Welcome to August in the Reader's Den! This month we will be discussing Dave Egger's novel The Circle, about an all too familiar social media mega-corporation (called The Circle) that is slowly but surely invading every single aspect of our daily lives. The central theme posits—do we even have a right to privacy anymore? What if we were forced to share the details of our private lives with everyone, and would it make for a more open and just society? Or just the opposite...
The book is told through the eyes and experiences of Mae Holland, a recent college graduate who lands a job at the prestigious Circle corp, "the only company that really mattered at all'. She acquires a job in Customer Experience (CE) much due in part to the efforts of her college friend Annie, who is now one of the Gang of 40 most influential employees on the staff. Mae is dazzled by the campus; its glass and brushed-steel facades, its dining halls stocked with organic meals, access to all the latest gadgets and technology. At the top of the Circle are the Three Wise Men; Eamon Bailey—the company's showman and familyman (think Barnum & Bailey Circus.) Eamon delights in staging new product promotional events that rise the spirits of the organization to a religious fervor. Then there is CEO Tom Stenton, the cut-throat business brains behind the operation, and the reclusive Ty Gospodinov, inventor of the Circle's seminal product TruYou—a system that purports to unify all your online passwords, personas, and identities.
Mae is initiated into the corporate culture by gushing acolytes who seem to innocuously make huge demands of her personal privacy right off the bat, such as handing over her private laptop to scan her personal history and interests (such as kayaking, and a passing interest in Portugal). She is motivated to perform by a powerful Pavlovian reward system—she earns ratings and points for each positive customer service transaction, the ratings of which are viewable to all Circle employees. She is outfitted by the company's doctor, Dr. Villalobos, with a Fitbit(tm)-type metabolism tracker, and we can see Mae's heart rate soar as her scores propel her to new heights within the status of the Circle.
"Secrets are lies. Sharing is Caring. Privacy is theft." are the mottos of the Circle. These mantras echo Orwell's 1984, but Mae Holland is no Winston Smith, as she buys the party line, hook, line, and sinker. In fact, attending parties and functions at the Circle are mandatory. At one of her first parties she meets Francis Garaventa, the inventor of software that can track missing children, and an on-again, off-again love interest, until he humiliates her by recording and sharing one of their romantic encounters with the Circle under the guise of 'total transparency'. Mae then meets the mysterious Kalden, who unlike all the other Circlers, seems to only linger in the shadows, and is totally untrackable. With his grey hair and secretive appearances, Mae wonders if he may be an infiltrator.
Mae's loyalty to the Circle deepens when she is offered to extend her health insurance plan to her parents, which is a godsend when her father is diagnosed with MS. However, as her involvement in the Circle grows, her relationship with her parents becomes more estranged, as the insurance comes with the caveat that the Circle keep tabs on her family at all times with their SeeChange cameras. Mae also becomes estranged from her ex-boyfriend Mercer, who is a harsh critic of the Circle. An artist who specializes in antler-chandeliers, Mercer decries the Circle's constant flow of popular opinion, shaped and judged by smiles, frowns, and zings, as juvenile.
Mae worries that she may lose her job after SeeChange cameras reveal her partaking in an illegal thrill—stealing a kayak for a midnight row, but in fact it propels her out of the Customer Experience department and into a position of more responsibility. She is assigned by Eamon Bailey to wear a camera strapped to her chest 24-7, and roam the campus documenting all the wonderful projects the Circle is engaged in. A frightening foreshadowing occurs as Mae trains her camera on an aquarium meant to mimic marine life in the Marianas Trench, a pet project of Tom Stenton's. The world watches through Mae's camera as a shark nearly devours the hand off of the marine assistant about to feed it.
- In what ways has social media changed the way you communicate with your friends and family, and professionally?
- What are the greatest hopes and dangers of having cameras planted in public places?
Stay tuned for Part II of August in the Reader's Den next week!