christopher frizzelle interview

Hey, I made it onto Slog last week!  Excit­ing, since this is pret­ty much my main source of news.  I think life would­n’t be so bad if The Stranger real­ly were the Eng­lish-speak­ing world’s only news­pa­per.


Christo­pher Frizzelle did this short inter­view with me in advance of my “spe­cial appear­ance”.  I’m copy­ing some of it here in case, you know, the author­i­ties raid The Stranger’s offices, find the drugs, and shut down their Inter­net oper­a­tions–

In Dave Egger­s’s nov­el The Cir­cle, images uploaded by reg­u­lar peo­ple through social media become ter­ri­fy­ing sur­veil­lance tools—creating a total loss of pri­va­cy world­wide. Is it pos­si­ble that innocu­ous, per­son­al images like that—me and my mom at the beach, say—can be mined for data to such ter­ri­fy­ing ends?

The Cir­cle envi­sions a lot of sce­nar­ios far beyond pho­to shar­ing. The sin­is­ter “clos­ing of the cir­cle” involves a total destruc­tion of pri­va­cy by means includ­ing manda­to­ry sign-up of the whole pop­u­la­tion using real names, embed­ding of track­ing chips in the human body, rad­i­cal pub­lic self-quan­tifi­ca­tion, and ubiq­ui­tous real­time cam­eras stream­ing high-def­i­n­i­tion video from every­where on Earth. So no, a few pho­tos of you and your mom on the beach post­ed to a social media site are prob­a­bly about as innocu­ous as they sound.

Of course, giv­en that the web empow­ers us all to be pub­lish­ers with glob­al reach, we have new social respon­si­bil­i­ties. Abus­es of these respon­si­bil­i­ties have cre­at­ed the poten­tial for harm to one­self or to oth­ers. I’m think­ing of revenge porn and online bul­ly­ing.

Social media aside, I per­son­al­ly think pri­va­cy in the online era is a very real concern—especially giv­en the many ben­e­fits of using the Inter­net and the cloud to store and trans­mit per­son­al data. Pret­ty much all of us do this—it’s enor­mous­ly empow­er­ing and con­ve­nient. Remem­ber what life was like before email or mes­sag­ing, and when pho­tos lived in shoe­box­es or, even worse, on those exter­nal hard dri­ves that tend to no longer work when left on the shelf for a few years? So I think it’s very impor­tant for us to have an Inter­net we can trust with our stuff, with­out wor­ry­ing that the gov­ern­ment is sur­veilling it with­out a war­rant. That’s one of the rea­sons I’ve found the Snow­den leaks so upset­ting, and why I believe we need strong Fourth Amend­ment-like pro­tec­tions for our pri­vate data, whether offline or online.

Read­ing The Cir­cle made me ter­ri­fied of the future. What was your reac­tion?

I’m a cau­tious opti­mist, and I see it as my job to do what I can to influ­ence the future pos­i­tive­ly and mind­ful­ly. I don’t believe in a zero-sum world­view in which we must choose between pri­va­cy and self-quan­tifi­ca­tion, for exam­ple, or between intro­spec­tion and social behav­ior. I think that well-made tech­nol­o­gy can empow­er us to be more human, not less.

I lis­ten and read a lot. I picked up a copy of The Cir­cle back when it first came out not only because Dave Eggers is a bril­liant writer, but also because I think he’s an impor­tant thinker. Those of us who are engi­neer­ing new tech­nol­o­gy should look close­ly at both utopi­an and dystopi­an futures. We should under­stand some­thing about the bright and dark spots of our his­to­ry too—these are pow­er­ful inoc­u­lants. By avoid­ing the blithe ahis­tori­cism and anti-intel­lec­tu­al­ism of char­ac­ters like Mae in The Cir­cle, or Eunice Park in Gary Shteyn­gart’s Super Sad True Love Sto­ry, we can avoid mak­ing some of the obvi­ous mis­takes.

Maria Sem­ple has said you were the inspi­ra­tion for the TED-talk­ing, Microsoft-genius dad in her book Where’d You Go, Bernadette. What did you think of Where’d You Go, Bernadette? What was it like to read about a char­ac­ter loose­ly based on you?

Of course it was real­ly fun! Maria seemed a lit­tle appre­hen­sive about this when she sent the advance copy. But Elgie and I are only sim­i­lar in some very broad out­lines. The char­ac­ter is devel­oped pure­ly to serve the sto­ry’s ends; she did­n’t set out to make a por­trait of me. So while it was a fun­ny shock to read those few semi-bio­graph­i­cal sen­tences, the feel­ing wore off quick­ly as the sto­ry picked up. I loved the book, and post­ed a review on my blog. It’s time­ly, well-writ­ten, scorch­ing­ly fun­ny, and ulti­mate­ly packs quite a punch. I kind of knew it would go big.

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