Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Circle by Dave Eggers

The Circle  Secrets Are Lies -- Sharing Is Caring -- Privacy Is Theft
The story centers around Maebelline “Mae” Holland who has left her dismal job at a utility company for a job at the Circle, the world’s most powerful internet company – think Google, Facebook, and Twitter rolled into one.  The Circle’s headquarters are located in northern California on a massive campus has nearly anything an employee might need or want.  Mae, whose duties in the Customer Experience department initially entail answering queries from customers, loves her new job.  She feels like she is part of something spectacular, something important.  It is easy to see why.  The Circle is at the cutting edge of everything.  It provides the best healthcare, having come up with a bracelet that monitor one’s every bodily function.  It has developed a GPS enabled chip enabling parents and law enforcement to find a missing child quickly and easily.  No wonder Mae is so quickly and so completely infatuated with the Circle.  

In the world the Circle and its three wise men seek to create, information, no matter how trivial or personal or how it was obtained, belongs to anyone and everyone.  Because no one owns knowledge, to keep a secret is a form of theft.  Further, not revealing every aspect of yourself keeps people from knowing you, from helping you, and perhaps you from helping them.  If you are not willing to reveal every aspect of your life it must be because you are committing a crime or are doing something shameful.  Ergo, revealing all and being transparent and "clear" prevents crime and other bad acts.  It compels people to be their best self because you know someone somewhere is watching.  Privacy is a crime.  At this point of the book I was reminded of the concept of a panopticon, which is a prison constructed in such a way that a guard can see all parts of the prison at one time and where the prisoners do not know when they are being watched and so assume they are always being in watched.  Usually people are put in prison because they have committed a crime.  No one has committed a crime in the Circle but still everyone is being watched. 

Even personal experiences must be shared.  Mae’s superiors are appalled when they learn that she has been kayaking and not posting about it.  She cannot simply go kayaking and enjoy the feel of the sea underneath her or the seals swimming around her.  She should, her superiors insist, be sharing this experience, this information.  There may be people who do not or cannot kayak but who want to know what it feels like to kayak.  It is selfish of Mae to keep her personal experiences to herself.  In fact, keeping anything a secret is selfish and dishonest.  

When The Circle was first published in 2013 I recall it being compared to George Orwell's 1984 and the movie Gattaca.  I think of this as a sort of prequel to those type of stories; an explanation how a society gets to that type of monitoring and control by a few over the many.  I did not see The Circle as a demonization of technology or of the internet.  Rather I see it as a cautionary tale about the privatization and corporatization of information, the potential effect of that on democracy, and the importance of privacy.  Various characters try to warn Mae that things are out of balance, that there ought to be limits on the Circle and its access to people’s lives.  

One thing Eggers does well is make the Circle’s products and efforts seem innocuous and beneficial, at least at first.  Circle employees and users are so full of good intentions.  Take the company’s cameras in the Mae’s parent’s house.  Mae’s father has MS and dealing with insurance companies has become a full time job for her mother.  The Circle allows Mae to add her parent’s to her insurance and then installs cameras in their home.  Since all information is freely available, that means anyone can watch them and if say, Mae’s dad fell or something, someone would see and be able to call for help for him.  To let them know they are not alone, thousands of Circle users send their prayers and well wishes to Mae’s parents.  It is all very nice and good intentioned, but it is too much.  Mae's parents are overwhelmed by all the attention.  Mae, who by this time has drunk more than she should of the company Kool-aid, cannot understand why her dad tells people that while he and his wife are grateful for the prayers and well-wishes, in the future people who want to pray for them should just do it and not message them about it or expect them to respond back.  There are simply too many well-wishers are prayerful thoughts for him and his wife to respond to. 

This novel got me thinking about so many things, like how much of the day we spend staring at some type of screen.  When Mae first starts working at the Circle she is placed in a cubicle with a computer through which she answers customer questions.  Later another screen is added so that she can interact on a social level with co-workers and people outside the company.  More screens are added for other types of interactions.  By the end of the book Mae has nine screens in her workspace, all of which she is expected to keep her two eyes on.  Mae also wears bracelets on each wrist that allow her to monitor and track various things.

The Circle also made think about technology not only as the primary intermediary through which people interact with others, but how its language sometimes determines how people actually communicate.  Much of the interaction between people using Circle technology takes the form of smiling or frowning in response to someone or something they posted.  As with “liking” something, it can mean so much and yet at the same time really means very little.  Early in the book Mae’s ex-boyfriend Mercer tells Mae that if she wants to talk to him she should tell him what she thinks, not tell him about how some third party neither of them have ever met smiled at his website.  

Another theme this book brought up was the tyranny of data and the stress of being constantly measured.  Mae’s actions, and that of her co-workers, are constantly monitored.  For instance, she is expected to maintain a certain minimum customer satisfaction percentage, which is not unreasonable.  But in addition to that, the degree to which Mae participates in office extracurricular activities is also measured via what the Circle calls her PartiRank, short for Participation Rank.  She is constantly aware of how many people are following her at any given time.  In a demonstration aimed at showing how its new voting mechanism works, the Circle asks employees to vote whether or not Mae is awesome.  The 3% of people who don’t think she’s awesome has Mae wondering why people hate her and wish she were dead.  

The value of privacy is another big theme in the book.  One character is literally driven to his death in his effort to get away from the masses who claim they want to be his friend and think the best way to do that is by chasing him down until he submits to their “friendship."  

This novel also made me think of the agony of instant communication, for everyone involved.  There are multiple instances when Mae fails to respond immediately to a message and the person on the other end has a panic attack because of it.  They assume either Mae is mad at them, or abandoning them, or tattling on them.  That Mae simply might be busy or that it might take her a few minutes to organize her thoughts does not occur to them.  Then there is the stress Mae suffers at not having responded quickly enough and causing another person discomfort.  It is enough to drive a person mad.

I absolutely loved this book.  It was entertaining and it made me think.  It is early in the year, but already this feels like it might be my favorite or at least, a favorite, book of mine this year.  It was “I am going to be late for work, for dinner, and everything else because I have to finish this” type of book.  

This is the first book I have read by Dave Eggers.  I will definitely be checking out his previous books. 

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