I just finished reading a very thought-provoking (if not always beautifully written) novel by Dave Eggers, The Circle. Got it at the airport so it must be good, right? Well, it’s pretty good and helped the time pass in the lovely halls of O’Hare.
And it’s eerily accurate. Margaret Atwood calls The Circle a “novel of ideas”; The Guardian cites Jonathan Swift and George Orwell. We readers of things revolutionary know all about the novel of ideas; that is our bread and butter, so to speak.
So let’s have a look at Mr. Eggers’ work.
It’s about a girl who gets a job at an amazing “campus” of an internet company in northern California, in customer service. Only instead of answering the phone and working on the computer, her job quickly mushrooms into something completely different and invasive. Poor Mae never realizes that she is being used as a conduit for the “Three Wise Men,” the avuncular Bailey, the stern, hawkish Stenton, and the enigmatic Ty—rarely seen, often half-hidden under a black hoodie. First she is given a headset, then seven screens or so where she interacts with clients, followers, and follows other members of the Circle (lest they pout at her indifference), a computer modulated voice which asks her for consumer preferences on a regular basis, bracelets gauging basic functions and numbers of “followers,” and finally a camera to strap on and wear all day. At the end, her entire life, apart from 3-minute bathroom breaks and nights from 10pm, I think, is lived in front of a camera. She has millions of followers so that is a thrill. She thinks it is great. Except it is a bit confusing that her parents break all contact. And that her former boyfriend just drove his truck over a bridge to get away from her friendly voice (projected from the three or four drone planes that tracked him down in the forest. Wow, they really did the job!)
It is not until the end, when everybody’s information—personal, financial, educational, criminal, legal, democratic, intimate, and ancestral—is on-line and transparent—using the services of the Circle of course, that the world will be well run and there will be no more crime or wars.
The only problem is, the people who are running the Circle corporation of interconnected technologies have no sense of perspective. (oh really!? I think we noticed)
Here’s a signal excerpt to whet your appetite. It is a Frankenstein monster of a technological sort. The ironic thing is that the people victimize themselves:
Ty / Kalden (spoiler alert: they are the same person!): “That’s where the Circle closes. Everyone will be tracked, cradle to grave, with no possibility of escape.”
Mae: “You really sound like Mercer now. This kind of paranoia…”
T/K: “But I know more than Mercer. Don’t you think if someone like me, someone who invented most of this shit, is scared, don’t you think you should be scared too?”
M: “No. I think you lost a step.”
T/K: “Mae, so many of the things I invented I honestly did for fun, out of some perverse game of whether or not they’d work, whether people would use them. I mean, it was like setting up a guillotine in the public square. You don’t expect a thousand people to line up to put their heads in it.”
Whoa! Now wait a minute! You’re suggesting that the American people, in fact all users of FaceBook and Twitter are handing over their personal information like sheep to the slaughter! Now that’s going too far.
Later, the author inserts his most obvious lift from the novel of ideas [think of Sade, “Français, encore un effort”], a manifesto:
Ty/Kalden: “But Mae. We saw every creature in that tank, didn’t we? We saw them devoured by a beast that turned them to ash. Don’t you see that everything that goes into that tank, with that beast, with this beast, will meet the same fate?”
M: “So what exactly do you want from me?”
T/K: “When you have the maximum amount of viewers, I want you to read this statement.”
He handed Mae a piece of paper, on which he’d written, in crude all capitals, a list of assertions under the headline: “The Rights of Humans in a Digital Age.” Mae scanned it, catching passages. “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.”
At the end she found one line, written in red ink: “We must all have the right to disappear.”
I will not give away the shock ending! Instead I urge you to read this book!
It’s funny, for someone used to citing and studying at length texts of such a topical nature but published 222 years ago, I find it refreshing to read topical literature of our day. It exaggerates, it is alarmist, but there are very real kernels of truth in it.
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