Rating – 3.88 out of 5
In The Circle by Dave Eggers, Mae Holland starts at the most popular internet company in the world – The Circle. The company funds the innovative ideas of the smartest people in the world. They do this by providing some of the most advanced data collection services known to man. Mae, becomes the poster child for some of the new experiments that push the boundaries of privacy.
“Mae, we have to change how we interact. Every time I see or hear from you, its through this filter. You send me links, you quote someone talking about me, you say you saw a picture on someone’s wall… It’s always this third-party assault. Even when I’m talking to you face-to-face you’re telling me what some stranger thinks of me. It becomes like we’re never alone. Every time I see you, there’s a hundred other people in the room. You’re always looking at me through a hundred other people’s eyes.”
– The Circle, pg. 131
What I liked about The Circle
The Circle by Dave Eggers was a hard read for me. The main character, Mae, was at best naive and at worst downright unintelligent. There were many places where logical discussion contained dubious leaps in that logic. And what should be a critique of how culture handles privacy in our digital world, it was reductive of these issues. My main concern was that in the book desiring privacy meant intentionally hiding something from others. If the information was hidden in this way they could not use the information to better their lives. This idea leaves out the harm that no privacy does to the individual. It also forced some of the characters of the book into not only oversharing but doing so in a performative way.
The issue that I found with this type of performative data sharing was twofold. First the person being watched, in this case Mae, who had a camera on her at all times, acts differently because of this. The Circle wants us to believe that this caused her and everyone else who “went transparent” to act better. I am not convinced that this is the immediate response. If Facebook Live has taught us anything it is that humans tend to also perform the ugliness that is beneath the surface. Like teenagers who are testing boundaries, we tend to have the response of bucking the norms just as much as keeping in line. This type of surveillance seems to cause reactions on both ends of the spectrum and not only in the middle.
Secondly, if we make ourselves something to be watched at all times with change the nature of what we are. Because everyone had a view into what Mae was doing at all times, people felt that they were entitled to her attention. By making ourselves so open we can become like celebrities in that we all feel the need to always be doing what is expected of us. Because what Mae said to others privately was public, strangers expected more of her. While she maintained the right to say no, with many people watching it came with more serious consequences.
There was some seduction to the idea that if we had access to all data that we could pool it together and use it for good. The question the book poses is does data sharing extend to your personal experiences? I do not think that they do. If anything, we should be able to edit our personal experiences for each other so as to present ourselves the way we want to be seen. In fact, that is my interpretation of the basis of art. If all my personal experiences were on display at all times and moralized in this way I would not be able to do good creative work. At the very least, not without being accused of harming others.
In a world where this type of privacy is at risk at all times, this piece of literature is still frightening. I wonder if someone who is younger than I am would have a different view of this work. We as a society are already performing for each other often with the social media that we produce and consume. I am already a part of this process as a person with SM accounts as well as a blogger, so this book struck close to home, even though I had my critiques.
Book Club Question
Do you think Mae did the right thing in the end?
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