The Circle (Dave Eggers)

Posted: March 20, 2018 in fiction
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I do love my dystopian fiction, perhaps a little more than most. This novel is different than your classic dystopias because instead of presenting us with a new dystopian world, Eggers starts with a world very similar to ours and shows us how dystopia develops, or how it could develop from where we are now.

The basis of society’s transformation is The Circle. It starts with electronic health records, which we’re already moving toward in the United States, and joins them with banking and credit card information. Thus, each person has an online identity for purchases and prescriptions, a TruYou, which sounds sort of convenient in a creepy way. Now, imagine that all of this information is linked to Facebook, so your friends can Like and Comment on your dental cleanings and physical examinations.

The next step is SeeChange, a system of cameras placed everywhere. It’s sort of like the CCTV in London and other major cities, but the live feeds are broadcast on Facebook, with facial recognition software that automatically tags you so that people can watch you, wherever you are, whatever you’re doing. Also, it’s not the government posting cameras, it’s regular people. Imagine that you’re a regular customer at a kayak rental. You’re there enough that you have a fairly close relationship with the owner. You have a really hard day and need some serious paddle time, but it’s late at night and the shop is closed. You know the owner won’t mind if you borrow a boat, so you jump the fence and take one out. The time on the water does you a lot of good, but by the time you get back to shore the police are waiting to arrest you. You have them call the owner and she tells the police to let you go; she’s not going to press charges even though it is technically a theft. When you get to work in the morning, everyone is talking about your near-arrest, including your immediate supervisor and the president of the company. A number of coworkers don’t care about the crime but are hurt that you haven’t joined their kayaking groups on Facebook.

The kayak incident is the climax that drives us into the second half of the book, about transparency. The classic dystopian formula is in three parts, Thesis Antithesis Synthesis, but because Eggers’s story is not a classic dystopia, his book works differently. It is divided into three books, but the third is more of an epilogue. Transparency joins the ideas of TruYou and SeeChange – you wear a camera around your neck that broadcasts everything you see, say, and do, all the time. You can turn the sound off in the bathroom and you can take it off when you’re asleep, but otherwise your life is a reality show where friends and strangers can watch you at any time. There is one level of embarrassment at walking in on your parents having sex; there is a whole other level where you walk in on your parents having sex and accidentally broadcast that to forty thousand people on Twitter, where people comment on how great it is for two people at their ages and with their medical backgrounds to continue being interested in sexual activity. Politicians pick up on transparency and use it to virtue-signal to their constituents; it’s a snowball where once one representative goes transparent, they all have to or they look untrustworthy. There’s also a movement to move voting online and to make it mandatory, the sort of direct democracy a lot of people think they want to live in. It’s actually pretty horrible. I mean, politicians are people that we choose to make decisions for us – there are too many issues in this country for each citizen to inform themselves fully on each issue and make an intelligent decision. This is what representative government is all about. In the end, transparency alienates our protagonist because her friends and family can’t act naturally when everything they say becomes so very public.

So, let’s talk characters. Our protagonist is Mae, a bright young recruit at The Circle. She doesn’t immediately get into the idea that the company wants to own her entire life, but she eventually gets into it. She becomes the public face of The Circle, the first average citizen to go transparent. We’re told that she’s smart at the beginning of the book, but in time it becomes clear that she’s a pawn in bigger schemes. Supervisors keep manipulating her into having epiphanies about the everyone-together-all-the-time corporate culture, until she distills that culture into a few Orwellian sound bites. Her ending is totally 1984.

Mae turned to look at the three lines together. She blinked back tears, seeing it all there. Had she really thought of all that herself?
SECRETS ARE LIES
SHARING IS CARING
PRIVACY IS THEFT
Mae’s throat was tight, dry. She knew she couldn’t speak, so she hoped Bailey wouldn’t ask her to. As if sensing how she felt, that she was overcome, he winked at her and turned to the audience.

“Let’s thank Mae for her candor, her brilliance, and her consummate humanity, can we please?”

She can seem inconsistent, but I kind of understand her. A lot of her decisions are based on expediency – her dad will die without her company’s insurance, so she will do pretty much anything to keep the job. Add to that social pressure to go with the group and her capacity to commit to a decision even if she thinks it’s a bad one and kind of forced on her. She’s also controlled by her need for public approval, as manifested by Likes on her posts. So I think it’s understandable that she makes short-sighted decisions that seem random and inconsistent – she’s being indoctrinated in a cult-like atmosphere, so think of her more as a cult follower than a normal employee.

