As a mostly stay-at-home-Mom (MSAHM?), I have to admit that I spend more than my fair share of time online. It was with great hesitancy that I picked up The Circle by Dave Eggers. I knew it was about our obsession with ‘connecting’ on the Internet and I was prepared to disagree. Some days my Internet or phone friends are the only adult contact I have! Despite my reservations, I was quickly sucked into this book. It’s like reading a book narrated by a Stepford Wife.
In The Circle much of our business online has been consolidated into TruYou: “…he put all of it, all of every user’s needs and tools, into one pot and invented TruYou–one account, one identity, one password, one payment system, per person.” The main character, Mae, is hired by the company that designed TruYou–the Circle. She is ecstatic! This is everyone’s dream job. The Circle is involved in every industry–they are researching how to reduce child abduction, domestic violence, genealogy, ranking students nationwide, digitally streaming from every location on the globe, politics,–on and on. The reasoning behind every application of technology is truly noble and altruistic.
Working at the Circle is much more than office work, it also involves being part of a ‘community’. The Circle has a gargantuan campus with stores, apartments, restaurants, gyms, and a full complement of extracurricular activities–after work and all weekend long. Mae is expected to participate. She’s chastised time and again for not posting, documenting, and discussing every moment of her life online. Every message, comment, and photograph by co-workers and clients must be acknowledged online to encourage ‘community’. Mae’s online activity is ranked against that of her co-workers. Her every opinion and preference is cataloged and used for marketing. Throughout the story, members of the Circle are praised for giving ‘frowns‘ to this war or that atrocity, as if the Egyptian government gives a damn how many virtual frowny faces they’ve accumulated. Further, it is a major affront if you don’t participate online. Mae’s co-workers are quick to condemn those who keep any activity private–isn’t it selfish to keep your experiences and hobbies to yourself? Shouldn’t we all share in your joy?
At the beginning of this story, the online social landscape looks very similar to what it is today. For that reason, I found many of the Circle’s ideas and actions understandable and innocuous. But little by little, Eggers shows how quickly our connectivity and transparency can strip us of our humanity. Mae quickly learns how to become a constant online persona, so much so that she is incapable of understanding someone who is not online. When she has trouble finding someone it looks like this: “He had no right to disappear like this. She checked CircleSearch again; she’d looked for him a hundred times this way, with no success. But she had a right to know where he was. To at least know where he was, who he was. This was the unnecessary, and antiquated, burden of uncertainty. She could know, instantly, the temperature in Jakarta, but she couldn’t find one man on a campus like this?”
Suddenly privacy isn’t a right. Further, who wants privacy but those who are ashamed of what they’re doing in private?! Therefore, nothing should be private. At the end of the book this is the motto: “SECRETS ARE LIES; SHARING IS CARING; PRIVACY IS THEFT.” What is so intriguing is how complicit the public is in getting to this point.
Eggers has written us a thought-provoking cautionary tale. As parents of little ones in this digital age, I am concerned. I know that kids are getting tablets and phones in elementary school. They’re texting, they’re online, and they’re connected. The Circle is relevant for us all and has definitely given me lots to think about.
*Let us overlook the hypocrisy in reviewing a book online that so clearly emphasizes the value of being in person. Tell your flesh and blood friends about this book to balance things out! Interestingly enough, I can’t seem to find a web site for Dave Eggers…