I’ve been a Dave Eggers’ fan ever since reading two of his earlier works, which are also two of the best books that I have ever read: What Is The What and Zeitoun. What Is The What is a novel based on the life of Sudan’s Lost Boy Valentino Achak Deng. Zeitoun is based on the story of Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a successful Syrian-born contractor in post Hurricane Katrina’s New Orleans, who is wrongly accused of being a member of Al Qaeda and imprisoned.
The Circle is not as well written as these two other books. It would have been a more powerful work, including a stronger ending, if the protagonist would have taken longer to “drink the Kool-Aid.” Yet I can’t get the book out of my mind ever since I finished reading it last week. It is the fictional story of Mae Holland, an educated, idealist, young woman who starts working at a tech company called The Circle. The Circle is a search, social media, e-commerce company located in a state-of-the-art, “super cool” campus offering a variety of comfort features and entertainment activities for its employees. I guess that the real world equivalent would be Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Apple all merged together into one. For the users, the pull is the attraction of having everything on one site.
The Circle raises many issues, amongst them questions about privacy, social interaction, and transparency (or our ever-growing need to know everything). Another question that the book raises is our willingness to share so much information about ourselves in the name of comfort. We upload personal information such as photos, documents, even financials to cloud systems so that we can have it available on different devices. But in doing so we are exposing ourselves to a great degree. Not only do these companies to which we give our personal information know too much about us (and use it), we also know that the government and hackers, can have easy access to our personal lives, many times in excruciatingly specific detail.
Without revealing too much about the book, in case you have not yet read it, I am now doubting that electronic voting should be implemented (even though it would be so convenient) and seriously questioning my belief in compulsory voting as a cure to the GOP’s voter suppression tactics. Furthermore, before reading the book, and in light of the Michael Brown shooting, I was a firm believer in the need for body cameras for the police. I no longer feel this way. While I realize that this sounds like a good-intentioned, logical step, I think that in the long term it will be more damaging than not. Police officers should not behave properly because someone can watch (and punish) their actions, but because they have enough sensitivity training and moral conviction to realize that they should not kick, choke or shoot someone who does not present an imminent threat to their lives.
The same holds true for the rest of us. If our main motivation to behave decently is that someone out there is watching, then what happens to the construction and reinforcement of our moral fabric, a process that requires so much retrospection and internal dialogue?
The scariest thing about The Circle is the realization that although we are not fully there yet, we are
slowly but quickly and surely reaching the state described in the book, and happily so. I love to be able to consult my kids’ school calendar on Dropbox and my emails on my iPhone, iPad and laptop. I like that Google Maps knows where I am and finds the fastest way to my destination. I love that technology allows me to reach thousands of readers monthly, a fact that is still a source of amazement for me.
However, I don’t like that someone who does not know me at all, either personally or through this blog, can know that my favorite colors are green and orange, or that I now strictly vote for Democrats because I refuse to reward the GOP, not only ever since Bush lied to us about WMD’s but even more so after the party’s behavior since President Obama first took office. I particularly don’t like that although this blog is anonymous, it is not so hard for anyone with the willingness, the time, and a little bit of knowledge to find out who I am.
How do we balance the comfort and convenience of the current technological revolution with our need for privacy? That’s a very hard question, considering that the same technology that allows us to save time in a myriad of ways in our daily life, robs us of the time we need to answer essential questions that greatly affect our lives and will greatly affect those of future generations.
The Circle should be read by all those who are on social media, by those who are interested in privacy issues, and by those who are affected by today’s rapidly changing technology. In other words, it should be read by everyone.