The breathtaking pace at which technology is advancing in our times competes only with the rapid rate at which social media is transforming our culture and, with it, ourselves. Our tools are rewiring our brains, our habits, our values, our views on privacy and self-disclosure, and, essentially, the very nature of social existence itself. With camera technology bringing 1984-style total surveillance increasingly within the realm of technical possibility and social media simultaneously enculturating so many of us to document ever more of our experiences and our inner lives it is possible to project a future in which social interactions will be unrecognizable from what they were when those of us born before widespread internet access grew up. And these drastic changes could be as much for the worse as for the better.
So, we are ripe for a new 1984 or Brave New World that speaks to the nuances of the 21st Century’s distinctive threat of authoritarianism with a sense for the particular mechanisms by which we can see it working out from our contemporary vantage point. Dave Eggars’s new novel The Circle is not quite that book, but rather something more like a prequel to it. Eggars limits his ambitions, not going far enough down the road that we can actually tour the 21st Century’s dystopia, experiencing it first hand in all its terrifying details. More modestly, Eggars takes us just an unspecified short distance into the future and examines a monopolizing tech corporation called The Circle (which in just four years has subsumed Facebook, Google, and every other behemoth in the worlds of social media and technology).
At The Circle a corrosive anti-privacy social order is ruthlessly being implemented while a supporting ethical ideology is passive aggressively brainwashed into its employees. The Circle’s corporate culture serves effectively as a test run for an eventual mass rollout of a new world order of complete transparency, while the high tech tools needed to demolish privacy worldwide are being rapidly developed and deployed with the prospect of imminently creating that world.
Eggars does an effective job of relentlessly depicting personalities warped by the constant performance involved in a life lived nearly completely through social media with both its demands of geniality for a wide audience and its addicting social rewards. The Circle is a company that “cares” about its employees as whole people—in the sense that it wants to know everything about them and thereby own them completely. The general trend for employees at The Circle is to become needier and needier, in need of ever more validation and being wounded ever more easily at ever slighter slights.
Philosophically, Eggars is fairly ingenious in developing a convincingly coherent (if also troublingly corrupt) set of beliefs and values for Bailey that complements and aims to morally inspire, shape, and justify the world without privacy that The Circle is creating. Eggars systematically explicates the ideological logic that would reinforce this dystopian social order within the minds of its willing participants. He connects a number of dots to present a view of the world that is on the surface seductive and provocative in a number of ways, despite being clearly diabolical in others.
In the most blatant homage to 1984 and A Brave New World, Eggars’s social engineers device three dubious, brainwashing mantras, presented in all caps:
SHARING IS CARING
SECRETS ARE LIES
PRIVACY IS THEFT
In Republic, Plato presented the myth of the Ring of Gyges, in which a shepherd comes into possession of a ring granting him the power of invisibility. With this weapon he uses subterfuge to seize control of the kingdom. The story is introduced in order to challenge Socrates to defend the notion that justice is an intrinsic good, worth pursuing even when injustice could lead to all manner of goods in life and when justice might lead only to sufferings. Plato provocatively chose the metaphor of a man capable of invisibility to illustrate the possibility of the person supremely successful through total injustice. This is wise and thought provoking because the greatest constraint most people experience, which keeps them in check morally, is their visibility. When others see us being unjust, they turn against us out of resentment and self-protection. So the logic goes that to get away with widescale injustice on the way to dominance, one must be able to absolutely escape being seen. So in the logic of the Ring of Gyges, maximum invisibility leads to maximum injustice with minimal accountability and this leads to absolute power (which, Lord Acton would later observe, corrupts absolutely anyway). Along these same lines, religious people for many centuries have hoped that the belief that we are always watched by the gods (or a single God), and punished in the afterlife for misdeeds unpunished by human society, might keep people morally cooperative even when they are unseen by other humans.
The Circle is aiming for total worldwide transparency that Bailey thinks will be an overwhelmingly moralizing influence. The Circle, empowered both by increasing saturation of the world with cameras and compulsive voluntary self-disclosure by its billions of users, is attaining to the power to watch all, know all, and morally reform all. And since knowledge is power, this omniscience translates easily into omnipotence. Since the complete circle involves everyone both being watchers and watched, The Circle, as the sum of everyone watching each other functions as the ultimate moralizing force, the real world God that can make everyone behave. When no one can get away with doing anything immoral, everyone will simply have to conform to morality or face the inescapable consequences right here in this world.
This thought experiment raises stimulating philosophical questions. Can you be moral at all if the moral option is your only prudent one? Or does genuine morality require the ability to get away with deviating from the moral and yet doing the right thing anyway? Or might we say that even though at the start we are being coerced by the inability to do otherwise, the habituation into virtue from being watched can nonetheless be an objectively real thing that conforms our thoughts so that the objectively good thing is what we start to subjectively identify with authentically.
Of course there are other psychological damages that can be caused by the erosion of privacy to go with (and maybe undermine the value of) whatever moral improvements might come with it. And The Circle explores those unseemly psychological deteriorations from a number of interesting angles. Most relentlessly, and also amusingly, Eggars conveys the nightmarish amount of passive aggressiveness and empty social busyness that emerge from having to please everyone at all times. He satirizes our culture’s standards by which everyone needs a perfect score on everything, as being docked even a few points out of 100 is cause for passive aggressive investigation as to what one can do to improve, which is usually followed by the score giver just changing the score to a 100. The funniest absurdity of this trend involves a particular character’s insistence on getting scored for his sexual performance—a performance that unfailingly involves premature ejaculation, which his partner feels compelled to give him 100s for lest she wreck him.
The book is a brisk, easy, and engaging read. The story is told through the eyes of Mae, an earnest, cocky woman in her mid-twenties who has landed her dream job at The Circle thanks to her connection with a college friend named Annie who is part of an elite group of company leaders called the Gang of 40. Narratively, there is an ominous sense that something terrible will be revealed about what this creepy company is secretly up to or what it is about to inflict on the characters we are made to invest in. Ultimately, their fates are underwhelming because they are not much beyond what is predictable. Though the ending is philosophically adequate and honest to the themes of the book, there is little by way of a surprising or especially insightful payoff.
It is clear in the end that The Circle will be an evil god, rather than a good one. But how exactly that will work when The Circle has made it so that no one, not even its own leaders will plausibly be able to do anything in secret in the near future, is very unclear. The letdown of the book is that all the terrors of the fully transparent dystopic world to come are talked about but not in any ways that take much imagination to predict and since the story essentially ends before they go fully into effect the full impact coming is never really explored. What we get are glimpses of representative “first casualties” whose fates are unconvincing narrative contrivances. The book’s “twist” at the end is a predictable yawner. And the two characters who make impassioned pleas about the dangers of The Circle are stale writers and orators. As though this were a horror story, all the fun is in the monstrous. The villains and their ideas and the people they corrupt and the inexorable digital Leviathan they create way outmatch, in both narrative appeal and rhetorical panache, the blandly noble-minded pedantic Luddites spouting vague platitudes and warnings.
Grade: 84 (B)*
*Grade subject to revision if Dave Eggars writes me for advice about how he might have improved.