Thursday, March 20, 2014

Dave Eggers' The Circle

I will confess at the outset of this post that I step upon the virtual yellow brick road daily. I click “like” and comment. I follow famous and not-so-famous people. Like all social networkers and Internet fans, I hope to arrive one day in the Emerald City where glitter and glamour will dazzle and all my dreams will come true.
Album Cover: Music of Ross Davis
Yellow Brick Road

This is the trek that Dave Eggers’ characters in The Circle take. Annie and Mae travel to the Emerald City, but their ambition and quasi-sibling rivalry urge them on to the Wizard hidden behind the curtain. When they see him clearly, he’s a monster. Annie turns away; Mae follows him like men without wax in their ears followed the Sirens. Mae even becomes a siren herself, luring men and women to the deaths of personal privacy.

Eggers’ Emerald City is The Circle, a thinly disguised Google-like California campus where gourmet foods are part of the benefit package. On campus, Circlers never want for anything--not health care, not comfortable beds in insulated, climate-controlled dorms, and certainly not a full, rich, convicted social life. They can click their approval of products, sign an infinite number of petitions and resolutions in favor of an endless array of causes, and select “smile” or “frown” to voice an opinion.

Within The Circle, Mark Zuckerberg's cure for loneliness has blossomed; no one wants for smiles, the fictional version of likes, and management counsels rogue employees who fail to respond to others’ messages or attend events to which they’re invited. Circlers are required to glean participation points in the community. They have one computer screen for the work they do, another screen for zings about social events, and a set of headphones to respond to survey questions about products and services. Circlers must also earn scores for the number of products they review and recommend; they strive to be among the top influencers to define the bottom line of businesses world-wide. Such a workload keeps Circlers tethered on campus, less and less attached to family, more and more tied to electronic pals with the most superficial acquaintance, but sufficient for them to think of these pals as friends upon whom they can rely.

The Circle has also developed cameras, drones, and sophisticated audio hardware that allow it to show the world what is going on in city squares as well as shadowy alleys. It even tracks down in under twenty minutes a convicted felon on the run for decades because of the huge number of people linked worldwide. The Circle can post the face of a criminal and initiate a search, transforming it from an IT power-house into a police force with the longest of long reaches.

These cameras have also shaped the political realm. Elected officials become favorites with voters when they agree to transparency, a term applied to the habit of wearing a camera with audio at all times, day and night, except when visiting the bathroom or sleeping. All negotiations with donors, all meetings with colleagues, and all debates about policy are live on the web for viewers’ critiques and judgment. Soon, no politician can run for office without being transparent; it becomes a criterion for success much like being endorsed once had the power to change outcomes. Thus, The Circle begins to shape government to its will.

The Circle even contemplates administering voter registration and voting. It considers coding law-breakers in easily recognized colors during a 24/7 world-wide video feed so that neighbors can recognize who belongs and who does not; more important, law enforcers will not waste time profiling black and brown people when they could be stopping and frisking people who’ve already been arrested and convicted for some crime in their pasts.

With The Circle, Eggers’ weaves a dystopian tale, one without chaos or anarchy and only mild violence. It is the NSA-Google-Facebook-satellite-drone future we all seem to be marching toward without any hesitation whatsoever. Eggers proves that the need to belong and feel validated are addictive. We want more followers, more zings, more short bursts of information. We want our opinions heard and instantly, too. We want, we want, we want, and The Circle will provide.

Reading Challenge:

Read Dave Eggers’ The Circle.

Writing Challenge:

Write a position paper declaring what privacy you are willing to exchange for the virtual drug that the Internet, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Google+ provide.