Tuesday, April 14, 2015
Review of The Circle by Dave Eggers (Hamish Hamilton, 2013)
The Circle is an allegorical tale about the perils of creating a large, seemingly for the public good, data aggregator company that controls access to vital social, economic and governmental goods and services. The Circle is a large internet company that has quickly grown to become a massive, global critical player through it TruYou authentication system that provides a unified identification system for online transactions and interactions (whether that be using social media, playing games, conducting banking, or accessing government services). It’s effect has been to be to just about eliminate anonymous internet activity, hugely reducing anti-social behaviour and criminality. It’s ambition is to create open, transparent and accountable society and governance through the elimination of privacy on and offline (for example, by distributing hundreds of thousands of networked miniature cameras throughout landscapes and implanting tracker devices in kids). The sunlight of constant exposure will prevent crime and corruption, they prophetize. The tale follows Mae Holland, a young college graduate and her introduction to the company, her indoctrination into its ethos, and her rise through its ranks as she resolves personal reservations and conflicts. The power of the tale is in exposing the cult and power of information and how it is increasingly being exposed, collated and centralized in the internet age. Eggers does a good job at shining a critical light onto the California ideology underpinning many such companies. The main issue with the tale is that Mae is a little too one-dimensional and compliant and there’s too little examination of resistance to The Circle’s ambitions or alternatives, both within and outside the company. And while the story does raise questions about what an open society created through private vendors means for privacy, democracy and governance, it’s treatment of such issues is rather shallow. Overall, a thought-provoking read about the supposed utopian promise that information will set us free.