I just finished reading The Circle, the highly entertaining and disturbingly thought provoking novel by Dave Eggers, in which the plot concerns a fictional corporation (“the Circle”) that is best described as what would happen if Apple, Facebook, Twitter, Google, and many other social media companies that are now currently disconnected were to merger under one roof. I will not get into great detail about the book in this post, but you can go here and here if you want to read the reviews. Suffice it to say that the brilliance of the book is that it is both simple and entertaining to read, yet very deep on many levels. I would consider it perhaps the most astutely written warning to date concerning the lack of privacy in social media; a thought-provoking meld between 1984 and A Brave New World.
Within the book, the Circle came into being when one of the founding members discovered how to link all of the metadata concerning an individual’s online activity into a “TruYou” account, thereby eradicating anonymity on the Internet. The company then set about acquiring the competition, until nearly all that was left was the Circle, the point at which we enter the story with our protagonist Mae Holland, a twenty-something, highly impressionable young person hired to work in the Circle’s Customer Experience (CE) department. The remainder of the story concerns the drive towards “Completion Day,” when the multitude of online and offline, government and private databases will be linked together, all of the dots connected into a seamless user experience: the Circle complete.
As I said before, the book has many levels, from the issues surrounding the balance between privacy and the public’s “need to know,” the atmosphere of fear and paranoia that has to be created and sustained to justify and perpetuate the surveillance state, the air of condescension that technology companies and their employees have with anyone to dares to question their brilliance, the cult-like culture that exists at many technology companies, the determining of the proper balance between government and privatization of essential services, the folly of placing the quest for these answers in the hands of very smart young people who, never the less, may perhaps lack the wisdom to fully consider their actions, the dangers of placing too much information in the hands of a single entity, and the place in the world, if any, for anyone who chooses to opt out. However, of the many issues brought forth by the book, the one that fascinates me the most is the completely probable slippery slope that leads to totalitarianism, all in the name of achieving a fully participatory democracy.
A reoccurring theme in The Circle is secrecy. To the Circle, secrecy is bad, and privacy is considered theft. All must be known; there is literally no place to hide in the world of the Circle; and there are many dialogs within the book where the founding members of the Circle (the “Three Wise Men”) attempt to convince Mae of importance of eradicating privacy and secrecy. Aren’t people more likely to be on their best behavior when all of their online comments and activities are linked to them and known by all? Aren’t we safer as a society, too, when video surveillance is complete, and people know they are being observed at all times? Aren’t our children safer when they are chipped and we know where they are at all times? Aren’t we better as a democracy if everyone is forced to have a Circle account, and not voting is considered a crime? After all, what do you have to hide? What do you need to hide?
These are all very apropos questions, given the current ubiquity of the surveillance state, and the recently exposed ability of the NSA and other government agencies to retrieve and link metadata to users. Video cameras are everywhere, and facial recognition software is being used to track movements, as well as the GPS software on most people’s smartphones. The movements of our online personae are increasingly being tracked and linked back to us in the real world. We now have little or no control over what is done with our personal data, which corporations and government agencies trade without our knowledge or consent.
Are we safer in this surveillance society, tracked by those video cameras located street corner to street corner? Perhaps. But those same cameras looking for criminal acts and violence can also note the formation of protestors to be headed off before they have time to rally. Are we safer if the NSA can track metadata and sift through all of our actions looking for terrorist behavior? That same software can be used to also flag for detention those considering legitimate protest. Knowing that your reading activity may be stored in a database accessible by the NSA, are you going to read Mein Kampf, The Communist Manifesto, or The Satanic Bible, even if just out of curiosity? What about The Origins of Totalitarianism? What about any book that can be considered seditious? Do you want to be detained at the airport because you found yourself on some secret list, for which you can never know how you were placed on it, nor ever be removed? Indeed, if we allow that some may become people of interest because of secret algorithms designed to flag them based on thousands of potentially unconnected pieces of data, then we are all potentially people of interest.
Yet, the brilliance of The Circle is not just in its warnings of the unintended consequences of the surveillance state, but also for the plausibility of the path that takes us there. This is how the horrors of 1984, and A Brave New World, and Fahrenheit 451, and We, and all the hundreds of other books warning us of the dangers of dystopian paradises and totalitarianism come about: not by revolution, nor even by the shadowy octopus of the bureaucratic state, but by ourselves, on ourselves, ever so slowly and insidiously. For the most unnerving quality of Mae, our heroine in The Circle, that simultaneously makes her so identifying and infuriating, is not that she is an impressionable young person acting without the wisdom to know better, but how so perfectly her innocence mirrors our innocence. Every time we click a like, update our Facebook page, make a tweet, upload an Instagram, comment on a blog, and all the other information we willingly and thoughtlessly provide about ourselves, linked to us by metadata, we are providing personally identifying data that can never to be removed or deleted. Mae may not know any better, but we should.
The technology behind the Circle is still hopefully a few years off, but the warning applies today: every piece of information we wittingly and unwittingly leave behind on the Internet is a permanent dot, waiting for some enterprising soul to link them all together, to someday encircle and, thus, enslave us all.