Mae’s best friend Annie got her the job at The Circle. Annie spends most of her time doing higher-level work with foreign governments while Mae is stuck in customer service. Annie’s life is ruined when she gets tapped as the pilot for PastPerfect, The Circle’s extension into family history. When people find out her British ancestors had Irish slaves, it’s pretty bad. When people find out her American ancestors had African slaves, it’s even worse. When a video surfaces of her parents watching someone die, it’s the end. Privilege has become a terrible word in American society, and it defines her family for thousands of years.

Mae has three boyfriends to deal with. Mercer is the ex that her parents still love. He hides from the spread of technology and has a John the Savage ending, though it’s not the climax like it was in Brave New World. Francis is the kind of supernerd who makes sense in a tech company but would have a hard time in the real world. Mae gets frustrated with his persistently premature ejaculations. Kalden is secret and shadowy, somehow inside The Circle but without espousing any of its ideals. He’s the kind of well-endowed lover that leaves Mae daydreaming, but it’s hard for her to trust him.

There are three heads of The Circle, and at one point they bring in three marine animals that sort of represent them. The seahorse is Ty – he hides at the bottom, guarding his children, which in this case are his ideas and inventions. He has very little contact with the public. The octopus is Eamon Bailey – he stretches out his tentacles in an effort to know and understand the world around him. He’s the warm fuzzy that people see – he wants to know people, and don’t we all want to be known? The shark is Stenton. He controls the money and therefore more than anyone else really understands or admits to themselves. Like Google and Apple, The Circle presents this image of a company that likes learning and exploring ways of connecting people to each other in an effort to mask the fact that they are profit-based institutions. Stenton is kept in the background as a sort of necessary evil, but he’s a shark. When they put all three animals in a tank together, the shark eats the other two. That’s what sharks do.

Whenever I see a group of three like this, I try to fit it into the Mind-Body-Soul symbolism, but these seem to be working in opposite directions. With the boyfriends, Mae rejects Mercer/Body, betrays Kalden/Soul, and ends up with Francis/Mind, which is disappointing. With the executives, Stenton/Body and Bailey/Soul make Ty/Mind unimportant, but the implication is that eventually Body will overpower Soul and reign supreme. Either way, a balance is impossible to sustain.

There was a film last year, with a lot of really big names like Emma Watson, Karen Gillan, Patton Oswalt, Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton, and Glenne Headley. But even though Eggers was working on it, it seems to have fared much worse than the book. I think the movie’s failure has to do with the very ideas the story addresses: the ending was changed to make it more marketable, and they had to reshoot several scenes because test audiences didn’t find the protagonist to be very likable. Since my theory is that Mae was chosen for her malleability and need for external approbation more than for her intelligence, I think Emma Watson might be too smart to play the character. I find it interesting that a film based on a book that is against crowd mentalities ruined the message by trying to appease the crowd mentality. I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m not fond of faithless adaptations, and I’m not so in love with the book that I’m ready to see the story as plastic.

The recent news about Facebook makes this book all the more timely. It seems that four or five years ago, a company called Cambridge Analytica stole data from thousands of Facebook profiles and used it to manipulate people’s ideas, pushing for unnecessarily conservative events like Brexit and the Trump election. Facebook is backpedalling as much as it can, but the information gathering was allowed under the privacy policies in place at the time. In related news, Facebook has been experiencing a decline in usage figures, so maybe this is the beginning of the end. Personally, I like the interface and the fact that most of my friends and family members are there – it’s a low-effort way for an introvert to maintain relationships. That being said, I don’t think it’s perfect either, and I have complicated feelings about putting personal information on my profile. I am curious, though – if Facebook falls, what will rise to take its place?

Above all, this is a book about privacy and the difference between our real selves and our public personas. I believe that all people need times and places where they are unobserved, where we can rest from the need to perform for others. We need a break from all that approval. The Circle presents us with a quick and easy path from where we are now to a world with no privacy, no relaxation, no disconnecting. For an introvert like me, this world is a nightmare. I’ve heard that this is a generational difference, that people of my generation are more individualistic while the kids born in the late 1990s and early 2000s are more communal, and if that’s true then many of them wouldn’t see the problem this book presents. And I suppose part of the problem with both book and film is that this is Generation X’s perception of what Millennials believe, which may not be accurate. But it’s interesting to explore these ideas and decide whether privacy is a big deal, and how important it is to us.

As a final note, I’d like to point out that in this book no one’s identity is stolen. A lot of us think that the main problem with online identities is that they can be falsified and the information used fraudulently, but that’s not the big problem for Eggers. It’s the ideas inherent in social media that are the problem, the Ding an sich and not the abuse of it.

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