“We all have a right to know everything we can, we all collectively own the accumulated knowledge of the world.”
“Right” Mae said, “so what happens if I deprive anyone or everyone of something I know? Aren’t I stealing from my fellow humans?”
“Indeed” Bailey said, nodding earnestly.
Mae looked at the audience, at the entire first row, the only faces visible nodding too.
“And given your way with words Mae, I wonder if you can tell us this last revelation you made? What did you say?”
“Well, I said privacy is theft”…the words now appeared on the screen behind in great white letters
Secrets are lies
Caring is sharing
Privacy is theft.
War is peace
Freedom is slavery
Ignorance is strength
In The Novel, 1984, the world is ruled by a group of people who through intimidation or persuasion have brainwashed the entire population into believing their slogans which have one meaning for the Party and one meaning for the people, putting into words the idea of doublethink, which in its essence is a parody, breaking down what can be obtained by controlling the people through a total, ruthless and cynical monopoly of information.
Clearly, as illustrated from the opening quote, Dave Eggers is revisiting the idea of a totalitarian threat in a future world where all information could be controlled by one malevolent source, with the Circle modelling itself on a malevolent Facebook/Google type company. The book begins with a believable situation of a modern digital company, the Circle, as the main protagonist, May, leaves her job at a utilities company to join the almost cult like company, the Circle, thanks to her friend Annie. The Circle links users’ personal emails, social media, banking, and purchasing information, all of which is already available today to a certain extent on the net. But to what aim?
It comes As no surprise that this book came out the same year as the Edward Snowden revelations and seems to address two of the main points argued by Snowden, in creating a world that Snowden so clearly rejects:
I don’t want to live in a world where everything that I say, everything I do, everyone I talk to, every expression of creativity or love or friendship is recorded.
He also presents a world where everyone is happy to give up their privacy for the common good because they have nothing to hide:
Arguing that you don’t care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say.
So briefly onto the story, Mae discovers and embraces in full each of the particularities of The Circle, from the scoring of each employee by their social media scores and the constant need to recontact customers to persuade them to increase the customer satisfaction scores (who isn’t contacted these days by incessant customer satisfaction questionnaires? If I’ve a complaint I’ll tell them!), to the dorms on campus, not obligatory of course but why would you not want to use them, I asked why would you not want to use them!
Of course, someone who has access to all information could be tempted to use it to reinforce their position, Politicians who take a stand against The Circle find themselves shamed on social media, but how far will the Circle go and who controls the seemingly poorly thought through incremental changes, from voting on social media for lunch at the Circle to voting for Elections using the same media:
She walked up to the screen and pushed yes, the engineers cheered, the developers cheered, on the screen a happy face appeared with the words “you are heard” arcing above. The question disappeared replaced by the words Demoxy result, 75 per cent of respondents want more veggie options, more veggie options will be provided. Sharma was beaming, “see that’s a simulated result of course, we don’t have everyone on Demoxy yet but you get the jest, the question appears, everyone stops briefly what they are doing, responds and instantly The Circle can take appropriate action knowing the full and complete will of the people, incredible right?”
“It is”, Mae said
“Imagine this rolled out nationwide, worldwide….”
Mae left the Renaissance and was greeted just outside the door by a group of young Circlers, all of whom wanted to tell her, all of them on their tiptoes bursting that they had never voted before that they had been utterly uninterested in politics and felt disconnected entirely from their government, feeling that they had no real voice. They told her that by the time their vote or their name on some petition was filtered through their local government and then their state officials and finally their representatives in Washington it felt like sending a messages in a bottle across a vast and troubled sea. But now, the young Circlers said, they felt involved, if Demoxy worked they said, then laughed, when Demoxy is implemented, of course it will work, they said and when it does you will finally have a fully engaged populace and when you do, the country and the world will hear from the youth and their inherent idealism and progressivism will upend the planet.
All of the technology is leading towards the laudable wish for transparency, firstly in the political domain but applied so as Tom control the politicians, Initially some politicians, after seeing the power of The Circle on the previously shamed representatives of the people, agree to go “transparent” that is to say to wear a portable camera so that all of their actions and all of their tractations are visible in real time, then Mae herself agrees to go “transparent”, after all she has nothing to hide.
For me, a particularly heavy addition to the story was the Circle leader interested in exotic aquarium life but who had the rare species eaten by a shark, this could have been more subtle.
And finally, to tie in the opening picture, The Circle of course wanted to share and control all medical data.
First published in English as ‘The Circle’ by Knopf in 2013