The Circle, Dave Eggers. New York: Vintage, 2014.
Summary: Dystopian fiction exploring the potential in a digital, online age to create a world where nothing is secret, and whether that is a utopia or a nightmare.
Imagine a world where you can know anything, and nothing is hidden or kept secret. Imagine a world where every person has a digital profile that collects all your health, educational, commercial, and social data, every picture by or of you, and makes this available to all. Imagine a world where we have embedded chips so that anyone can know where we are. Imagine we all wear body cameras that record our interactions and activity throughout the day. Imagine that all the archival information in the world may be searched to put together your family history, dark sides and all,.
This is the world Mae finds herself in when she gets a job with The Circle with the help of her friend Annie, a higher up in The Circle. She begins working in Customer Experience, but soon discovers that The Circle wants far more of her than to get a 100 rating on every customer interaction. They want her to share her life with the rest of The Circle–to give opinions via a headset, to give them her digital life, to join groups, to interact with others in The Circle.
This alone would probably have creeped me out and had me running for the hills. But Mae has been rescued from a dead end job with a local utility. She has a father with MS struggling with his health insurer–until The Circle finds out and adds him to their plan. The hooks go deeper even as she is cut off from much of her former life, eventually moving into a Circle dorm. After an incident caught on Circle’s SeeChange cameras catches her “borrowing” a kayak after hours, she meets one of the three leaders of The Circle, its public voice, Eamon Bailey. He helps her to recognize that the worst part of her act was keeping secrets, that we are better people when we do not hide but rather openly share our lives with the world. And in her “evolved” state of insight, she agrees to go “clear” and wear a camera recording all her activity, and becomes an celebrity both within The Circle, and in the wider public who love watching Mae’s life.
She tries to usher her former boyfriend Mercer into the wonders of being connected with the world through The Circle. He will have none of it, and when she attempts to promote his business, he leaves the grid, writing her a long letter warning her of what she is getting into. He is not the only one. She encounters a shadowy figure, Kalden, who also tries to warn her of what would happen if they should succeed in “closing the Circle,” creating a world where The Circle becomes a vehicle by which all is known, seen, and nothing remains secret. She is disturbed, and also fascinated by him, reflected in some rather kinky hookups in bathrooms. Yet she goes further and deeper into the Circle’s plans. What will this mean for Mae? Her parents? Mercer? Her friend Annie?
I’ll leave you to discover what happens if you have not read the book or seen the recent movie version (trailer here). I will also leave you with the thought that everything the book describes, as far as I could tell, is technologically possible today. More than that, the amount of information we voluntarily surrender about ourselves via social media, online and offline purchasing with credit cards, our banking and credit histories, the photos and files we store in the cloud, the customer cards we use at various stores and more, is staggering. Increasingly our medical records and health history is digitized and shared between providers and insurers, and we agree to it all. And the GPS chips in our smartphones track our every move. Everything in The Circle could or is being done. The only thing forestalling the tyranny Kalden and Mercer foresee is the lack of sufficient will and impetus to do it. We’ve laid much of the groundwork for such things either willingly or unknowingly.
More intriguing yet is the effort to usher in a utopia, the effort to perfect human nature, this time through stripping us of any secret worlds. Such a world substitutes social conformity (and who decides what conformity is?) for the harder won integrity that consists of living truthfully, living consistently with what one values when no one is looking. Instead of living one’s life coram deo (before the face of God), we substitute the human god of the grid, and the much more capricious fancies of its controllers and the mentality of the online mob.
Finally, the book raises the question of whether it is really a good thing to be able to know everything. Is the steady stream of status updates, online surveys, likes, tweets, news stories really making us more informed? More wise? Perhaps if nothing else, Eggers book makes us reflect on all the information we offer up, our addiction to the little rectangles we carry in our pockets, and the illusions all this fosters of a kind of omniscience that may be too much for our little brains to handle.