At the Crossroads of Media, Culture and Technology

When Does the Web Know Too Much About Us? | Review of Dave Eggers’ The Circle

Dave Eggers The CircleThe Circle’s 400-acre campus is an array of brushed steel and glass, each building named for a certain time period in history such as Renaissance and Enlightenment. The fountains, tennis courts and lemon trees hint towards any number of popular tech companies of today. But The Circle is not a tech company of today. It is the only tech company of tomorrow. After acquiring giants like Facebook, Twitter, Google, among others, The Circle remains “the only company that matters at all.”

The company’s first product, “TrueYou,” was a “Unified Operating System” that combines social media profiles, payment systems, passwords, email accounts, user names, preferences and everything else about a person’s digital self into a single login. TrueYou changed the internet within a year and soon The Circle was able leverage all that data to rapidly extend its reach through other increasingly invasive technologies.

We learn about the inner workings of The Circle through Mae Holland, a 24-year-old new hire who starts off as a star-struck customer service agent and quickly climbs the ranks to company spokesperson.

Mae’s initial excitement and desire to fit in at The Circle must seem familiar to anyone with some knowledge of the culture of Silicon Valley or other tech capitals. When HR informs her that her workspace will include three screens, each with separate but equal importance, it is not much of a stretch for us tech workers to see where that idea came from.

As Mae settles in and we learn more about the company, the three screens become four, then six, and it becomes increasingly difficult to disconnect from The Circle’s network. Any gap in online activity is immediately noticed and raises concern among the thousands watching.

For readers, the increasing importance of continued online activity is alarming, yet it goes widely unnoticed by characters in the book. We learn of The Circle’s quest for complete information sharing, lead by Eamon Bailey, one of three leaders of The Circle, called “Wise Men.” We see The Circle introduce tracking chips that are implanted in children at birth, mandate Circle accounts for all citizens, and distribute personal cameras worn around your neck that record your every moment—each under the promise that if we create a world where anyone can know everything, there will be no crime and no secrets.

The only opposition to The Circle’s dominance comes from Mae’s high school boyfriend, Mercer, a bumbling craftsmen who starkly opposes any technology—even a website for his antler chandelier business. Mercer represents the few who oppose data collection, social media, and the loss of privacy that comes with it.

In Eggers’ world, everything happens instantly and publicly. Reviews in Wired and The Wall Street Journal criticize the use of obvious metaphors and heavy-handed lectures about the pitfalls of limitless information-sharing. And while Eggers’ overly transparent efforts to get his message across does seem clunky at times, his commentary is a necessary part of an ongoing discussion. It is becoming more common for companies to collect information about us and use that information to their advantage, maliciously or not. A monopolistic takeover by one company like in The Circle seems still unlikely, but careless adoption of technology without considering the ramifications seems less so.

Eggers commented in a recent interview with the Telegraph:

“After the Boston Marathon bombings, the city’s surveillance cameras made it possible to identify the suspects a few days later. That was astounding, and public-opinion surveys indicated that most people would far prefer to have ubiquitous cameras–knowing they would be watchable any time they were in public–if it ensured some increased degree of safety or, in the case of the Boston bombings, accountability.”

In times of crisis or vulnerability, what is the public willing to accept? We see Eggers’ characters willingly agree to previously unthinkable technology, over and over again. Is it possible that we, in today’s world, would be willing to give up parts of our privacy for increased safety or convenience? We have already started to do this to some degree. The question remains: when does more transparency become too much?

This post is categorized in: Art & Design

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