29 Feb 2016

Twitter Librarian Book Club: The Circle

Guest Post by David Hughes, Systems Librarian Dublin Business School

via Flicker

A few of us on Twitter have been reading The Circle, so I’d thought I’d write my own, spoiler free  review, perhaps encouraging other folk to discuss it. 
Social media is everywhere.  It’s ubiquitous.  Everything we do, we record on Twitter or Facebook or Foursquare or Google+ or any one of a number of myriad applications.  Ok, perhaps not Google+, not yet anyway, but we do share our lives online (*pauses while I tweet that I’m writing this*). Novelist Dave Eggers probably doesn’t share much on social media.  How do I know this?  By reading The Circle, that’s how.  
This is the tale of Mae Holland, a bright young 20-something who lands a job at The Circle – a vast social media conglomerate that combines attributes of Google, Twitter, Facebook & PayPal dwarfing them all (indeed, reference is made early on to The Circle swallowing up Facebook) .  Mae arrives at an auspicious time; The Circle is about to unveil “SeeChange”, a small & cheap video camera that streams to the Cloud allowing its feed to be accessed by everyone, everywhere.  “This is the ultimate transparency. No filter. See everything. Always" proclaims Eamonn Bailey, one of the “Three Wise Men” who run The Circle.  Mae quickly buys into the ethos, catalysed by a run-in with a SeeChange camera during a spontaneously undertaken night-time kayaking trip.  Following this, a company-wide shaming of Mae leads her to her to enunciate The Circle’s new slogans:
Fittingly perhaps, Mae arrives at the idea of “DeMoxie” a system that automatically registers users to vote but only if they have a Circle account.  Fully participative democracy beckons.   Mae agrees to go fully transparent, that is to be always visible to an online audience.  But can she persuade her family and her ex-boyfriend to do the same? Hilarity doesn’t ensue   
Eggers has a lot to say here, so this is no sleek speedy Maserati cruising through a pleasant landscape of fine writing.  The Circle is more of an 18 wheeler truck rumbling through grotty neighbourhoods of poor character development, leaden dialogue, trite symbolism and clumsy metaphors (the aquarium, oh God the aquarium!); it’s all about the ideas, and in that regard, the 18 wheeler reaches its destination and unloads its cargo effectively.
You may think that The Circle is unrealistic but it’s merely a radical (or perhaps logical) extrapolation of technology trends.  I saw recently that Google filed a patent to run elections through its search results (so perhaps we will be forced to create Google+ accounts after all).  A little before the book’s publication, Google’s “chief Internet evangelist” posited that "privacy may actually be an anomaly"; a recent invention, facilitated (and soon to be taken away) by technology.   The use of “anomaly” is quite interesting, an anomaly being “a deviation from the common rule, type arrangement or form”.  So, says a Circle er I mean Google employee, privacy is deviancy.  That’s certainly an interesting way of framing the privacy debate. 
I suppose the main thrust of the book concerns privacy.  However, the revelations of Edward Snowden have somewhat blunted the force of Eggars’ message there.  The lack of privacy in the book comes from total transparency; total “onlineity” to coin a neologism (is there an adjective to describe being online?).  One of the first volunteers to go transparent is a politician, which eventually lead to a political paradigm shift.  To me, the consequences of The Circle’s technological advances are more interesting in a political setting and that’s what I’ll focus on.    
The Circle’s slogans are very redolent of 1984, which like the world of The Circle (and our own), is a surveillance state, but the model here is really Brave New World – a willing embrace of authoritarianism by a happy population, with The Circle’s really neat consumer products as stand-ins for Soma.  The Circle – the company, not the book, initially sounds and appears progressive, but Mae and her colleagues unconsciously (?) accept the slowly revealed authoritarianism of The Circle’s founders.  Sharing of personal and private information may be encouraged for superficially altruistic purposes, but the Circle wants it for commercial and political reasons.  And why not?  The Circle is doing well; it’s both popular and profitable.  Maybe they should run the country?  Perhaps Google CEO Eric Schimdt should be installed as CEO of America? A petition to this effect was created by Justine Tunney, a former Occupy Wall Street activist and all-round interesting character.  The writer and essayist Thomas Frank in his books The Wrecking Crew suggests there’s a school of conservative thought that not only thinks government doesn’t work, but also, when in government, sets out to prove it, and so encourages the endorsement of selling off state functions to the private sector.  Serious people have asked the question ‘is government too political?’ (registration required).   Does the decline of party politics pave the way for a technocratic, authoritarian capitalist future? Would algorithms make a better job of government than politicians? I have to stress, this is very much a subsidiary (if it’s there’s at all) theme of the book, but these questions interest me and did come to mind while reading the book (for what it’s worth, my answers to the questions would be: not political enough, probably and NO!) 
You could also compare The Circle to Fahrenheit 451 – at heart it’s a conservative rant against the evils of modernity.  I don’t necessarily mean conservative in a pejorative sense here, I mean conservative as in resistant to change.  However, I think Eggers is unduly pessimistic and does the general population a disservice when he writes about the public’s eager espousal of The Circle’s authoritarianism. There’s an old saw about nations being x (where x is a very small number) square meals away from revolution; Eggers would imply there we’re only a few selfies and LOLCATS away from surrender to technological totalitarianism.  Would people really prefer Internet access to democracy?  Actually, I don’t think I want to know the answer to that question.  With DeMoxie, Eggers also suggests that fully participative democracy may not necessarily be a good thing: the implication being that some people might just know better than others (again, is government too political?).   Hence surely, the need for just and fair access to knowledge (one of the aims of The Circle?) and therefore the need for radically-minded librarians; democracy only really works with an educated and informed citizenry. Perhaps Mr Eggers is just as authoritarian as The Circle; only he’d like to see a different elite running things rather than technological solutionists    
Something else to note is the character of Mae, the protagonist of the novel.  It’s easy to think of her as a victim or a brainwashed cultist (there’s more than a little religious symbolism going on in the novel; the first line of the book is “ ‘My God,’ Mae thought. ‘It’s heaven.’ ”).  However, there’s no spoiling the book by revealing that Mae is actually a villain, albeit one whose motives are fairly trivial – popularity within The Circle and the approval of its founders.  Talk about the banality of evil! 
The Circle could never be confused with great literature, and I don’t think it’ll ever be confused with great satire either.  But it’s an entertaining and scary read that really should get you thinking about technology, democracy and your privacy.   

1 comment:

  1. Hi David. Excellent piece on a most terrifying book. I read the book two summers ago, read it in three days. As you say, not a subtle book and not great literature but like all dystopian / speculative fiction it is a great novel of great ideas. It is the ideas that keep you reading.
    The more I read up on digital privacy the more I think that this book should be given out to people as they sign up for any of the accounts of the big tech companies. Because you can see us moving towards a situation where our real lives will mirror the book. And what is worse - do people actually care? Are there more Mae's in the world than Mercers? [he who doesn't buy into world of the Circle?] I think there probably are. And what are the consequences of this to us as people?
    Thanks for the piece David - as Shona said on Twitter, it was nice to revisit the book through this piece.