues though:

“Facebook’s get-out-the-vote tests have come under scrutiny because of the company’s potential to sway elections if it were to selectively urge voters in certain areas and not others to vote.”

Of course, how do we know what Facebook is doing?

Is it possible that a team of engineers with that much influence may decide to only encourage people to vote Democrat or Republic? After all, maybe fixing elections is means to a great end. (E.g. Hitler…)

Book Review: The Circle

Imagine joining the most exciting company in the world that has unlimited capital to play with, provides employees with in house gourmet meals, on campus dorms, private concert performances, and was started, of course, by a hoodie wearing college dropout. Dave Eggers calls the sought after company The Circle – a conglomerate of Apple, Facebook, and Google.

The protagonist of Eggers’s world is Mae, an only child from the South who left a deadend job with an overbearing manager. Mae is a  conscientious worker and has an adventurous spirit which enjoys the the freedom of detaching from the world and living in the world. This all changes after she is caught on SeeChange – The Circle’s video recording project – stealing a kayak in the nighttime. As reparation, she is volunteered to be the first employee to go Transparent and agree to make her entire life watchable to anyone in the world. In front of over 3,000 circlers, she proclaims in an interview with one of the three Wise Men or top Executives of the Circle:

  1. SECRETS ARE LIES.
  2. CARING IS SHARING.
  3. PRIVACY IS THEFT.

The rest of the novel explores the effects of living a transparent life, a direction in which we may already be headed.

Eggers questions the future of privacy and ownership of information.

  1. Who owns information and knowledge – the creator, the public or the parties involved?
  2. As we become a more connected world, have we lost our ability to live in the moment?
  3. Which actions are shameful?
  4. Assuming people behave better when they are recorded– should we constantly record them? E.g. Speed of a vehicle on a freeway
  5. Maybe private companies with market share and user activity should run elections so that more people vote? (E.g. Facebook runs the next US presidential election)
  6. As more “dirt” is known about politicians and individuals, it is ever easier to expose them and end their political career. No one will speak out against powerful companies because the companies will destroy that person immediately by leaking information. Since users love the company, the company maintains (or gains) power.
  7. Did we buy into technology without knowing the impacts?
  8. Is there a point of return? Can we still enjoy going dark or would we rather give up (fill in the blank) than our smartphone for a day?

Overall, the book is entertaining, well written, and thought provoking. While there is little novelty to Egger’s futuristic vision, he does a fantastic job intertwining near term innovations with pragmatic ramifications raising deep philosophical questions about the balance between privacy, knowledge, and values.
The effects of technology make me wonder whether people in the future will be given a second chance. No one is perfect. And, people who want to be a better person, have a different set of friends, or start behaving in a different way need time to actualize their aspirations. Will we be able to accept this new person or will google search results and dated facebook pictures preclude us from believing that the individual is capable of change? Can we change despite constantly obsessing over our online brand and the way others perceive us?

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