The Open Spies

In False Positives and False Negatives (8), 2012, artists Jane and Louise Wilson show one way to maintain anonymity in a surveillance state: by using face paint.

By now, chances are good you’ve read a thing or two about Dave Eggers’s The Circle. There’s been some controversy about plagiarism (as if there’s no way two writers could happen on the idea that social media is bad); there’s been Eggers’s admission that he did no research for the novel; there have been some tech-savvy people who think that’s obvious.

The novel follows Mae Holland as she begins work at a tech company called the Circle. Throw Facebook, Google, and Apple together, garnish with a colonizing evil mantled in good intentions, and you’d have the Circle minus the advanced technology and “algorithms” that allow the company to, for instance, tabulate the grains of sand in the Sahara. The Circle has monopolized the Internet and e-commerce; it has aggregated data on everyone and made this data available to anyone. Its mantras stump for transparency in all our doings—secrets are lies; privacy is theft; all that happens must be known—and are borne out in the company’s projects, among them a lightweight camera called SeeChange. As one of its founders says at a TED talk–type event, “There needs to be, and will be, documentation and accountability, and we need to bear witness.” Ergo, these cameras will be set up worldwide and what they capture will be fed into a central hub anyone can access 24-7.

Mae is twenty-four and living in her crappy hometown in California working for the gas and electricity company. Nine-to-five in a burlap cubicle. Her college friend Annie works at the Circle, is a bigwig at the Circle, and is able to hire Mae to work there in Customer Experience. Her job? Respond to customer queries and ensure customer satisfaction. Also: Participate in the Circle’s online community. And its real-time community. Post, zing (a more evolved version of the tweet), upload, e-mail, insert frowny face, insert smiley face, and watch your Participation Rank grow. The higher you rank, the better the job you’re doing. And so Mae begins her new life, scrambling to accommodate its demands. After all, she has a father who’s sick with MS and who bears visiting once in a while, which means time away from the Circle and its campus. She likes to kayak, which is a solitary activity and therefore anathema to the Circle’s insistence on social engagement. So it’s no surprise Mae struggles in the early going.

Her superiors are nonplussed. She doesn’t post videos of her kayaking trips! She failed to show up at a brunch for Circlers interested in Portugal, and deeply offended its host! She posted nothing about the visiting circus on campus. She went to see her sick father but never reached out to the Circle’s MS support group. Is Mae misanthropic? Selfish? Unilateral? She is none of these things, though the Circle suggests otherwise.

Material like this provides the novel with chances to exploit the stupidity and comedy of social media. Unfortunately, social media is easily lampooned, which makes this low-hanging fruit for a writer of Eggers’s talent (What Is the What still being one of the best novels I’ve read in ages). The satire here is often thin and fatiguing, or even unnecessary. After all, anyone taking the time to read this five-hundred-page novel probably already belongs to the choir that finds the compulsory participation in social media annoying if not pointless.

Eggers casts the Circle as a cult whose governing logic has gone viral (one of the company’s mantras is going clear, the title of Lawrence Wright’s recent study of Scientology), which is how the company differs from its analogues in the real world. After all, the problem with Facebook et al. is not that they are cults or even resemble cults. Does anyone really feel coerced to participate in social media? Do these organizations espouse principles that segregate whole chunks of society from one another? No, the peril of social media isn’t that it’s cultlike but that it encourages a brand of interaction and commentary that threatens to replace a more honest, private, and thoughtful discourse among people.

Still, the Circle is like a cult in that it has to make itself appealing so that people will be seduced by its offerings. Take crime prevention. Wouldn’t it be great if we could prevent child abductions and abuse? The Circle has an app for that. Just pop a tracking device in your kid’s femur and know where she is at all times. And not just you, but anyone—the police, the FBI. Wouldn’t any parent embrace this technology if it meant keeping little Agatha safe? As Mae puts it, “Who but a fringe character would try to impede the unimpeachable improvement of the world?” The Circle maintains that nothing should be classified and cites, in its defense, Julian Assange and Daniel Ellsberg, whose release of top-secret documents cost the government a good deal of embarrassment but no lives. On the contrary, the only thing that died thanks to the Pentagon Papers was whatever trust people had left in the Johnson administration.

The Circle becomes interesting when Eggers begins to invoke the quandary presented by Edward Snowden and his release of classified information regarding the government’s surveillance of our phone conversations and e-mails. Snowden has raised awareness of the extent to which our government values privacy less than security. Ironically, the Circle would agree. Part of its agenda is to encourage every politician—every citizen—to wear a camera that never shuts off except in the bathroom (the audio goes dead for three minutes) and at night. No more backroom deals. No more malfeasance. Which, again, sounds incredibly appealing and judicious. If Scooter Libby, George Tenet, and Donald Rumsfeld had been wearing SeeChange cameras alongside George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, we would not have gone to war in Iraq.

Transparency has the benefit of making everyone accountable to one another. As one of the company’s founders puts it, “In a world where bad choices are no longer an option, we have no choice but to be good.” Part of Eggers’s achievement is that he gets his readers to agree, at least in the short term. This is the Circle’s achievement as well, so it’s no surprise that in the novel’s universe, the idea catches on. Not long after one congresswoman goes clear, others follow suit. Soon, 90 percent of Washington is transparent. And so is Mae. She gets caught on film doing something mildly illegal and is humiliated into changing her ways entirely. She is the second Circler to go transparent, but, for being young and energetic, she eclipses her colleague’s fame. In fact, she becomes a celebrity. At any given moment, she might have twenty-eight million people watching her feed, which is mostly an extended infomercial about the Circle’s accomplishments. Sometimes, though, the feed catches her with her parents, which is where things begin to go wrong. Her parents don’t want to be seen by twenty-eight million people. And more important, we don’t want them to be seen, which is when the argument between security and privacy begins to favor a dad with MS who doesn’t want the exigencies of his illness broadcast worldwide. The family comes apart. Obsessive engagement with social media has consequences.

Mae has been completely seduced by what the Circle has to offer, but there are still naysayers in the novel, among them Mercer, her ex-boyfriend. He makes chandeliers out of antlers. He’s a normal guy who recognizes in the Circle first its absurdity and then its malice. He is our man on the inside—the guy who says what we’re all thinking. He’s pedantic and prolix about his objections to the Circle—reading them often felt like being lectured on the alphabet—but that doesn’t detract from the heft of his critique. The future he sees is bleak: “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 much else.” The problem is, Mercer’s depiction of the future in the Circle’s hands doesn’t sound all that different from how we are living now, in thrall to Facebook and Google and Apple.

Which is, of course, by design. The Circle is meant to hold up a mirror to a moment in our cultural history in which we spend more time online than we do with each other. If you’re a Chekhov fan, you’ve heard his reason for why anyone should write literature: “Man will only become better when you make him see what he is like.” This is why Eggers’s account of what happens to Mae feels so chilling. Are we really like this? Estranged from each other because we’ve lost our ability to talk about ourselves face-to-face? Unable to guard and nurture our inner lives without broadcasting them worldwide? Maybe not yet, but as this novel suggests, we seem to be moving in that direction. This is why, in some ways, Eggers’s not having done much research is immaterial. The novel is not so much about what the tech world is like—it’s about what we are like, what we do with technology, and where we very well might be headed: toward a dystopia whose seeds are germinating even as I write and tweet and blog away this perfectly beautiful Sunday afternoon.

Fiona Maazel is the author of the novels Last Last Chance (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008) and Woke Up Lonely (Graywolf Press, 2013).