After languishing for more than a year in my “to read” pile, I finally got around to reading The Circle by David Eggers. This is an important, yet flawed book, and while I loved many of the concepts and loathed the dystopian present that it describes, I believe that many of the warnings sound hollow in the post-truth era.
For those who have not read it, the novel follows Mae Holland as she joins giant tech company The Circle. Think of it as Google meets Twitter meets Facebook meets Apple, and you’ll get an idea of the type of quasi-monopolistic reach of a company that does advertising, search, gadgets and social media. The Circle came into existence on the back of an invention called TrueYou, which brings together all of your online identities and provides the user with a verified, true name account that can be used to log into everything. This is obviously a nod to Facebook’s own desire to become an ID provider for the Web, and is in my opinion one of the most interesting and viable technical concepts in the book. The result of the wide implementation of TrueYou is that it eliminates anonymity from the Web, and overnight the Internet becomes more civil and less antagonistic as users cannot hide behind assumed identities.
While I found TrueYou technically feasible, the described result of its widespread implementation does not meet my experiences. While it is true that some of the nastiest parts of the Internet are encouraged by anonymity, one only needs to read the comments in Facebook threads to realise that in this day and age it is perfectly acceptable in some circles to be uncivil and use your real name. Heck, the president of the United States is arguably nothing other than an Internet troll.
As a result of the success of TrueYou, The Circle becomes a monopoly and starts to expand to many other areas. The description of all the interests of the Circle is the other part of the novel that rings quite true, as many of the Circle’s projects can be seen both at Facebook and Google nowadays, where companies are data mining their users to the largest possible extent. The Circle starts to participate in all sorts of activities, it provides cheap health insurance in exchange of employees using body monitors at all times; it gives employees access to cheap and free housing, but all appliances are smart, and every consumption is measured. The data-mined reality is perhaps the most salient and accurate description of the book.
I also found the description of social media interactions extremely accurate. The Circle’s social media is a mix of Twitter and Facebook, people “zing” their current activities, and other users can either “smile” or “frown” these zings. At various times, Mae is encouraged to sign online petitions and to smile social causes, and a great detail is that these interactions have no effect in real life whatsoever. This is one of the most nefarious results of clicktivism, where people confuse online participation with real action, and the novel criticises this in a very clever way. I also found that the book describes accurately a future where everything is quantified, online rating systems become the norm for everything, and the falseness of these is emphasised by the fact that everything gets near to 100 marks (see the 5 star rating problem). When Mae has sex with an unsatisfying character, he asks for a rating of his performance, and she still gives him a 100 mark, even though the experience was thoroughly underwhelming. Furthermore, The Circle requires its employees to participate in social media, and employees are castigated if they do not share everything they do. We may not be too far from that. Oh, and the needy and entitled consumers were delightfully portrayed.
But the book has quite a lot of flaws. Some of the characters felt very badly developed, and Mae’s character in particular has an unrealistic arc. I know that this is probably on purpose, early-book Mae is supposed to be a normal person (and therefore we can relate to her), then she becomes a social media drone who fantasises about being able to read people’s minds, but this transformation was not believable. An important plot element in the book is that The Circle has managed to deploy perfect surveillance devices, small cameras that have a 2 year battery and can be deployed anywhere, streaming constantly live all the time. This perfect surveillance is sold as a way to end crime and end corruption, and politicians start going “transparent”, that is, they wear cameras all the time and this allows every action to be known. Mae eventually goes transparent and becomes a social media celebrity.
Circle transparency is fuelled by the anti-privacy mantra: “Secrets are Lies”, “sharing is caring,” and “privacy is theft.” So everything must be known. Everything must be open. Information must be free. This is the other part of the book that I did not buy, politicians are forced by their voters to go transparent, but in an era in which Donald Trump is elected president without having to disclose his tax returns, Eggers completely seems to have overestimated the allure of transparency.
Having said that, while I think that The Circle overestimates transparency, I do think that it gets the data mining aspect of modern tech companies completely right, and the fact that we are willing to compromise privacy in exchange for shiny gadgets. Just look at the Internet of Things. We won’t ask politicians to wear cameras 24/7, but we will gladly give away our data on our phones 24/7.
The Circle will be made into a film later in the year, and it will be interesting if some of the concepts are updated.