The Circle. By Dave Eggers. Knopf, 2013.
Reviewed by Scott D. Eldridge.
Have you taken the plunge and purchased one of the new wearable fitness tracking devices available on the market? These electronic gadgets offer marvelous insight into our daily physical activity and fitness. Many of them can continuously quantify our activity by measuring factors like steps taken, hours slept, and heartbeats per minute. These products use software algorithms to process our quantified physiological data to give us a detailed picture intended to motivate us to lead a healthier lifestyle.
Suppose your personal fitness tracking data is no longer private. Imagine that data is automatically forwarded to your doctor under the pretext of enabling your physician to have better insight into your health so she can provide you with better health care. Then suppose this same fitness data is automatically shared on your social media accounts with the intent to inspire your community of friends to be healthier and to support you in your health endeavors. It also is fed automatically to your employer under the notion that your health is integral to your work success, and your employer has a vested interest in knowing and aiding you to achieve your health goals. Suddenly, one’s once-private fitness data has been automatically disseminated to the most public and influential spheres of your life.
This scenario is a slice out of the plotline in Dave Eggers’ recent novel, The Circle, and it illustrates his fictional world where pieces of information about everyday people are collected, analyzed, aggregated, and disseminated to various data consumers, always under the pretense of benefitting the greater societal good. Eggers constructs a near-future corporation called the Circle, whose goal is to achieve total societal surveillance through a pervasive process of observing, digitizing, and archiving the everyday actions of individuals in society. This process of digitizing observed behavior is the process of quantification. Whether the quantification comes in the form of installing millions of miniature video cameras in public spaces, or digitizing all the world’s videos, or absurdly-enough, counting all the grains of sand in the Sahara, the Circle’s fundamental enabling feature is its obsessive focus on the quantification of humanity into digital form. Societal quantification is the root of the company’s success and also its Achilles’ heel.
As a writer, Eggers is adept in convincing the reader that the level of societal visibility described in his book is completely possible. He accomplishes this in two ways. First, Eggers’ ideas are built-up in a layered, step-wise fashion. Notice in the fitness-monitoring example above, the data is first used as an innocent way to maintain one’s health. With each step increase in the spread of this fitness data, the additional degree of personal surveillance is rationalized and made more socially palatable. As each layer of dissemination is added, the rationalization argument is repeated. With each successive increase of dissemination, Eggers is progressively establishing a new cultural and privacy norm. The process repeats until he has achieved the unwitting acceptance of a new social paradigm. This new paradigm would have been summarily rejected if attempted in a single step because such a large discontinuity would have been seen as violating the societal norms, i.e., the contextual integrity of one’s privacy. Privacy scholar Helen Nissenbaum describes this phenomenon as the “tyranny of the normal.” Nissenbaum explains that the idea of the contextual integrity of the status quo “appears to provide no buffer against insidious shifts in practice that ultimately gain acceptance as ‘normal’” [1, p. 160]. In other words, what was once unthinkable is the new normal. Eggers masterfully illustrates this effect in The Circle. His story describes the insidious way the goal of total visibility of the population is achieved through technological means that are incrementally adopted by a technology-loving society.
Eggers’ second technique for drawing his reader into believing the feasibility of the story’s plot is in the way new technology ideas are presented. New ideas are always presented from the voice of an altruistic champion of technology with cult-like enthusiasm. New technology is presented as beneficial, while summarily dismissing any negative consequences. For example, Eggers’ fictitious company developed an implantable tracking chip for children called ChildTrack, not entirely unlike the RFID tracking chips we place under the skin of our pets today to help locate them when they go astray. The ChildTrack technology is intended to prevent children from being abducted, and Eggers’ character advocates for the invention by implying that if the device is not adopted, then horrible acts of violence against children will happen. This kind of reasoning appeals to our visceral fears, and it is extraordinarily powerful in convincing one to adopt a perceived solution. But this is a false logic. This example never seeks to account for the enormous negative psychological consequences of a child being continuously tracked and monitored. Eggers skillfully demonstrates that presenting a new technology as altruistic – with no acknowledgment of potential societal harm – is an effective tool to advance a technological goal.
This leads to Eggers’ key theme in The Circle. He presents quantification technologies as an enabling mechanism for the greater good of humanity, but he also shows that these technologies are blind to what actually makes us human. Basic human rights of personal autonomy, privacy, freedom to experiment, and independent self-reflection are not decision factors that weigh in the calculus of technology in The Circle. In truth, the Circle’s quantification technologies are dehumanizing, and there is no effective social or legal governance in the story to moderate the effects.
Throughout the plot, Eggers threads together examples that add a disturbing dimension to the possible consequences of quantification. For example, he constructs a scenario where elected leaders are encouraged to go clear, which is a euphemism for their agreeing to be continuously monitored and having their actions broadcasted. The seemingly noble pretext of this idea is that the actions of political leaders should be fully visible to the public in order for democracy to function optimally. Eggers writes in the voice of a politician who has been clarified, “I intend to show how democracy can and should be: entirely open, entirely transparent.” Eggers cleverly presents the decision to go clear as a voluntary measure left to the conscience of the elected leader. The reality is that decision is anything but voluntary. It is in fact highly coerced. Eggers writes, “The question, from pundits and constituents, was obvious and loud: If you aren’t transparent, what are you hiding?”
This is a classic example of what has been described as the unraveling effect by law professor and privacy expert Scott Peppet. As he eloquently describes, there is a “possible unraveling of privacy altogether because some individuals initially will find it in their interest to disclose information for personal gain and then, as the unraveling proceeds, everyone will realize that disclosure is no longer a choice because the signaling economy attaches stigma to staying silent” [2, p. 1176] Eggers shows this parochial logic in the clarified politicians. The politicians embrace the simplistic thinking that transparency enabled by quantified existence benefits democracy. But the sinister unseen logic is that there is no real choice in this situation. And lack of real choice is the antithesis of a democratic society.
Eggers constructs a near-future corporation whose goal is to achieve total societal surveillance through observing, digitizing, and archiving the everyday actions of individuals.
Eggers shows that skillfully-crafted rhetoric, married to the natural seduction of technology, is the grease that lubricates the motion of social change. The Circle may not be so far-fetched considering that today Google digitizes the world’s books, the Library of Congress archives Twitter feeds,  and commercial data brokers mine publicly-available data items to paint a disturbingly-accurate digital portrait of us . Eggers’ story reminds us that vigilance and societal self-examination are necessary for a moral society. Once the world has been digitally quantified, it can be made visible. Once it has been made visible, it can be controlled.
Scott D. Eldridge received his B.S.C.I.S. degree from The Ohio State University, College of Engineering and his B.F.A. degree in photojournalism from the Corcoran College of Art + Design. He has worked as a test engineer and project manager in aerospace and technology companies for over 16 yearxs, and he is currently pursuing his M.A. degree in the Communication, Culture, and Technology program at Georgetown University. Email: Scott.d.Eldridge@gmail.com.