The Circle by Dave Eggers tells the story of a young woman working to navigate a fictional google-type corporation with its sights set on achieving universal surveillance. What the company hopes to achieve is a panopticon vision of society in which no one has any secrets from anyone else. Everything that everyone does is recorded, streamed, archived, and made available for anyone and everyone to see.
The ‘Three Wise Men’ who founded this fictional company — called ‘The Circle’ — represent three perspectives that we see guiding Big Data investments today:
(1) The gleeful possiblist – unconcerned with the consequences of technologies that are created, this kind of person is simply interested in exploring what is possible. They wash their hands of ethical or long-term implications, since those hinge a kind of widespread adoption that has nothing to do with innovation in itself.
(2) The business man – like the gleeful possiblist, the business man washes their hands of ethical consequences since, driven by a desire to grow the business, the success of the products and services created hinges on the desires of the masses.
(3) The utopian – this is the most thoughtful of the three perspectives, in that it is the only one to accept responsibility for the future. With respect to issues of of big data and surveillance, it sees privacy as a problem to be solved. With privacy comes secrets and the possibility of lies. With secrets and lies come conflict. Universal surveillance and absolutely transparency mean complete accountability, technology-mediated empathy, and freedom from fear.
The bulk of Egger’s work is spent describing a variety of social surveillance technologies and the burdens they place on users like the protagonist, Mae. In many ways, this world is described in compelling and favorable terms. The reader is not disturbed, but actually drawn into agreement with the dominant utopian ideology into which Mae is progressively indoctrinated. Of course, there are nay-sayers, dissenters, and outsiders but in this world they are the minority. In a world where everyone’s opinion matters, democracy is absolute. If democracy is a good thing, absolute democracy the the best thing.
As one would expect from a book like this, as the circle nears completion, Eggers uses the opportunity to explore several distopian themes, including the possibility of a future tyrannical leader making use of truth-telling technology for systematically manipulating public perception. But Eggers is really good at ambiguity. He does an excellent job of using his narrative to explore important themes and possibilities while at the same time withholding judgement. One does not get from Eggers the sense that the trajectory of our serveillance technologies and big data policies are good or bad. What is strongly affirmed, however, is the fact that we are responsible. The purpose of The Circle is to force its readers to reflect on the consequences of their behavior, to consider their part as complicit in shaping the future. The Circle is effective in underscoring the importance of making thoughtful decisions about how we use technology instead of being passive users in a world made of us rather than by us and for us.