x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Privacy is theft

In The Circle, a dark tale of internet excess, Dave Eggers imagines a world in which Google, Apple and the Church of Scientology merge, Deborah Lindsay Williams writes

The Circle, a novel, is a screed against the erosion of privacy caused by the internet. Science Photo Library
The Circle, a novel, is a screed against the erosion of privacy caused by the internet. Science Photo Library

Dave Egger’s latest work, a technophobic parable, is less successful as a novel as it is a warning about our potentially chilling relationship to the internet and social media. Set in the not-too-distant future, the novel begins when Mae Holland gets plucked from her dead-end job by her old college friend Annie, who works in the upper echelons of the Circle, an internet company that sounds like what would happen if Google and Apple merged with Scientology. Annie has gotten Mae a job, and neither Mae nor her family can believe her good fortune. Working for the Circle means a handsome salary, amazing benefits (Mae’s parents can be enrolled on her insurance plan, which, given that the book is set in the United States, may be the most fantastical element of the entire story), gorgeous offices and a corporate campus that offers employees everything from free apartments to haute cuisine and lavish theme parties. At the Circle, every employee becomes a member of the community, a word that becomes less and less benign as the novel unfolds.

From the moment Mae steps foot on the campus, however, we know she has entered the land of the lotus-eaters; we do not share her wide-eyed amazement at what the Circle offers and it quickly becomes apparent that the novel must conclude in one of two ways: either Mae wakes up to the dangers of this seductive techno-world or she does not. The logic of The Circle allows for no ambiguities; in some ways the novel operates on a system as binary as the computer operating systems that the novel so fears.

It may have been that in the character of Mae, Eggers wanted to create a sort of Candide figure, whose innocence would serve to satirise the surrounding world. But the novel doesn’t read as satire; it reads as a screed against the erosion of privacy caused by the ever-more-subtly encroaching tentacles of the internet. Mae’s inability to see anything nefarious in the Circle’s actions illustrates the bleakest aspect of this dark book: most people seem happy to cooperate with technologies that first eradicate privacy and eventually obliterate autonomy. Just as in Orwell’s Animal Farm, a novel to which this one owes a great debt, where the animals are betrayed by the leaders of their own revolution, so too everything that happens to Mae within the world of the Circle happens because she allows it to happen.

Mae gets literally and figuratively wired into the Circle, a process the novel charts with the number of screens that accumulate first on Mae’s desk and then on her person: she starts with one screen and works her way up to six before she moves to a live-stream camera hanging around her neck, a headset that sends a steady stream of polling questions and advice into her ear, and bracelets around each wrist that monitor her biometrics. It’s no longer a case of man and machine: she has become an extension of the machine, and she loves “feeling daily the affection of millions [of her viewers] flow through her”.

The Circle’s promises of a beautiful new world are seductive; already Circle technologies have changed the internet: “Comment boards became civil … [and] the trolls, who had more or less overtaken the internet, were driven back into the darkness.” In Mae’s view, the Circle has created a “new and glorious openness, a world of perpetual light”. People behave because they’re being watched; children can’t be abducted because they have had tracking chips implanted in their bones; and politicians can’t keep secrets because public pressure has forced them to wear cameras that transmit their every waking moment to a live feed. Politicians who decide to “go clear”, as the process is called, enjoy an immediate upsurge in popularity, while those who refuse “transparency” are accused of having something to hide. In Scientology, “going clear” is the term used to describe how an adherent moves towards enlightenment, usually after a rigorous “audit” by Scientology elders. Nowhere in the Circle is there room to protest (as is allegedly the case in Scientology): “Every time someone started shouting about the supposed monopoly of the Circle … it was revealed that that person was a criminal or deviant of the highest order.” Mae has become so enthralled by the Circle that she does not see what the reader figures out immediately: the Circle punishes anyone who attempts dissent.

Mae gets seduced not only by the Circle but by two men who work deep within the Circle: one is Francis, the head designer for the project to implant chips in children’s bones, and the other is a mystery man who calls himself Kalden, but whose identity Mae can’t ever ascertain. Mae’s trysts with the mystery man happen in places like bathroom stalls, underground storage bunkers or the dark woods at the edge of the Circle campus. These sexual relationships in no way deepen our understanding of Mae; she remains the same naïf throughout the novel. What the sexual encounters do offer, however, is a literalisation of what the Circle is really doing to its customers, which is more akin to a slap-and-tickle in a dark alley than anything else.

Over and over, I wondered why Mae didn’t shake off her blind devotion to the Circle and as her innocence became increasingly unbelievable, I started asking the question that may be at the crux of the novel: what would I do differently? I started to tell myself that I would, of course, resist the blandishments of the Circle, and then I realised that I’d recently booked a hotel through TripAdvisor by trusting the recommendations of total strangers; put a photo on Instagram and been delighted by positive responses from people I don’t know; read an article tweeted to me by a friend of a friend of a friend; and checked Facebook multiple times – all on my iPad, which I was also using as an e-reader to read The Circle.

So perhaps, terrifyingly, the difference between me (us?) and Mae is a difference only in degree, not kind.

Towards the end of The Circle, Mae partakes in a Scientology-esque “audit”. wherein she confesses her mistakes to the Circlers and in so doing, helps craft the Circle’s new mottos: “Privacy is theft. Sharing is caring. Secrets are lies.”

Every process, we are told, should be made visible and nothing really exists unless it has been shared.

As a result of the audit, Mae goes clear and, in yet another of the novel’s heavy-handed metaphors, she transmits an encounter with creatures that Circle explorers have brought up from the Marianas Trench, the deepest part of the world’s oceans. The creatures have been brought up from the depths and maintained in separate tanks, but now one of the Circle’s directors, Tom Stenton, has decided that all the creatures should be put into one tank “to create something closer to the real environment in which he’d found them.”

Pale creatures from the darkest ocean waters – an octopus, a seahorse – are put into a giant aquarium and for a moment, everything looks like what one watcher calls a “peaceable kingdom”. And then loosed into the water is a shark, “a new species, omnivorous and blind”, whose pale skin renders its entire digestive system visible. Not surprisingly, “like a machine going about its work”, the shark lays waste to the peaceable kingdom and devours every living thing in the aquarium, including the seaweed and the coral.

It is against this background that the final moments of Mae’s journey to the heart of the Circle play out. In possession of evidence that could destroy the Circle from the inside out, aware of the power that comes from having millions of viewers attending to her live feed, Mae finds a clarity of purpose that has eluded her through much of the novel and she sees her resolve reflected back to her in the passionate eyes of Kalden, who is there with her at the novel’s denouement.

Deborah Lindsay Williams is a professor of literature at NYU Abu Dhabi.