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
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
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
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