Actually, “frightening”might be a better word. Most classic dystopian novels like Nineteen Eighty-Four, Fahrenheit 451, and even The Handmaid’s Tale describe future societies that don’t yet exist and may only exist in a more distant future “if this goes on.” But The Circle, written by Dave Eggers and published in 2013, depicts a world that is being built as you read these words. The infrastructure is in place, and the technology is almost there.
The Circle is a technology company, like Facebook on steroids. Its goal is to run all of the members’ social media through their Circle accounts–to connect everything and everyone, to store every bit of information known to humanity in The Cloud where it can be easily accessed by anyone at any time. Management’s end game is to require everyone to have a Circle account.
Mae Holland starts work at The Circle as a customer experience representative. At first she thinks of her work as just a job and doesn’t connect with the community as she is expected to. It takes some doing, but her supervisors convince her to be more “social.” It works all too well. Through a series of events which I won’t go into–read the book, and don’t forget to wear Depends–Mae agrees to become totally transparent, which means that everything she says and does will be recorded and can be viewed in real time by anyone with a Circle account–tomorrow’s reality TV, unedited and raw. She wears a bracelet that shows her the zings–Eggers’ version of tweets–so she will receive a constant flood of feedback about what she is doing and seeing. She is permitted to turn off the audio (but not the video, supplied by a tiny necklace camera) for three minutes while she’s in the bathroom, and she can shut down the whole system at night while she’s sleeping, but other than that, her life is open for all to see and hear. Her transparency turns her into a celebrity among the Circlers.
Soon Mae is driven by a strong need for approval, as represented by the number of smiley faces she gets on her bracelet (think “likes” on Facebook) and how low she can get her party score, which is determined by how many zings she sends out and how many groups she joins–basically, her level of involvement in the Circle community. She so craves approval that during a presentation of how quick and easy it is to get instantaneous survey results, the final question sent out to Circlers is: “Isn’t Mae Holland awesome?” Ninety-seven percent of the responders send smiley faces, but 3 percent send frowny faces. Rather than delight in having so many fans, Mae obsesses over the three percent who, in her mind, “want her dead.”
The most terrifying thing about this novel is that The Circle’s management wants to make transparency mandatory, and Mae is okay with that. In fact, there are some instances in which Mae decides to reveal secrets of her friends and family who want their lives to be off the grid–but Mae exposes them “for their own good” and because they’ll “thank her later.” The results of are tragic.
A movie based on The Circle was recently released. I saw the movie without knowing it had been based on a book, but when I learned that from the credits, I read the book. The movie does well enough at hitting major plot points, but it fails because it doesn’t capture the spirit of the book. The movie is actually a little warm and fuzzy compared to the book. In the movie, Mae (Emma Watson) is a sympathetic, though misguided, character who learns from her mistakes and tries to make things right in the end; in the book Mae comes off as naive and foolish, and she neither seeks nor achieves redemption. And–SPOILER ALERT–the movie does not have the same ending as the book.
Basically, the movie is a classic Hollywood tale with a flawed but sympathetic main character who reaches an epiphany, and everyone–well, almost everyone–lives happily ever after.
But the novel tells a darker story. It is the tale of an average person who became ensnared in a cult that is controlled by a charismatic leader. It is well worth reading because it takes Big Brother to the ultimate level, and it’s not about some distant possible future–it is happening now.