[Note: This article contains many spoilers; it would be impossible to write without them. Also, The Circle was published a full year ago, and it explores social media’s effects on knowledge, socializing, privacy, and politics—as opposed to, say, the depths of characters’ souls. In short, keeping the plot a surprise should not really be an issue here.]
The Circle, published in October 2013 by Dave Eggers, is a 1984 for our time. Even among people who haven’t read 1984, Orwell’s story and terminology are household words: Big Brother, the Thought Police, doublethink, Newspeak. Yet for all 1984’s cultural power and reach, The Circle is considerably more plausible and, upon reflection, even more disturbing.
The Circle is science fiction set in the very near future. Its realities are almost exactly the same as those of our world, the only notable difference lying in the corporation for which the book is named. The Circle in effect conglomerates Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Apple: it manages 90% (and growing) of all internet searches, controls all social media, and creates elegant, innovative electronic products at its huge campus in the San Francisco Bay area. “My God, Mae thought. It’s heaven,” reads the first sentence, and our protagonist never changes her mind about that. She fears sometimes that she’ll be fired, that she’ll be expelled from the Garden of Eden for failing to live up to its exacting standards, but she never seriously doubts the essential goodness and inestimable value of its mission. That mission is for the Circle to “close”: to make available all information of every kind to every person on earth.
The Circle as a corporate entity feels plausible because it’s almost the case now, already. A couple of quick mergers could make it so. Thus, learning the Circle’s culture and practices as we do along with Mae—the story begins with her first day on the job—feels like a documentary. Eggers’s novel reads more like journalism and critique than like fiction. 1984 presents a disturbing vision of what might eventually be; The Circle pretty much describes what already is, and where it’s surely headed.
One current reality of wired work life that The Circle gets exactly right is the combination of information overload and “busy-ness creep” so many of us experience. Mae begins her first real day of work—after a day meeting everyone and becoming “part of the community”—with two computer screens on her desk, one showing her Customer Experience cases, the other devoted to intra-corporate communications. Like most middle-class Americans, Mae has a cell phone too, with its constant feed of “zings” (= Tweets), private emails, and text messages. The Circle considers her social-media communications central to her work, it turns out: she is berated by two Human Resources functionaries for “not participating enough,” after which she sets about systematically climbing the “PartiRank” ladder to reach the “T2K” (Top 2,000 most active posters on social media). Mae does her Parti work on a third screen added within a week of her starting, filling every moment she can manage between customer interactions. She acquires a fourth screen shortly thereafter, to track the newbies she’s assigned to supervise; then a fifth, and so on, until by the end of the novel she has ten on her desk and one on each wrist.
She puts out considerable amounts of data, as well. In addition to managing all the data deluging in, plus all her Parti-related zings and so forth, she volunteers to answer customer surveys coming through her headphones. She nods her head to receive a question regarding buying preferences, to which she can respond with a spoken “smile,” “frown,” or “meh.” She gives hundreds of such responses a day, asymptotically approaching the quite literal filling of every moment. No corporate efficiency technician could ask for more.
Then the Circle invents a small, inexpensive, remote-controlled camera called a “SeeChange,” which becomes globally ubiquitous instantly. One politician decides to “go Transparent”—to wear the camera all day every day, in order to demonstrate total lack of information to hide. Other politicians jump on that bandwagon, to the point that political Transparency becomes the new norm, virtually a requirement. Halfway through the story, in a moment of vulnerability after Circle executives record her (via SeeChange) committing a very excusable minor crime (taking a kayak onto the Bay without its owner’s express permission), Mae volunteers to go Transparent herself. She becomes a living stream of data.
Mae’s Transparency begins to illustrate the practical impossibility and catastrophic inadvisability of the Circle’s stated ideal, “ALL THAT HAPPENS MUST BE KNOWN.” In the conversation with Circle leadership during which she volunteers, she speaks three, three-word sentences that neatly articulate Circle doctrine, proudly repeating them publicly for all employees’ benefit. “Secrets are lies.” “Sharing is caring.” “Privacy is theft.” In form and content, these sentences forcibly recall the three central governmental lies of 1984: “War is peace.” “Freedom is slavery.” “Ignorance is strength.”
These allusive slogans chill the bones for several reasons. In Oceania, they plainly articulate a coercive government’s point of view. “Ignorance is strength” not for a given individual citizen but for the cabal seeking, in Machiavellian anything-for-power style, to control that citizen. But the statement “Privacy is theft” serves as the corporation’s motto and so, ultimately, as the customer’s. The Circle has powerful financial incentives to quantify, track, and record all information—and thus, insidiously, to cajole all employees, and ultimately all customers, into willingly adopting this understanding of information. Citizens of Oceania can likely distinguish their interests from the government’s; the Circle seeks to lure (or fool, or bribe, whatever verb you prefer) customers into “choosing” to make the corporation’s interests their own.
Second, Mae’s three short sentences rest on the fundamental belief that no person has the right to her own life. “Uncle Eamon,” the kindly, avuncular Circle executive, asserts frequently that universal transparency will normalize everything and anything. All the things we wish to keep private—sex acts, bathroom visits, and so on—will become completely uninteresting to others precisely because they are so public, so known. Taboos will vanish overnight. Ask yourself: do you believe that? Every private act of all people? Even trying to willingly suspend my disbelief, I finally can’t buy it, and I really can’t imagine it becoming the unremarkable norm. All signs suggest that I’m not really supposed to, that this is the untenable satirized position which the audience is being directed to reject.
