Imagine a world where you could network, pay taxes, and even vote through a single social media profile. Now, imagine if that social media profile was mandatory and your whole life was public.
Such is the world mapped out in Dave Eggers’ newest book, “The Circle,” which tells the unsettling tale of a planet so enthralled with technology that it practically demands its transformation into a surveillance state. In Eggers’ chilling vision of the future, social media leads the world’s population to call for the elimination of privacy and gladly place their lives — both real and online — in the hands of a single tech company.
That corporate monstrosity is the Circle, a futuristic blend of Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, but tellingly not Snapchat. According to the creed of the Circle, to delete information is tantamount to committing a crime.
“SECRETS ARE LIES,” “SHARING IS CARING,” and “PRIVACY IS THEFT” are the Orwellian tenets of the company. To keep something hidden is to steal from another person, as the natural state of information is to be free.
Eggers’ novel is part satire, part dystopian fiction, and entirely arresting in that the world it depicts is not so far from our own. The all-encompassing social media profiles created by the Circle, called “TruYou” accounts, are much the same as the Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn profiles we use now. The descriptions of the Circle’s massive campus, “vast and rambling, wild with Pacific colour” and full of every divertissement imaginable cannot help but evoke the luxurious complexes maintained by Google.
More than anything, though, it is the attitudes and mindsets of the characters in the novel that are troublingly similar to our own. The Circle’s users (and, in the novel, that’s nearly everyone) require immediate and positive affirmations for every online action they take in the form of “smiles” (an alternative to the Facebook “like”). And they dread the unknown, demanding access to any information related to themselves and also everyone around them.
Thus the Circle’s technology aspires to erase any knowledge gap, providing medical wrist monitors that continuously record vital signs and placing tiny “SeeChange” cameras all over the world to give anyone access to footage of any place, any time. Users are quickly subsumed by the products, happily swapping their limited real lives for vibrant and highly visible online experiences.
Eggers is not so much predicting a technology-wrought doom as he is posing a question: How much are we willing to sacrifice for information? The ultimate goal of the Circle, after all, is to create total transparency — to make knowledge “democratically acceptable.”
In some ways, the logic of the Circle’s leaders is seductively simple. When, they ask, has a secret ever been a good thing? Isn’t truth always best? Why shouldn’t companies have access to the most precise marketing data available? And would people commit crimes if they knew they were constantly being watched?
At times Eggers’ book is painful in its blatant hammering home of its message: through social media, we risk eliminating privacy, engendering groupthink, and giving one tech giant a monopoly on information. There are too many thinly veiled symbols and page-long descriptions that could be reduced to a few paragraphs.
But the fundamental ideas of the book are ones that resonate with our time. After all, who hasn’t wasted several hours on Facebook? Who has the patience to wait for a print newspaper when you can get breaking digital updates? How many of us now measure our worth in the numbers of “followers,” “friends,” and “likes” we accrue online?
Right now, we want it both ways. We want to document our experiences and share part of ourselves with a larger-than-life audience. But we also want privacy, in real life and online. We want Snapchat, with its promise of transience, and a chance to wipe the slate clean.
We don’t want information at the cost of privacy. What Eggers fears is that, one day, we will.
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