The Circle and Our Great Debate
Moving from “Sharing is Caring” to “Privacy is Theft”
This piece includes spoilers from the newest Dave Eggers novel The Circle. (For an alternate look at this book, read this piece by Alexis Madrigal on The Atlantic.)
The Circle is the latest effort from acclaimed novelist Dave Eggers. In an undisclosed future time “the Circle”, ominously and transparently a Google clone company, has consumed everyday human interaction and experience on the web. Yes the allegory is heavy handed — tweets are now “zings”, Facebook becomes “TruYou” — but the message stays intact. I suppose the real question here is not the quality of the metaphor but rather the quality of the subject matter itself.
Our protagonist Mae Holland gets a coveted job at the company and, after a few raps on the wrist for not participating effectively in campus activities, quickly rises in the ranks. She is easy to please, inoffensive and frankly rather bland. Not exactly the heroic paradigm shifter that you want in a dystopian novel.
Mae is balanced by her foil Annie, an energetic veteran Circler. She maintains a superhuman constant social media presence, which seems like the norm in the Circle. As someone who is infamous among my friends for being reluctant to answer text messages in a timely manner, I tend to stand with Eggars’ vision that a world where you need to respond to every query, comment and idea would be absolute hell. Spontaneity is a particularly lamented casualty of this alternate reality. Mae, an avid kayaker, is reprimanded for her the spontaneous nature of her activity and for failing to share the experience with her fellow “Circlers.” Lives are scheduled, or informed by popular opinion after careful research. However the reliance on social media for human interaction, validation and sense of self is only the shallowest of consequences that Eggars envisions.
The Circle has mutated the old kindergarden adage “Sharing is Caring” into the seemingly illogical, incongruous “Privacy is Theft.” All knowledge, information and experience is now considered the property of everyone in the Circle’s cloud network. Mae’s coworker Francis even films her giving him a hand job, which is then uploaded into collective memory and history. This world is sufficiently disturbing to us now, but there could be a time when, step by step, our lives on the internet become less anonymous and more integrated. There will be a day when a fully integrated, transparent and “democratic” online ideal will not only be positive, but will be considered necessary.
This social media paranoia had already reached its peak in the mass media and internet debates, but it appears to have just started in the literary circles. Eggers and other like thinkers, like author Johnathan Franzen who made his views on technology clear in this New Yorker Festival discussion with Clay Shirky, have a very strong dislike of the internet’s role in society that is bordering on crotchety-old-man levels. In The Circle, Eggers created his version of a dystopia, but it could just as easily be seen as Silicon Valley’s utopia. The centralization of power and nformation through the internet until companies like the Circle hold society in the palms of their hands. We are already seeing companies like Google vertically integrating so that they infiltrate our devices, operating systems, and even our social networks. Egger’s well-crafted but still paranoid shout in the void is not necessarily that far fetched.
Yes, as Madrigal says, there is a rather heavy-handed metaohor of the Wise Men and Circle as a shark devouring everything in its tank, and an etherial kayak ride at midnight in solitude, which presents the magnificence of San Fransisco through Mae and not through the lens (pun intended) of the Circle. There is also the disturbing unwillingness of Circlers and politicians to point out the Wise Men’s own lack of transparency. But the storytelling was enthralling, like a car crash that you can’t look away from and the message that information is power comes through crystal clear.