The Circle, by Dave Eggers, follows Mae Holland as she starts a new job at The Circle, an online services company that is rapidly expanding into the digital lives of people around the world. Mae was recommended for her job by Annie, her college roommate and member of the top 40 executives within The Circle. The Circle started with TruYou, a product that required users to be associated with a verifiable identity, which intended to keep online discussions civil since your true name/identity would be responsible for everything posted. After the creator of TruYou teams up with a “big ideas” guy and a businessman to drive commercialization, these “Three Wise Men” start to bring services to Circle users that make life easier (e.g., monetary transactions since TruYou is who you are, shopping, communicating, content delivery, etc.) and solve insurmountable problems through technology (exploring the Marianas Trench, locating fugitives from the law, ending domestic violence, and tracing lost or stolen children, among others).
I felt that what little bit of plot there is in the novel would have fit into a short story. The first act was overlong and just made me glad that I have opted for a rather limited dive into today’s social media. The jealousy and annoyance that Mae has toward Annie seemed to come from out of left field in the second act. The ending was a bit of a surprise for me, not because the author was tricky and kept me guessing, but rather because the whole plot doesn’t really gel until the last ten pages or so.
I read this book after seeing the trailer for the upcoming movie and noting that Emma Watson had a starring role. But none of that is why I’ve put out this blog. The Circle had quite a few intriguing philosophical, moral, and ethical questions posed by the different technologies that were hypothesized by Eggers and rolled out by The Circle. I wanted to pick a few of those and give some of my thoughts since none of the inventions are too far out that they can’t be imagined to be possible in the near future with enough technology and greasing the wheels of world governments.
** WARNING **
Beyond this there are spoilers. Not so much about the plot, but about a few of the inventions, how they are used in the story, and my musings about how those might affect you and me if they were to become part of our everyday life. If you think you might want to read the book, I suggest you bookmark this page and come back when you’ve finished. Then we can compare notes.
** LAST WARNING **
TruYou. This seems like a really good idea. At first. The power of internet trolls and cyber-bullies is that they can remain anonymous and spit out their venom without much threat of real reprisal or accountability. If a real name (and address) is associated with every comment made about someone’s posted photo or video or blog or news article, then people would be more civil to each other online. Even so, there are still bullies out in the real world. A good friend of mine has, in the past, received death threats from anonymous sources that disagreed with her positions printed in a letter-to-the-editor. She now has an unlisted number and no longer gives her address whenever expressing these opinions. While under TruYou I might not call you a bad name or disparage your parentage online, I would still be able to cause anonymous mayhem or harm to you or your family in the real world.
SeeChange and Transparency. Cameras mounted in the inner city and expanded into neighborhoods could put a damper on real-world crime and injury. If every street and alley were covered by multiple cameras that would record everything and all of that footage is stored away forever in a central server that anyone could access, then misconduct would be drastically reduced. The original example/purpose of the SeeChange cameras--to view surf conditions before you travel all the way to the beach--also seems like a good idea. Having cameras mounted at strategic locations at popular travel destinations would open up the world to those that are unable to make the trip in person.
Cameras in houses of patients could be used to monitor their health or activities to better assist in their treatments. Of course, the book takes this just a tad far with multiple cameras across the campus of The Circle (inside and outside all buildings, including worker dorm rooms, but not bathrooms) and the household of Mae’s parents (ostensibly due to the fact that her father is being treated for his MS through The Circle’s insurance). All this coverage and vowing that no footage captured would ever be deleted and anyone would be able to access that footage seems akin to Big Brother, Big Sister, Big Aunt and Uncle and Big Cousin. Living in a fishbowl that anyone can peek into would be disconcerting for me. I guess you’d get used to it at some point, but you would certainly change your behavior for the better if you knew that several thousand “strangers” were capable of watching.
I did like the idea of Transparency cameras for government officials. Many US administrations have touted the need and desire for more transparency in government. Like bodycams for police officers, if a politician wore a camera that recorded everything that the politician did and said, there would be no corruption (or very little) since anyone could go back and review what was discussed with lobbyists or how much money was in the bribe received or what back room deals were being made. I would expect most of the seamier side of politics could be eliminated when Big Constituent might possibly be watching.
