There’s a certain critical hype which surrounds novels that arrive at just the right moment. Dave Eggers’ The Circle managed to become the novel of the moment in 2013, a timely satire on a Google/Apple-like company and a young girl who begins working for them, Mae. It was just the thing to puncture selfie culture, to rebuild the wall between public and private, a “chilling dystopia”, as important as “Nineteen Eighty-Four or Brave New World“. While I agree with a lot of this judgement, the really significant theme of the novel for me is the nature of the ethical questions addressed by it. Eggers presents a scenario of how the pursuit of technological enhancement leads to ethical totality, where privacy of any kind is made at odds with the aims of a progressive society. The driving force of the novel is not the technological structures themselves, but rather the insecurity these structures help to foster in society – the way interaction is structured.
Central to Eggers’ satire is the status of knowledge in the modern world, and how it contributes to decisions around what to do and how it should be done. The ethics of the world Eggers imagines develops into a form of techno-utilitarianism, whereby incredible-yet-familiar hardware combines with algorithmic advances to nullify threats to the social fabric. Crime, murder, abduction of children – all are brought under control through the constant surveillance of the SeeChange system of ultra-portable, ultra-powerful cameras. Many of these ills are understood in utilitarian terms, such as not incurring the costs of incarceration by stopping crime through major surveillance, or the better quality of life provided to another by allowing someone them to access a video stream of your holiday experience.
Mae becomes enveloped in the world of The Circle when she gets a low-level job there. Eventually, the advances she is made part of, often through large company presentations and cult-like audience events, lead to questions around whether a human being has the right to any form of privacy, outside of parameters which society – or, rather, the company – set. One of the ‘Three Wise Men’ who run The Circle, Bailey, is at his most evangelical when decrying the loss of “any knowledge”, whether “human, emotional, scientific”. Mae herself comes up with the neo-Ingsoc slogan “Privacy Is Theft” after being confronted by Bailey on the ethics of secrecy, sharing and privacy and how it might lead, in tandem with a neo-liberal focus on market growth and the monetisation of experience, to a better society.
The real debate comes down to the rights of the self in relation to the Other – but in this case, the ‘Other’ is online society as a mass, individuated by their online profiles specifically, but deindividualised by the form of those profiles. Everyone is a set of information searchable by algorithm, which means that the Other turns into a tool, an object. The final images of the novel, where Mae posits that we should, and could, have access to the human mind itself, to make open all of human thought in the interests of safety and security – to know no evil lurked within – is the ultimate manifestation of the desire to objectify the Other, the natural extension of social ethical system which has lost the time-lag needed to recalibrate its moral understanding in the face of technological advances.
The idea of getting into consciousness, of wanting to know the Other, and of that being the ultimate goal of human interaction, put me in mind of an older metaphor for the self or social identity – that of the ‘cage’. It is an image that recurs in the novels of Henry James and communicates the inability of the human being to be able to enter into the consciousness of another – we’re all in cages, looking out at others, attempting to communicate whilst trapped within. The Circle transforms the desire to know, to break into the cage, the desire to be less lonely, into a parable about the loss of humanity. We’re in these cages for a reason, it says, and whatever is contained within, whether it has the potential to mend or destroy lives must stay there. Ty, the head of The Circle and the man who created the entire system, states they must regain “balance” towards the end of the novel, between the systems of surveillance and the ability to keep secret information which will hurt others. This balance is central to how we understand the ethics of technological interaction, and it is one that Eggers shows is disrupted by a futurist ideological drive, the drive for progress. The problem is that our cages are no longer fixed in position, they constantly shift and alter with the social environment, and we can reach so much further past the bars than we used to be able to.
Although Eggers’ satire is a powerful one, he does acknowledge the deeply human desires this kind of technological interaction might satisfy. Mae, at one point, when she can’t get in touch with anyone she knows, feels lonely and despairs. She quickly seeks human contact. The hollowness, the black “tear” she feels rip inside at points is allayed by different forms of human interaction, even the technological. The problematic ethical concerns of the novel are exposed and augmented by technological forms and structures, but they are not created by those structures. These are problems that were already there. The technological structures used to explore them allow us new ways of understanding them – and new ways of being scared of them.
In this sense, The Circle follows Brave New World in that it is a dystopia that becomes, from a canted angle, a utopia. The end is reminiscent of Huxley, but Mae chooses to stay as part of this world, where she is an influential member of the new wave of understanding and democracy. She continues to pursue, with the other two wise men, Bailey and Stenton – the “info-Communist” and the “ruthless Capitalist” – a utopian totalising of the world brought about by the control of knowledge. The political implications of this are dangerous, but one utopia is only ever challenged with another idealised notion. The counter arguments about going off grid and isolating themselves from Mercer or Ty are not convincingly put. The novel essentially dismisses the nebulous ethical statements of these two male characters. Do we have to completely disregard the narrative of success for a young woman who has risen to the top? Who sees a “perpetual light” in the future of civilisation? The Circle is disturbing in the tradition of the very best dystopian fiction, but our ways of reading dystopian fiction need to develop to encompass the networked world. It is easy to say “What a disturbing picture! Isn’t technology awful!”. The harder and more important task is to consider carefully how to explain and define what we mean by the “messiness of humanity”, those “uncertainties” of the world which will always remain. We might now be reconditioned by technologised world, but we’re still asking how to be good, how to learn about what it means to live in connection to Other human beings.