Look out, America; Dave Eggers is sounding the alarm. The titans of Silicon Valley are destroying privacy by means of the Internet, thereby posing a grave threat to freedom and democracy—a threat that foolish Americans, blind as they are in their materialism, selfishness, and passivity, can’t grasp.
Unless you count Americans like Edward Snowden, or the late Aaron Swartz, or Bruce Schneier, Glenn Greenwald, Jacob Appelbaum, or Joseph Lorenzo Hall, or all the other Internet-privacy activists, including those who work for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Demand Progress, the Internet Archive, and the ACLU. Or anybody who fought SOPA, PIPA and/or ACTA, or sued Facebook or Google for violating privacy laws. Or Senator Ron Wyden.
Eggers’s new novel, The Circle, is meant as a kind of political fable along the lines of Animal Farm or Cat’s Cradle. But the Internet landscape Eggers describes is wildly distorted. In reality, Americans have grown aware of the threat to our constitutional rights through corporate and governmental snooping, so Eggers’s pro-privacy, anti-Big Data message is off base, hackneyed, his story raising questions that were asked and answered long ago.
The wacky tale traces clueless villainess-heroine Mae Holland through her career at the Circle, a monopolistic Internet behemoth that is a kind of amalgam of Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Twitter. As the story opens, the Circle has managed to overwhelm pretty much all competition with its groundbreaking product, TruYou, a centralized system for conducting your whole life online—buying stuff, participating in activism, blogging, Twittering (here called zinging, which is irritating in exactly the right way).
One account, one identity, one password, one payment system, per person…. You had to use your real name, and this was tied to your credit cards, your bank, and thus paying for anything was simple. One button for the rest of your life online.
One Button to Rule Them All. One button, to give total control of your data to One Corporation (also One Button, so that One Hacker can bankrupt you forever, no doubt). The principal (and fatal) flaw of The Circle is that nobody would use this thing. I don’t think that anybody ever would have, given that it took only ten days for fifty thousand people to force Facebook to turn off the ill-advised Beacon system that notified your friends about what you’d been buying, and that was back in 2007. But in the post-Snowden world, there’s just no way.
It takes a long time to write a novel: How was Eggers to predict, while he wrote, the typhoon of worldwide indignation that would follow the revelations of Edward Snowden? But again, even without considering Snowden, there have been privacy hullaballoos since the dawn of the computer era—for example, the one that took place over cookies, when the Internet was young. All the “Netizens,” as they were called then, were going bonkers over the idea of being tracked online with browser cookies (though we didn’t get nearly paranoid or angry enough, it turned out). Americans do not care to be snooped on.
But in the world of The Circle, everybody loves TruYou and is fine with being tracked like Will Smith in Enemy of the State, because now you have to remember only one password. #yay
The near-universal adoption of TruYou comes with other benefits, too. “Why would any non-porn site want anonymous users when they could know exactly who had come through the door? Overnight, all comment boards became civil, all posters held accountable. The trolls, who had more or less overtaken the internet, were driven back into the darkness.” YES that absolutely would happen, because all trolls operate under pseudonyms.
In any case, Mae has been invited by her college chum Annie to escape the purgatory of her job at a (horrors!) utility company in her (blech) hometown and to come work at the Circle, an invitation Mae more or less equates with being invited into heaven. (“Did anyone even work at a utility company anymore?” Mae asks herself. “How had she tolerated it?”)
But now Mae is led, bursting with happiness, through what she sees as the magical, beautiful “campus” of the Circle. She enters her new office. Her new life.
Mae’s heart faltered. It was almost precisely like the cubicle she’d worked at for the last eighteen months.… The material lining the cubicle walls was—she couldn’t believe it, it didn’t seem possible—burlap.
Oh god, she thought, when she left [the utility company] she vowed never to see or touch or acknowledge the existence of that material again…but then here it was, all around her in his new Circle workspace, and looking at it, smelling its musty smell, her eyes welled up. “Fucking burlap,” she mumbled to herself.
But guess what? This isn’t her real cubicle; it’s a fake, joke cubicle. Ha ha! Oh, Annie, that cut-up. She appears just in time to enjoy her weirdo “prank.”
“Thank you so much for that, Mae. I knew you’d hate it, but I wanted to see just how much. I’m sorry you almost cried. Jesus.”
This scene is meant to show, I think, that Mae and Annie are a couple of spoiled, entitled, burlap-averse millennials who are making a mess of everything. So naturally, shallow millennial Mae is taken in by all of the shiny new design things and the parties and freebies and glass everywhere, and gives herself over to the Circle, body and soul.
Mae’s obedience to the Man is beyond satire. Are we supposed to be laughing when fellow Circler Gina explains to Mae about the Circle’s “Conversion Rate” and “Retail Raw” ranking systems?
“Every purchase initiated or prompted by a recommendation you make raises your Conversion Rate. If your purchase or recommendation spurs fifty others to take the same action, then your CR is x50. There are Circlers with a conversion rate of x1,200…. Annie, of course, has one of the highest CRs in the Circle….
“So let’s say you recommend a certain keychain, and 1,000 people take your recommendation, then those 1,000 keychains, priced at $4 each, bring your Retail Raw to $4,000. It’s just the gross retail price of the commerce you’ve stoked. Fun, right?”
Mae nodded. She loved the notion of actually being able to track the effect of her tastes and endorsements.
As Mae rises through the ranks, the “Wise Men” founders of the Circle are cooking up a deranged scheme to record every event that happens everywhere, to everyone (because “Everything That Happens Must Be Known” and “Sharing Is Caring” and “Privacy Is Theft”). From this point, the plot develops ever-widening holes—as if, for example, an army of enraged citizens in Guy Fawkes masks wouldn’t instantly emerge to disable the countless “lollipop-sized” cameras these lunatics are plastering everywhere. As I read, I absently organized a fictional-camera-vandalism movement, as I’m sure many other readers will.
Speaking of glass, there are many, many unsubtle reminders of the dangers of “transparency” throughout the story, the most egregious being the transparent shark that one of the Wise Men has caused to be dragged up from the darkest, deepest place in the ocean, as a kind of pet.
It was a bizarre creature, ghostlike, vaguely menacing and never still, but no one who stood before it could look away. Mae was hypnotized by it, its slashing form, its fins like blades, its milky skin and wool-grey eyes. It was certainly a shark, it had its distinctive shape, its malevolent stare, but this was a new species, omnivorous and blind.
This rare shark, brought up from the depths of our most horrible subconscious desires, or the Mariana Trench, has “translucent skin, which allowed an unfettered view into its digestive process.” Rapacious, staring malevolently at what it cannot see, grinding everything up in its transparent guts. What might this terrifying beast represent?
Mae, in the thick of it all, will have her mettle tested over and over again. And rated, and recorded. The stakes grow ever higher….
The feeling I was left with at the end of The Circle was mainly a sad one. Could Dave Eggers really have such a low opinion of ordinary people as to believe they would so willingly hand themselves over to be controlled, used, even destroyed? That the Borg will win, that “resistance is futile,” for real? Just, no. I’m not quite that cynical yet.