The Circle: A novel for our time

Issue 

The Circle
By Dave Eggers
Hamish Hamilton, 2013
491 pages

The Circle is a novel for our times. It is an indictment of Big Data and surveillance society, and also speaks to the difficulty many white-collar workers face in the digital age, in maintaining a separation between their working and private lives.

The narrative follows the career progression of Mae Holland, an impressionable recent recruit to the Circle, an internet company that aspires to be much more. The company’s founder, Ty Gospodinov, complete with hoodie and a borderline case of Asperger’s, is clearly modelled on Mark Zuckerberg.

The Circle inspires nothing less than complete devotion in its employees. The vast campus offers meals, medical services, a thriving social calendar and even dorm accommodation all for free, so employees need never go home.

On a personal and a societal level, however, the costs are immense. A complex process of mind control ensures that employees submit willingly to ever-more-invasive monitoring.

As an employee of Customer Experience, Mae receives continuous feedback, in real-time, of her level of productivity. As she sits at her desk, a vast surveillance apparatus monitors her heart-rate and facial expressions.

Even her level of social engagement is aggregated and ranked, much like Facebook encourages its users to forge connections with relative strangers, in the interests of padding out their “friends” list.

As Mae merges more of her life and personality into the Circle, she becomes unrecognisable to family and friends. One tries to reach out to her: “Every time I see or hear from you, it’s through this filter. You send me links, you quote someone talking about me, you say you saw a picture of me on someone’s wall ... It’s always this third-party assault.

“Even when I’m talking to you face-to-face you’re telling me what some stranger thinks of me. It becomes like we’re never alone. Every time I see you, there’s a hundred other people in the room. You’re always looking at me through a hundred other people’s eyes.”

In real life too, many of us have allowed communication technologies into the very interstices of our lives, to the detriment of real understanding and connection.

A brief sexual encounter with a co-worker is recorded without Mae’s consent and cannot be deleted from the “Cloud”. Mae’s despair invites comparison with the “Skype scandal” that rocked the Australian Defence Force Academy. In that scandal, “Kate”, a female cadet, was unaware that her sexual encounter with another cadet was being viewed live on the internet by a group of male cadets.

Media reports often pointed to the need for “culture change” within the male-dominated military environment, but this incident is arguably also an indictment of the technologies that make this kind of humiliation possible.

Outside the campus walls, the Circle is rapidly remaking the world in its image. It is powered by the goal of “Completion”, a point in the not-too-distant future when the Circle closes in on every last citizen. There is almost no corner of the Earth outside the reach of the Circle’s ubiquitous “SeeChange” cameras and fleet of drones.

Even the most reclusive members of society can be located (and if need be, interrogated) within minutes. And, as in real life, some of the most ardent advocates of “transparency” are able to shield their own day-to-day lives from public scrutiny.

The Circle has rightly been compared to 1984, but while the latter is an Orwellian dystopia, the former in many respects reflects the Orwellian here-and-now.

It was recently reported that British supermarket chain Tesco is installing hundreds of high-tech screens that scan the faces of shoppers as they queue at the checkout, to detect their age and sex for advertisers.

The Circle is a chilling read that invites us to look critically at the technologies which increasingly structure and mediate our engagement with the world.

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