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Wednesday, 21 May 2014 14:18

Social media gone awry in this compelling novel

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bookIn recent years, I have developed a growing discomfort with the Internet. Services like Facebook, Amazon, Linked-in have become increasingly ... well, personal. They want to know how I am doing, mentally and physically (at times they sound like a nosy, well-meaning relative), and I am constantly being asked to take “quickie” surveys or to rate everything from Netflix movies to Amazon products. I am beginning to wonder at what point does their concern become intrusive.

Also, I’m not all that pleased with the prevailing “Oh, God, isn’t life just wonderful!” tone of Facebook. It is pretty obvious that if you don’t have photos of your baby/dog/sunset which you are willing to share and if you persist in writing lengthy observations on current issues in the news, you might be “marginalized” or pushed to the side of the information highway while those blessed with a quick wit and cute pets tend to prevail. Your fellow posters will not only leave you stranded with your wordy comments as they vanish in a cloud of instant joy and good will ... You can rest assured that Facebook will edit your “too long” message to a very brief comment.

Well, Dave Eggers’ new novel contends that there is something beneath this clever banter and gossip ... something downright ominous. If the current trend continues, we may find ourselves in a desperate war to preserve our shrinking personal rights: namely, the rights to privacy and individuality. In short, Internet services like Facebook may turn out to be a variation of George Orwell’s 1984. Instead of Big Brother, you may find your life controlled by the millions of Internet users who now have the power to create and revise public opinion each day. Following is a summary of The Circle’s plot.

Like many current graduates, Mae Holland was alarmed by the total of her student loans — $230,000. That amount is the consequence of changing her majors too often and ending up with one that had little appeal in the current job market (psychology). Out of necessity, she accepts a job with a public utility in her hometown and quickly discovers that the position offers little potential for advancement. After enduring almost two years of nine-to-five monotony, her old college chum, Annie, gives her a reference for a job at  the California-based “The Circle,” the world’s most powerful internet company. 

Scoring the job, Mae arrives on her first day to find what she immediately describes as “paradise.  The Circle occupies over 400 acres of bronze and steel in which all offices are transparent. With over 10,000 employees — all young and ambitious, the “campus” is laid out in concentric circles filled with massive atriums. On-campus housing is state-of-the-art and employees are encouraged to use them. Restaurants, theaters and night-time entertainment abounds, much of which resembles Hugh Hefner’s old Playboy club.

There are literally hundreds of extravagant projects involving research, and it quickly becomes obvious that the Circle is an international organization, doing cutting-edge research in poverty and nutrition, DNA research and controversial criminal justice programs (One involves the planting of identity chips in known criminals so that law enforcement always knows where they are).

Mae works in Customer Experience. That means that she fields phone calls from potential customers, (many of whom are promoting their own products) and a complex system of evaluation keeps track of Mae’s efficiency. Mae quickly acquires a reputation for quality performance, rating in the 94 to 98 percent. Her success brings additional work, and she is promoted and rewarded. 

However, there are troubling experiences. Why is she sometimes “secretive”? When Mae fails to participate in the Circle’s nightlife, her supervisors express concern. If she goes to the parties, attends lectures and participates in workshops and discussions at night, her value to the Circle is even greater. She quickly learns that the emphasis on glass is directly related to the Circle’s belief that their ultimate goal is “to be totally transparent.”

When Mae’s father develops health problems and is unable to pay his hospital bills, The Circle offers to include Mae’s parents in the Circle health program ... an advantage that saves his life. However, in return, the Circle requires Mae’s parents to participate in a surveillance program in which hundreds of tiny cameras are installed in the Holland home. Mae’s parents are not pleased and attempt to evade the cameras. The situation becomes even worse when Mae agrees to make the ultimate sacrifice to the Circle by wearing a camera that records every moment of her life, a decision that has disastrous consequences (however, it is great publicity for the Circle).

When the Circle uses its vast resources and power to promote the idea of total transparency in the government, there is a massive political move by the public to demand that their government leaders become “totally transparent.” Seeing their political careers threatened, senators and political leaders begin to accept the cameras that will make every action a matter of public knowledge. Any suspicious behavior results in the Circle notifying their millions of viewers to “investigate.”

At one point, as a demonstration of their growing power, the Circle enters a search for a criminal who is suspected of harming children. By flashing the suspect’s picture on the screen and giving his last known address, the Circle tracks the man to his hiding place in a matter of moments, noting that since their membership is in the millions, it is inevitable that “someone, somewhere saw this man today.” The only true evil in the world is secrecy, proclaims the Circle. “We must eradicate it.”

This is a general summary of a complex novel. There are endless sub-plots that I have not addressed. Mercer, Mae’s old boyfriend, who is tracked down and inadvertently killed when he refused to abide by the Circle’s rules. I have also decided to ignore Mae’s sex life. Let it suffice to say that she lives with “abandon,” or at least it seems so in my everyday world. There is a fascinating Luddite named Kalden who is a part of the Circle’s hierarchy, but he may perceive the organization’s growing power with alarm. In fact, he may believe that the Circle is a harbinger of “ the Apocalypse.” But then, he may be either a red herring or an unresolved mystery.

Some of the most riveting passages in The Circle involve a massive manhunts wherein millions of viewers participate in the search. The culprits are seen attempting to escape, but the pursuers are relentless. Finally, they are captured while the viewers cheer and shout things like “Hang him, now” just like the citizens of Boonsborough used to do in Fess Parker’s old 1960s “Daniel Boone” show. When I read these scenes, I realized that a similar event occurred in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1951). Then, we got to watch the helicopters pursue O. J. Simpson down the interstate. The Circle may be closer to a new reality than we might think ... perhaps in the next decade.

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