Marry Facebook to Google and then throw in the rest of the social media world for good measure. The result is The Circle–a giant transnational technology corporation that has maximized technology so efficiently that the Internet can no longer be compared to the Wild West. Cyberbullying and trolling is non-existent, and identity theft is practically impossible. The world has become a better place, all because of one company. Emphasis here is placed on the word “one” because The Circle is also a monopoly, defying every element of the Sherman Antitrust Law. But why should that matter if the world is a fundamentally better place due to The Circle’s influence and control? This is the central question of the novel.
Author Dave Eggers invites the reader to experience The Circle firsthand through its newest employee, Mae Holland, who leaves a mundane entry-level position to enter into her new role on the Disney-like property that is The Circle’s campus. While Mae proves a fast learner in Customer Experience, her new department, she quickly learns that doing her job well is not enough. Fundamental to her success at the company (and supposedly in life) is the degree to which she participates in the Circle community, both in person and online. At the center of this expectation is the Circle philosophy that the “right to know everything” is a fundamental human right. This seems innocuous and admirable. Would we not all agree that ignorance can only lead to misfortune? But if we take this “right to all knowledge” to its full conclusion, then it stands in direct opposition to a “right to privacy”. In the world of The Circle, it is your privilege and, more importantly, your duty, to open up your life for your fellow citizen’s benefit. Secrets and introversion threatens the society at large and highlights an individual’s inherent selfishness. The only good society is an extroverted, completely transparent society where the group supersedes the individual. . . an ideology ironically proclaimed in the spirit of individualism.
“So in general, would you say you behave differently when you know you’re being watched?”
“Sure. Of course.”
“And when you’ll be held accountable.”
“And when there will be a historical record. That is, when or if your behavior will be permanently accessible. That a video of your behavior, for example, will exist forever.”
“Good. And do you remember my talk from earlier in the summer, about the ultimate goal of SeeChange?”
“I know it would eliminate most crime, if there was full saturation.”
Bailey seemed pleased. “Right. Correct. Everyday citizens like Gary Katz and Walt Lefebvre in this instance, because they took the time to set up their cameras, they help keep us all safe. The crime was minor in this case, and there were no victims, thank god . . . Marion’s business. and the kayaking industry generally, lives to see another day. But one night of selfishness . . .could have risked it all. The individual act has reverberations that can be nearly endless. Do you agree?”Dave Eggers
This is the Silicon Valley of dystopian proportions.
The creepiest element of the book, however, is that Eggers derives most of the arguments woven into this text from impassioned statements we hear daily on the radio, at our universities, and in Washington. Bailey’s vision of ever-present video surveillance capturing any instances of crime through the agency of individual citizens reminded me of the newly implemented bodycams in police forces, along with the ubiquity of mobile phone cameras. I have vocally supported both technologies in my desire to see a reduction in racial discrimination within the US. But, Eggers highlights the illusion of individual agency in these instances. In truth, it is the tech companies that possess agency via their hardware, software, and most importantly, through their servers that shape our lives.
Eggers’ universe is not your standard dystopian future to be feared in 50-100 years. We are looking at a troubling reality of the next couple decades where today’s good ideas become tomorrow’s disasters. My piece barely touches upon some of what Eggers envisions for our lives. I encourage you to pick up a copy of the book and read for yourself his concerns.
On a related note, yesterday Google announced its new branding with an upbeat inspiring video that carries echoes of Eggers’ prose throughout.
What do you think about their branding shift? Does Google’s ever-expanding influence on society concern you, and if so, have you changed your internet habits in response? I’d love to know your thoughts.
Let me know in the comments below and don’t forget to subscribe at the bottom of the page.