I read The Circle by Dave Eggers last year and I often find myself reflecting on some its key messages. In fact, I think that the statements it makes about technology, social media, and privacy are what makes the book worth reading.
The basic plot is generally uninteresting in my view and was a bit surprised to learn that it is being made into a movie with Emma Watson and Tom Hanks taking the headline roles; I’ll be interested to see how they adapt it.
The Circle is a massive technology company that is a combination of Facebook and Google. The founder of The Circle, Ty Gospodinov, invents a technology called TruYou that eliminates anonymity online. It instantly prevents trolling, cyberbullying, identity theft and fraud. The Circle very quickly becomes the largest company on the planet and this lack of anonymity is the foundation on which The Circle develops its other products.
The protagonist of the story is Mae Holland. Mae gets the job at The Circle through her college roommate, Annie, who had become one of the most influential people in the company. Mae starts in the customer service department answering questions about the The Circle’s products.
No robots work here
Her time in the customer experience team (CE) is also a fascinating study of social media and work generally in today’s society too. Everything she does is recorded and the number of questions that she answers per hour becomes a benchmark KPI. Customers also rated her responses on a scale from 1 to 100. She needed to keep her average score above 95.
As the book progresses, Mae is given new screens to monitor. Each one with a different data stream – customer questions, “intra office messaging” (i.e. Yammer), “social participation” (InnerCircle), messages from her “pod”, video feeds, etc.
This underlying theme here is a satirical exploration of taking today’s corporate culture to it’s extreme. Mae is required to answer customer questions from boiler plates but to not make them appear like boiler plates (“no robots work here”) and is also required to get involved with the company through intra office chats and active involvement in different social groups. She is scored by her customers but also scored by her colleagues via her “ParticipationRank”. The work of being or appearing to be “social” is as time-consuming as the work itself.
Sharing is caring
One of The Circle’s slogans is “Sharing is caring” and it has some bizarre logic to it. The basic principle is that if you are currently watching the most amazing sunset the world has ever seen – then it is selfish to keep that to yourself. * Don’t you believe that your fellow man has the right to also see that sunset? *
This, of course, is the same sort of belief that fuels Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and other social media networks. But I think that Dave Eggers captures this desire to share and turns it into a “cause” for humanity brilliantly. It is now you obligation to share and that keeping anything you see or hear to yourself is just plain selfish.
Privacy is theft
Another tenet of The Circle’s doctrine (and this is the right word considering how the company starts to resemble a cult more than a company as the book progresses) is that “privacy is theft”. This is the belief that you have the right to know everything that anyone knows. To keep information from someone else (privacy) is actually stealing from your fellow man.
To support these principles, The Circle develops a new type of camera called SeeChange. It is small (the size of a lollipop), battery powered and satellite enabled. They can be placed anywhere in the world and stream HD video images that can be accessed by anyone. Again, there is logic to Egger’s reasoning here – that people who know that they are being watched behave differently. Someone who normally might shoplift, may not if they know that others are watching (possibly their own friends) and if any government around the world knows that their actions are being seen by millions around the world, that they may behave differently too.
The Circle goes on to create billions of these devices and they become ubiquitous. Anyone, anywhere can watch anyone anywhere. It is mass surveillance in an open society and it has its benefits and its drawbacks. Both of which are explored in the book.
All of these concepts culminate with transparency. If you believe that we are the best version of ourselves when others might be watching. And that keeping information and experiences to ourselves is a form of theft of humanity. Then the ultimate end point for this argument is to “go transparent”. Where a SeeChange camera around your neck all day knowing that anyone can see what you see, hear what you say, and experience all that you experience.
The main focus in The Circle for going “transparent” was on politicians – if they had private meetings then they must have something to hide. Any and all politicians were shamed into where the SeeChange cameras so that every aspect of their life could be watched and scrutinised to keep them honest (a tempting idea indeed). Mae is also cajoled into wearing the camera and becoming transparent too as part of the main story.
Worth a read
There’s a story in this book too of course, but its more of a parable. We follow Mae from naive new recruit, her rapid rise in power and influence, her switch from believer to cynic, and her transition to both victim and heroine.
There’s also a lot of the technology created in the book – much of it nonexistent, but all of it plausible. Equally, the main themes and warnings are very powerful but fully believable (you’ll find yourself nodding you head in agreement to many of them at first which is scary).
I would recommend this book to anyone in the technology, digital and media industries because I think we can all relate to its core messages. I read this book more than a year ago but can still recall most of it – probably because I see little pieces of The Circle forming emerging every day. Scary.