Would people be interested in having a typical “office drone” wear a camera to see what she does during her day? The only interesting part of having Mae be the second non-government official to wear a camera almost 24/7 was that she worked at The Circle and became the conduit for the outside world to see behind the curtain that had shrouded what it was like to work at The Circle. While you’re the only Transparent person in the world and you work at a cool place, you are an instant celebrity. I had to wonder about the future when there are ten thousand or a million others being Transparent with not so cool jobs, how would that dilution of celebrity affect Mae? (If there were even two people in the world, not directly related to me, that wanted to watch me sit around the house watching “Judge Judy,” I would be flabbergasted.)
SoulSearch. Hunting criminals that have eluded the law for years sounds like a neat reality show. Using the power of The Circle and the assistance of the over one billion members across the world to do just that is the object of SoulSearch. With facial recognition combing through the vast collection of digitized pictures and stored videos along with broadcasting the picture of a randomly chosen child killer, the fugitive’s whereabouts and her assumed identity is soon revealed. Once located, she is quickly surrounded and cornered by several Circlers all shooting video of the capture. The second demonstration of the power of the new technology tries to find Mercer, Mae’s ex-boyfriend who is purposefully attempting to absent himself from the connected society and to escape the encroachment of The Circle into every aspect of life. This does not end well.
In the book, during both manhunts there is a clock keeping time on how long it takes from when the search subject is selected to when the police arrive (in the first demo) or when Mercer is positively confirmed to be found and acknowledges Mae’s participation in the attempt to find him. The timer gives the whole thing a game show vibe that obviously seeks to draw in maximum participation. In the first case, looking for a murderess, this seems a good use of the proposed tech. However, I thought that it was a lucky break for those Circlers who cornered the woman that she wasn’t a more violent criminal. Civilians taking an active role in the capture of violent offenders, especially taking dangerous risks in order to beat the clock, could easily turn out badly. Judicious use of the resources demonstrated here would be a valuable tool for law enforcement if a more controlled scenario for tracking down and following up on tips and evidence from Circler informants rather than having those informants become actively engaged in the manhunt just to gain a few more followers or smiles.
Demoxie. Voting by secure digital channel sounds great. If it is as easy as clicking on a webpage button or an icon on your phone, tablet, or wrist device, then it should be practically fait accompli to get almost full participation of the population to take part in an election. But what types of things would you allow the common people, who are registered voters, to actually vote on? Certainly, things like choosing dog catcher, mayor, governor, senator, and even president would be a no-brainer. Who wouldn’t rather take a few minutes at lunch to cast a ballot at your desk for those offices and issues that would otherwise require you to go to a specified location, wait in line, prove your identity, and then step into a little cubicle to mark up a paper ballot?
Eggers demonstrates these kinds of binary decisions, but also cleverly includes a less black-and-white issue in the choice of whether to call a drone strike on a terrorist that has been located in a sparsely populated area. The short few sentences to set up that scenario are about what you’d receive on a print ballot as the summary of some bond issue or request for an incremental increase in local property taxes for public transportation. Full participation in elections is a laudable goal, but if it came down to policy or budget or military decisions, I don’t think I would trust all of my fellow citizens to have all the relevant facts or understand the tradeoffs of choosing to fund some program over another from just a short paragraph description. That’s what all the congressional debates and hearings are for, right? However, if my representative wanted to take a poll of some issue or “take the pulse” of how her constituency feel about, say, a cabinet nominee in order to better represent the views of her district, I think this would be a great tool.
Completing the Circle. Making all of the above and many other technological solutions to problems in modern society that are described in the book are the whole point of “completing the Circle.” Near the end of the story, The Circle handles 90 percent of internet searches and has been buying up competitive companies along the way. They are poised to make membership in The Circle mandatory and then would disable further participation in the Circle or allow access to its technology until you cast a vote in the current Demoxie election/poll. (All of this will be accomplished with government approval since any who would oppose The Circle’s legislative requests find damning evidence planted in their accounts that removes them as an obstruction.) There is only one person who has seen the logical conclusion to The Circle’s plans to have no more secrets in the world by exposing everything to anyone that wants to look. While having a world without secrets sounds good in concept, the issue is about having one monolithic, monopolistic entity be the source for all information. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? If The Circle were allowed to become complete, who will guard the guardians?
In the upcoming film based on the book, I fear many of the sobering and interesting philosophical questions raised in the text will be jettisoned for more action and moustache-twirling villainy. We shall see. However, we do get Emma Watson.