The Circle appears to be the perfect corporation. Its aim is laudable. It seeks to use advanced technologies to put an end to crime, corruption, violence, misinformation, and other forms of human and natural calamities. If you work at The Circle, you are a valued employee. They provide you with an array of social events - parties, performances, concerts, and games with top-of-the-line health care, nutrition, housing, and they let you test products that are not yet released to the market. The Circle cares about you, your ideas, and your participation in the community. What will you give to work at such a place?
The story is told through Mae, a newly-hired employee to the Customer Experience department. As she begins, she is in awe at the scope of the company, how much they care about employees and customers, and how different it was from her former, dead-end job. As she advances in her career, more is expected of her. She should have more fun, join more social events, share more photos, make more comments, do more surveys. The company’s motto - “All That Happens Must Be Known” - means that every information, no matter how mundane, is precious and needs to be recorded and stored, forever. After all, if you are good, you have nothing to hide. You have no need for secrets. You have no need for privacy.
Mae is depicted as a naive character who accepts everything that happens at The Circle with wide-eyed wonder. While Mae might not be the most realistic character, it is through her that we slowly realize how easy it is that we can become her. Through her, we are asked to question our own positions on openness vs. privacy. We all have some general opinion about openness. We believe that some information should be open, but that our private lives should stay private. But where do we draw the line? When do our private lives become public information?
“You and your ilk will live, willingly, joyfully, under constant surveillance, watching each other always, commenting on each other, voting and liking and disliking each other, smiling and frowning, and otherwise doing nothing else." - Dave Eggers, The Circle
While the Circle is a composite of many high tech companies, it’s clear that Eggers had Google in mind. No other company has such seemingly altruistic goals as Google, with its wide range of projects, ranging from self-driven cars, to balloons that would provide internet access to third-world nations, to any number of other projects that they have yet to unveil. They provide free search, free email, free maps, free web space, even free operating systems. They hire highly qualified people to run amazing projects that have any number of humanitarian benefits. Yet, its “Do no evil” motto has taken a darker turn in, and, with recent statements by former CEO Eric Schmidt’s creepy remarks ("If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place”), some have questioned whether its wise to let a corporation - no matter how smart or genuine they seem - dictate the terms of moral and ethical behavior for everyone else. After all, they were not elected to save us.
The arguments Eggers put forth - through various exchanges between characters - is not particularly new. In fact, most of the concerns he raises - about privacy, security, surveillance, consumerism, gamification, and our culture of over-sharing and over-reliance on technology - are topics covered extensively in the past few years. Movies like The Truman Show already opened up the idea of “reality TV” and what it means for us to have our lives, knowingly or unknowingly, broadcast to the world. Eggers does makes the topic more approachable, especially for people who are immersed in social media but who might not necessarily reflect on how much it affects their social interaction and well-being. The world Eggers creates is both incredible and eerily believable. In the “real” world, people do resist new technologies, particularly if they are invasive. Unlike Mae and the employees at The Circle, people today are more likely to question how much privacy is truly protected. At the same time, there are already a growing handful of people who willingly want to have their lives on display, 24/7.
There are already people who advocate for a world not unlike what Eggers had depicted, through gamification and other means of tracking of daily behavior. There are already companies who take liberties (no pun intended) with our rights to privacy, who condescendingly tell us that their approach to social control is more efficient and for the greater good. We already live in the world of self-driving cars, of Google Glass, drones, CCTVs, and NSA surveillance. We are already, sometimes unknowingly, share too much; whenever we listen to a song on Spotify or do something on a game console or play something on Netflix or even order something from an online merchant, we have to think about whether we are sharing our actions to our social networks. At the rate things are going, we can only assume that our future involves more, not less, sharing.