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Originally Published: January 10, 2014

Book Review: The Circle by Dave Eggers

While recovering from the flu, I read Dave Eggers’ The Circle. It’s a fictional novel about a utopian dystopia, similar to Orwell’s 1984.

Our central character, Mae, has started a new job at The Circle, a big data company which is more or less an amalgamation of Google, Facebook, Twitter, and other large digital companies. Think of it as a generation beyond our current digital experience, but with similar lofty ambition. The Circle’s aim is to make life easier for its users. To that end, they collect and unify data from many sources.

Mae is encouraged to interact digitally by sharing her life experience with others through The Circle’s social network. At one point, she is chastised for not taking photos during a private spur-of-the-moment kayak outing. Her supervisor is legitimately upset that Mae failed to add her experience to the collective memory of the world. This conversation is surreal, almost cult-like. Mae apologizes for selfishly keeping her personal experience from others.

Let’s stop there for a moment, because that was the point that Eggers’ novel began tipping into insanity.

Everyone has two faces: Public and private. When we are in public, we try to present a preferred version of our self. In private, no one is watching, and we act differently. Perhaps more naturally. For example, in private, I use significantly more profanity than I do in public.

The Circle is eroding the private sphere of life, and as the novel moves forward, the company releases products that make it possible to document everything. Our first step in this direction is a product called SeeChange, which is a tiny camera that can broadcast from anywhere, and anyone can log on to pull up a SeeChange feed.

This, in itself, isn’t an earth-shattering breakthrough, because we already have anonymous cameras observing public spaces. Unlike SeeChange, our cameras are neither globally networked together nor universally accessible.

The Circle’s next move, and this is where things get really creepy, is to put cameras on people. Why would someone choose to wear a camera? It starts with politicians who want the world to see and hear everything they experience, effectively becoming transparent. The rationale is that a transparent politician cannot be corrupt, because the public knows exactly what they do.

Transparency moves further, eventually extending to average people. What’s the justification here? When we are transparent, there are no secrets (and secrets tend to always be bad). When we are transparent, we can share our personal experiences with the world. For example, a child who is disabled can follow along as someone climbs a mountain.

Each step forward makes a strange kind of sense. More cameras mean less crime. Fewer secrets mean fewer lies. Transparency benefits everyone. Everything should be known, and everything known should be available to everyone.

In The Circle, Eggers’ illustrates a bizarre future. It’s a warning of what’s to come. And to an extent, we are already moving in its direction. For years, Gordon Bell has been wearing a camera that records everything he sees. And in the next year or two, there may be millions of people wearing Google Glass (or similar products). What’s to prevent Google from eventually making Glass camera feeds available to everyone?

Could Eggers’ depiction eventually become our reality? Possibly. But I’m not terrified yet. Society in The Circle shows no pushback; they openly welcome progress.

In the real world, as privacy has come under attack, we have seen organized resistance. We know how to draw a line and say this far, but no further.

Still — The Circle is a reminder that we need to maintain a sense of alert, and we need to always be questioning change, even if it comes bundled in a veil of doing good.

For as much as The Circle lacks in energy and adventure, it is still a thought-provoking read.