Holy shitsnacks. My world was just rocked.
I am referring to Dave Eggers’ near-future novel The Circle. If this gentleman’s name rings a bell, it’s because he’s the founder of the literary journal McSweeney’s and wrote A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and A Hologram for the King.
My first encounter with this story was a theatrical trailer of the film retelling to be released in April and May of 2017. The sobering film production The Circle stars my celebrity crush and one of my favorite people Emma Watson (The Harry Potter series).
Sweet Mae Holland (soon to be played by Watson) couldn’t be happier. She’s just started a brand new job at a brand new company, thanks to her friend and college roommate Annie Allerton. The Circle, a startup that *ahem* gently resembles companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter, is easily the most exciting place to work in the entire world.
Mae delights with her fellow colleagues as The Circle introduces new products. One of its major rollouts is SeeChange. The technology is a series of small cameras that can be placed by any citizen anywhere in the world. The cameras stream live footage to the SeeChange central platform all in the name of transparency.
Over time, The Circle’s holistic digitalization of daily life begins to chafe. But not for Mae. Mae is the proverbial frog in the pot of water.
The onlining of every aspect of human life is wholeheartedly embraced. Mae’s social profile is an important part of her corporate life, and as an employee, she is asked, no, persuaded to set a good example. So she stays up until the wee hours doing whatever it takes to increase her social status level.
Mae’s parents and friends become victims of The Circle’s enormity but Mae is unable to see the negative impact the company’s ideals are having on her loved ones. This makes for an unsettlingly meta experience.
The company’s continued eschewal of privacy chilled me the most. The three statutes that are adopted by The Circle, its founders and employees are:
Sharing is caring. Secrets are lies. Privacy is theft.
Because why shouldn’t all information be available, to everyone, all the time, forever? Isn’t that the way to a more enlightened society?
Eggers rams headfirst into tough ethical questions with growing rapidity from one chapter to the next. He also doesn’t answer them for his audience. I was stunned again and again, in the same way that Ray Bradbury and George Orwell stun me, prompting my brain to quietly chant, this is already happening - I see this every day.
And the human rights implications suggested by the constant surveillance of - well, everyone are frightening. ‘Circlers’ cite practicality, education, transparency. But the story descends into madness. Can you imagine a world where everything can be voted on? Even you? I wasn’t sure if I should finish devouring the book, check my home for surveillance drones, or dive into my bed and bite my pillow.
In this fictional world (is it really though?), politicians can decide to ‘go transparent’, which involves voluntarily agreeing to wear the SeeChange webcam around their necks at all times. While in part this seems like a good idea, especially for a nation’s lawmakers today, it necessarily raises some haunting questions. And it, of course, leads the populace to hurl ethical barbs at public figures who do not opt for transparency, concluding that they must have something to hide.
I can remember quite clearly the first time I joined Facebook. It must have been sometime in 2005 or 2006. I had some friends at college who were using the ‘groups’ feature to plan events and share details. Several of them lamented it would be so much easier to communicate with me if I were to create a Facebook profile. So I did.
And I immediately took it back down. And put it back up. And took it back down. Even after I successfully joined Facebook, I couldn’t quite bring myself to post my own photo for the profile picture, choosing instead to use the visage of the Mona Lisa as my avatar. I was terrified that a stalker would find me and murder me because I was identifiable online. A couple of friends snapped pictures of me with their digital cameras, and I followed up with frantic texts and phone calls, seeking assurance that the images would not be posted without my permission.
And then… something happened. I know something happened between then and now because I’m extremely active on social media these days. I have my own website. Hell, I write my private thoughts about things and expect strangers to read them.
It makes more sense to cultivate an internet presence today simply because of the commercial climate. I become irritated if I can’t find an author, actor, professor, restaurant, event, etc. online, wondering angrily how the entity can expect to be taken seriously. But then, have I assigned a value to someone I’ve never met due to their digital participation? Well, yes. I assume they aren’t professional or they have something to hide.
And after all: sharing is caring. Secrets are lies. Privacy is theft.
Look at that. We’ve come full circle.