Third, in perhaps more of a practical observation than a horrified one: all information is not equal, which is to say, equally valuable and/or interesting. Consider an unskilled student with a textbook and a highlighter. He highlights too much; he highlights whole pages. When everything is highlighted, then nothing is highlighted. To highlight is to choose which information is more important for some reason than other information; it is to select and reject. Apply this principle to an individual’s daily existence—to a Transparent person broadcasting everything all day. H. L. Mencken famously observed that “art is life with the boring parts taken out”; the Transparent person emphatically leaves all the boring parts in. Mae typically has a worldwide audience (plus an accompanying stream of zings, messages, smiles, and frowns) in the high six figures, even during her dullest moments. During more interesting ones, tens of millions watch. They watch her read her ten screens, answer emails, reply to surveys. WHY? The intense public level of interest in all of her life, her data, was the only detail in 500 pages that I couldn’t persuade myself to believe.
And this is the problem with ostensibly direct information. How valid or meaningful, ultimately, could zings, smiles, frowns, and “meh”s truly be? This accusation leveled at Mae and her workplace strikes home: “That’s the vast majority of this social media, all these reviews, all these comments. Your tools have elevated gossip, hearsay and conjecture to the level of valid, mainstream communication.”
Fourth, “transparency” must always remain an impracticable, unachievable goal. To claim to be fully Transparent is to lie. Even after Mae adopts the pose of becoming Transparent, in reality she clearly isn’t. Like other Transparents, she turns off her camera when she goes to bed. Her sound feed cuts out automatically for a few minutes when she enters the bathroom. These times provide opportunities for Mae, which she then takes, to conduct hurried private conversations. At one point Ty, the Zuckerberg-like Circle founder, secretly hands her a plot-central paper note during a publicly visible handshake; everyone sees the handshake and not the note. She receives a constant, publicly unannounced audio feed through a concealed earpiece: “Additional Guidance.” Operatives aurally instruct her and keep her on schedule, though she appears to act autonomously and spontaneously. At one key plot juncture the most ruthless and frightening of the three company heads, Tom Stenton, gives her Additional Guidance personally. Life, and personality, are inherently performative; so-called Transparency cannot change that. All that happens cannot be known. Circlers wish it could be: at the end of the book, Mae sits at her friend Annie’s hospital bedside, lamenting the fact that although machines show her that Annie’s brain remains active in her sleep, “what precisely was happening in her mind was unknown to all, and Mae couldn’t help feeling some annoyance about this.” Like Orwell’s Thought Police, she’s limited to information conveyed by looks, words, and machines; the insides of people’s heads remain inaccessible. The book’s ending sentences provide one final shiver on this subject: “They [the Circle] needed to talk about Annie, about the thoughts she was thinking. Why shouldn’t they know them? The world deserved nothing less and would not wait.”
Finally, the Circle’s philosophical position that “all that happens must be known” effectively divides the world’s population into two groups, those “in the circle,” as it were, and those increasingly few who opt out. Mae’s ex-boyfriend Mercer has two important conversations with her, and writes her a long letter, to articulate this point. He writes:
If things continue this way, there will be two societies— or at least I hope there will be two— the one you’re helping create, and an alternative to it. You and your ilk will live, willingly, joyfully, under constant surveillance, watching each other always, commenting on each other, voting and liking and disliking each other, smiling and frowning, and otherwise doing nothing much else.
The real kicker, the “weird paradox is that you think you’re at the center of things, and that makes your opinions more valuable, but you yourself are becoming less vibrant. I bet you haven’t done anything offscreen in months. Have you?” The more “connected” one is, he suggests, the more known and knowing online, the less there actually is of a person that’s worth knowing:
But you’re not very interesting anymore. You sit at a desk twelve hours a day and you have nothing to show for it except for some numbers that won’t exist or be remembered in a week. You’re leaving no evidence that you lived. There’s no proof. . . . And worse, you’re not doing anything interesting anymore. You’re not seeing anything, saying anything.
Mae’s concerns do seem to bear that out. For example, on one of her first few days at work, she signs a petition—in truth, digitally adds her frown—denouncing the actions of death squads in Guatemala. “Mae hesitated briefly, knowing the gravity of what she was about to do— to come out against these rapists and murderers— but she needed to make a stand.” She returns specifically, and absurdly, to fret over having “made that stand” several times in the book. A trivial response is elevated to literally life-threatening status in her mind and nowhere else.
Ty comes to understand the ill effects of Circle culture, which have been in plain sight to the reader throughout the book. Ty tries, unsuccessfully, to recruit Mae to help him bring down the Frankenstein’s monster he has created. The note he passes her expresses his regret, and futilely attempts to reestablish boundaries in a doomed list of “The Rights of Humans in a Digital Age”:
“We must all have the right to anonymity.” “Not every human activity can be measured.” “The ceaseless pursuit of data to quantify the value of any endeavor is catastrophic to true understanding.” “The barrier between public and private must remain unbreachable.” “We must all have the right to disappear.” But she exposes and denounces him to the other two Circle executives. “With their customary compassion and vision, they’d allowed Ty to stay on campus, in an advisory role, with a secluded office and no specific duties.” He ends up captive, contained, neutered. The Circle’s mission will proceed unopposed.
This is what makes The Circle arguably get under the skin even farther than 1984. Oceania’s horrible government begins that story in power, then stays there. Its tragedy is that this unstoppable oppressive force, imposed from without, cannot effectively be resisted. The people can’t mount strong enough resistance. The tragedy of The Circle is that the world’s citizenry collectively, gleefully choose to buy into Circle culture, to help create
a world where everyone could know each other truly and wholly, without secrets, without shame and without the need for permission to see or to know, without the selfish hoarding of life— any corner of it, any moment of it. All of that would be, so soon, replaced by a new and glorious openness, a world of perpetual light. Completion was imminent, and it would bring peace, and it would bring unity, and all that messiness of humanity until now, all those uncertainties that accompanied the world before the Circle, would be only a memory.
Or at least, they can think so. Right up until they don’t.