Second Vermont Republic

A citizen movement committed to restoring Vermont to an independent republic, free to pursue life, liberty and happiness unimpeded by the demands of an imperial, corrupt and disintegrating United States.

Shaping A Surveillance Utopia: “The Circle”

The Circle-500x332

“If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to be afraid of.”

-Google’s Eric Schmidt

I killed my TeeVee when I went to college in 1985. Stopped watching. Cold turkey. An active watcher all my young life, I grew up and decided that television was too corporate, too commercial, and too invasive. University life, with its infinite distractions, intellectual and otherwise, proved much more compelling. I continued my television-free life into my twenties, and found I didn’t miss the screen a bit. The “boob tube’s” critics, meanwhile, savaged the medium; the “idiot box” was a “plug-in drug,” creating a culture in which we were “amusing ourselves to death,” explained NYU media critic Neil Postman in a 1985 book with the same title (still in print almost thirty years later.)

That same year, as I started college and ended my relationship with television, the Internet arrived at our university. The first academic department to be wired into the world wide web? Religion (of course). What hath God wrought, and what was Her email address? Unlike television, which seemed so “one way” as a communications technology – networks program, and audiences watch – the Internet was different.

With the arrival of Web 2.0’s personal participatory ‘Net culture ten years ago via chat rooms, high speed bandwidth, blogging, and new social media platforms (remember Friendster back in 2002?), the conversation proved “many to many,” and any ‘Netizen with an Internet connection could jump in and play. Cyber-cheerleaders promised a “brave new world” of communications – more democratic, more egalitarian, and more exciting than anything since the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press.

And yet. Ambivalence has crept into the Internet mix these past few years, fueled by concerns about privacy, addiction, data mining, identity theft, cyberbullying, and surveillance. O brave new E-world, that has such problems in it – where is the Internet taking us?

Novelist Dave Eggers sets out to explore this question in his memorable new novel “The Circle.” Set in the not-too-distant future, Eggers’ story takes us inside a shiny happy California-based media corporation called the Circle, the world’s most powerful Internet company. The Circle has absorbed Facebook, Twitter, Google and all its other competitors, managing a universal operating system linking together all Circle users’ data in one convenient account: emails, banking, social media platforms, the works.

Eggers’ protagonist, young twenty-something Mae Holland, is hired by the Circle for an entry-level customer service position as the novel begins. Astonished at her good fortune and happy to leave her old life behind, Mae is quickly absorbed into Circle culture, where everyone, drunk on the Kool Aid, is expected to daily commit themselves to embracing and expanding the Circle culture of universal transparency and civility uber alles. “Smiles” and “Zings” are marks of affirmation, Circle members compete to achieve “most connected” status within the corporation, and to not “share” stories through the Circle is anathema.

One of Eggers’ key moments finds Mae taking an afternoon kayak paddle on the bay after work. When she forgets to upload her adventures – Text! Photos! Video! – to her Circle feed, she is admonished by the Circle faithful for depriving others of the opportunity to “share” her experience.

In another moment, Mae borrows a kayak without the owner’s permission, and is caught on one of the Circle’s new SeeChange cameras (deployed all over the globe by the Circle to help map and share data 24/7). Her public confession of boat theft (without wearing a life jacket, even) in front of the Circle community is converted by Circle leaders into a “teachable moment,” one in which they make the case for complete transparency as an antidote to secrets which, they argue, are “lies.”

Eggers’ brilliance in his novel lies in convincingly taking us inside the real-life culture of 21st century cyber-utopian cheerleading, showing us how the vision of digital media moguls like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Google’s Eric Schmidt spreads like a virus, first through corporate culture, then through a fawning media, and then into society as a whole, with social media’s enthusiastic users doing the most convincing marketing on media companies’ behalf.

To be clear, “The Circle” is NOT, as some critics have suggested, a novel that rehashes a “Brave New World” scenario, marked by faceless State-run telescreens, grim government officials, and a Big Brother’ly externally-imposed culture of fear. Instead, Eggers creates for us a surprisingly contemporary world that seems strangely familiar to regular social media users, a world into which all of us willingly opt into, participate in, and propagate. Mae Holland is our fictional stand in. While she has her reservations about the Circle at first, they are quickly subsumed by the persuasive collective power of the Circle community, even after she meets a mysterious figure inside the corporation who raises dire questions about “Completion”: the Circle’s ultimate goal of networking everyone together into a worldwide transparent planetary community.

Eggers also creates an articulate naysayer in his story, Mae’s old boyfriend Mercer, who vainly tries to talk sense into Mae. “It’s not that I’m not social. I’m social enough,” Mercer says to Mae early on in the novel. “But the tools you guys create actually manufacture unnaturally extreme social needs. No one needs the level of contact you’re purveying. It improves nothing.” What happens to Mercer, I will not spoil for you here.

Suffice to say, last generation’s concerns about the intrusive corporate commercial nature of television seem positively trite when stacked up against the expansive power of our new 21st century digital social media universe, and Eggers’ new novel gives a discerning reader much to chew on.

“The Circle” may not make you abandon your twibe in the Twitterverse, junk your Pinterest boards, or deactivate your Facebook account, but Eggers entertaining book will push you to think more deeply about where our 21st century convergent media culture might be taking us.

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This entry was posted on October 21, 2013 by in Arts and tagged .

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