Review taken from Post Magazine Issue 2
The Circle, the latest novel from the acclaimed American author Dave Eggers, is a thoughtful and engaging treatment of the implications new technologies have for privacy in the digital age.
Set in the not too distant future, the story follows recent graduate Mae Holland as she begins her new job at The Circle, the world’s most influential and powerful technology company (read Facebook or Google). The Circle, led by its enigmatic ‘three wise men’, have come to dominate technology, and society, through its development of TruYou, a system that combines every aspect of a users life into one account, including social media profiles, passwords, emails and payment details. The success of this system provided the basis from which the company continues to expand into all aspects of public and personal life as The Circle seeks to dominate not just the commercial world but the political world as well. The world of The Circle then is Facebook and Google taken to the next logical step.
In many ways The Circle can seen as an updated of George Orwell’s 1984.The references are plentiful, for instance in its plentiful use of slogans (‘ALL THAT HAPPENS MUST BE KNOWN’, ‘SECRETS ARE LIES’, ‘PRIVACY IS THEFT’) and the company’s ‘SeeChange’ program that aims to fill the populate the world with publicly accessible cameras. Like 1984 the book is rich in ideas, including how the ‘four horsemen of the infocalypse’ (namely paedophiles, drugs, terrorists and organised crime) are persistently used to justify greater surveillance, the relationship between anonymity, trolling and the role technology might play in democracy and the extent to which our online lives are suffocating our ‘real’ ones. Even Julian Assange and Wikileaks get a mention.
But beyond the Orwellian pretensions the book I think makes two particularly important contributions to contemporary debates around privacy. Firstly, the novel helps us appreciate why these issues of piracy matter on an emotional level. It isn’t that analytical argument isn’t present. It is, notably from the mouth of Mae’s sceptic ex-boyfriend Mercer. Eggers is a talented writer, and he uses this talent to impress on the reader what living in the world of The Circle actually feels like. It’s exhausting, as the constant surveillance forces citizens to permanently modify their behaviour, hold shallow conversations and generally suppress their natural inclinations. But surveillance makes us behave better we are told, so what is the problem? The problem is that privacy is an important part of what it means to be a human. It plays an important role in our general well-being.
Secondly The Circle is important in helping us refocus our attention. Much has happened since the publication of 1984. The cold war is over, to be replaced by the age of neoliberalism. In this age, characterised by the large scale privatisation of power, it is often not the state but corporations that need reining in, a fact that is frequently misunderstood. Consider the coverage of the recent PRISM revelations. Much was made of the fact that America’s National Security Agency was able to access the data of users of a number of the internet’s most powerful companies (Facebook, Google, Apple, Microsoft etc.), but little concern was expressed that these companies held this data in the first place. In recent years it has often been corporations, not governments, who have been implicated in the most disturbing cases of censorship and violations of privacy. To pick just two examples, Google is known to (over-zealously) censor search results related to file sharing, while Facebook has been guilty of removing political satire from its pages after complaints from a government employee.
Even activist groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Open Rights Group and Open Knowledge Foundation frequently struggle to focus their attention away from states, with the general public tending to follow their lead. The Circle might just help us reassess.
This article was first published in Post Magazine Issue 2. You can buy or download the magazine here.