Twenty-one years ago, just as the World Wide Web came into practical existence, the late media theorist Neil Postman published a book called Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. In it, he posited that every new technology is wrapped around an unexploded bomb of unintended consequences. DDT not only killed off mosquitoes, but also birds. Automobiles brought us mobility . . . and smog. The cell phone, originally promoted as a tool to free workers from their offices, has instead tethered us to them.
In The Circle, McSweeney’s founder (and former National Book Award finalist for last year’s A Hologram for the King) Dave Eggers drops us into the world of Big Data and shows us how utopia is separated from dystopia by a mere three letters.
Mae Holland is rescued from a dead-end gig at a central California utility company to work at the Circle, a mega-global conglomerate resembling Google, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft rolled into one gigantic economic juggernaut. All the accoutrements—bowling alleys, organic gardens, free on-site healthcare, company dorms, the pastoral Northern California “campus” setting—give it the appearance of a new age worker’s paradise. And while Eggers doesn’t explicitly bestow the Google prime directive of “Don’t Be Evil” upon the Circle, their mission statement, “All That Happens Must Be Known,” certainly mirrors Google’s voracious appetite to curate the planet.
As Holland’s star ascends in the company, the number of screens on her desk multiplies, along with a headset, a vital-sign-monitoring bracelet and ultimately a body-mounted camera, as she becomes ever more addicted to the crack of social network feedback. Her occasional penchant for straying offline is deemed by higher-ups to be antithetical to the company’s mission, and in an Orwellian masterstroke of re-education, she becomes the living embodiment of the Circle’s new three-pronged corporate manifesto: “Secrets Are Lies. Sharing Is Caring. Privacy Is Theft.”
Like the proverbial frog dropped into the pot of cold water, Holland doesn’t recognize the heat being applied underneath her, even as it leads to some disquieting—and tragic—consequences. While she occasionally senses what she calls “the tear,” an ever-widening rift between her cyber-life audience and real-world relationships, immersion in Circle work diverts her from the mounting discomfort of introspection. And there’s the rub.
Unlike his protagonist, Eggers dives headlong into the messy question of what happens when the membrane separating our public and private selves is obliterated in the crucible of community. And in the space of a briskly moving, highly engaging 500 pages of 21st-century morality play, he circles back to a point Professor Postman made more than two decades ago:
The computer and its information cannot answer any of the fundamental questions we need to address to make our lives more meaningful and humane. . . . It cannot provide a means of understanding why we are here or why we fight each other or why decency eludes us so often, especially when we need it the most. The computer is, in a sense, a magnificent toy that distracts us from facing what we most needed to confront.
Or, as cartoonist Walt Kelly remarked a couple of decades before that, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
Thane Tierney lives in Los Angeles, where he maintains a Facebook page, a Twitter account, a blog and even a vestigial MySpace page, although he frequently leaves home without his cell phone.