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The Circle by Dave Eggers

What does this image by Ben Wiseman make you think of?

Ben Wiseman

You were born in a connected world.  What are the pros and cons of this?  Why do you think there are lots of people who are conservative on social media?  Do you share any of their fears or skepticism?

Why is there the desirability of making personal information public?

Look at the following three images:

What point do they make about the use of social media?  Where do you stand?  Are you dependent on technology or can you live disconnected/unplugged?

Can today’s online corporations, or the current surveillance scare, be compared to the real-world totalitarian forces (Nazi, Stalinist, Maoist) evoked by Nineteen Eighty-Four? Why (not)?

We are going to work on a book that takes into consideration the above issues.  The novel is “The Circle” by Dave Eggers.  It is a dystopian fictional work that looks at the world of social media not as a potential, but as an encroaching (= invadente) nightmare.

Before we start investigating the themes of the novel, I would like you to watch the following vlogger giving a review of the book.

Why do you think is the book disquieting? 

Why is it compared to “1984” by George Orwell? 

Technology is not evil per se, but the way it is used.  What “evil” use of technology is mentioned by the reviewer? 

Why is the book worth reading in his opinion? 

What was his gut reaction when he finished reading the book? 

Mention at least one positive aspect of this review and one aspect you did not appreciate at all.  If you were asked to create a video to review a book, what would you add (mention at least one element) that is not present in this video?

If you want to watch another video created by a bookworm who designed a webpage dedicated to reviews of books she read.  http://www.readremark.com/about/

It would be interesting to know what aspects she mentions about The Circle that the other vlogger did not mention at all.

Did she like the book? Why (not)?

What are the parallels she can draw with our lives?

How many stars does she give The Circle?  Why?

In an interview Dave Eggers states that

“The Circle is about abuse of power. That’s one of the primary themes, at least. All the President’s Men is also about abuse of power, but that doesn’t make it an anti-government story. So I hope people see The Circle for what it is, which is a cautionary tale for how a monopolistic control over digital information, paired with a wholesale indifference to privacy, could lead to some very bad outcomes.”

When did you feel this warning became explicit and clear in the novel? Is there a passage in particular that made you realize that technology should be used with caution?

Mae Holland is a woman in her 20s who arrives for her first day of work at a company called the Circle.  She marvels at the beautiful campus and the services it offers.  The opening line in the book is “My God”, Mae thought.  “It’s heaven.”  But this heaven will soon become a hell.   The vast info-tech enterprise – the Circle – has amalgamated the functions of Microsoft, Google, Apple, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter into a unified corporation with seemingly beautiful ideals. Customers buy into the Circle with a single identity, their TruYou, which grants them access to every operation and social connection conceivable in the digital universe.

Within the organisation, a circle of bosses – the Gang of 40 – fuses technological and human rights idealism into a vision of perfect democracy, transparency and knowledge; one with which they aim to unite private and public spheres and perfect the operations of government.

The Orwellian references are made explicit in the Circle’s central slogan – “All that happens must be known”.  Mae rises through the ultra-meritocratic ranks of the company to emerge as its leading promotional light, devising some of the key maxims of its credo: “Secrets are lies”; “Sharing is caring”; “Privacy is theft”.  She ignores – increasingly obvious glimpses of what is wrong with all this.

What do you find wrong in all this?

One night, she takes a kayak ride to an uninhabited island, thus momentarily liberating herself from her hyper-connected world.  She will be forced to appear before the assembled staff of the Circle and confess her crime:  failing to stream her every private experience for the benefit of the community.

In atonement, she turns her life into a model of relentless visibility and her family’s into a version of The Truman Show. An ex-boyfriend provides speeches about the nightmare she is fostering, to which she responds by pursuing him through online networks as he seeks to escape to some non-mediated corner of wilderness.

It is not clear whether The Circle is intended as a satire of the present or a dystopian vision of the near future.  Some critics think it is a nicely caricatured vision of hi-tech, soft-touch totalitarianism.  What is your stance?  Can you substantiate your choice?

What would you do if you were plunged into a world where anonymity is banished?  Everyone’s past is revealed?  Everyone’s present may be broadcast live in video and sound?  Nothing recorded will ever be erased?  The Circle’s goal is to have all aspects of human existence (from voting to love affairs) flow through its only existing portal in the world.  Why should a world like this be invented?  For whose benefit?  Are there any aspect of this dystopian world that you find in your own world already?

Why are there more and more people who feel the drive to display themselves?  Why are our lives under the constant surveillance of our governments?

As the story advances, our view of the Circle moves from bright to dark to darker. At first, viewed through Mae’s eyes, the place seems wondrous:

The rest of America…seemed like some chaotic mess in the developing world. Outside the walls of the Circle, all was noise and struggle, failure and filth. But here, all had been perfected. The best people had made the best systems and the best systems had reaped funds, unlimited funds, that made possible this, the best place to work. And it was natural that it was so, Mae thought. Who else but utopians could make utopia?

But if this is utopia, why is Mae so anxious most of the time?

Margaret Atwood, in her review of the novel, writes that The Circle is in part a novel of ideas.

Do you agree? What sort of ideas?

The Canadian author goes on remarking:

Ideas about the social construction and deconstruction of privacy, and about the increasing corporate ownership of privacy, and about the effects such ownership may have on the nature of Western democracy. Dissemination of information is power, as the old yellow-journalism newspaper proprietors knew so well. What is withheld can be as potent as what is disclosed, and who can lie publicly and get away with it is determined by gatekeepers: thus, in the Internet age, code-owners have the keys to the kingdom.

Can you paraphrase this idea of hers? 

She continues by saying:

Some will call The Circle a “dystopia,” but there’s no sadistic slave-whipping tyranny on view in this imaginary America: indeed, much energy is expended on world betterment by its earnest denizens. Plagues are not raging, nor is the planet blowing up or even warming noticeably. Instead we are in the green and pleasant land of a satirical utopia for our times, where recycling and organics abound, people keep saying how much they like each another, and the brave new world of virtual sharing and caring breeds monsters.

What do you think of her not defining the novel a dystopia?

The tiny “SeeChange” cameras that can be planted everywhere (no more rapes and atrocities!), the scheme to embed tracking chips in children’s bones (no more kidnapping!). Why wouldn’t any sane person want those things? People who live in glass houses not only shouldn’t throw stones—they can’t throw them! Isn’t that a good thing? And if you have nothing to hide, why get paranoid?

Both the reader and Mae encounter the Circle first through its logo, which is obligingly depicted on the book’s cover and then described through Mae’s eyes: “Though the company was less than six years old, its name and logo—a circle surrounding a knitted grid, with a small ‘c’ in the center—were already the best-known in the world.” Looked at by someone unfamiliar with it, the logo would surely suggest a manhole cover. I certainly hope Eggers intended this: as a flat disc, the thing might imply a moon or a sun or a mandala—something shining and cosmic and quasi-religious—but as a portal to dark, sulphurous, Plutonian tunnels it is much more resonant.

The circle motif may be Eggers’s wink at Google’s “Circles,” a way of arranging your contacts on its counterpart to Facebook: but it’s much more than that. The circle is an ancient symbol that’s had a variety of incarnations. There are divine circles—the Egyptian sun, the vision of the poet Henry Vaughan, who “saw Eternity the other night,/Like a great ring of pure and endless light”; in case we overlook the point, inside Eamon Bailey’s private lair is a stained glass ceiling with “countless angels arranged in rings.” Bailey himself weighs in on circles: “A circle is the strongest shape in the universe. Nothing can beat it, nothing can improve upon it, nothing can be more perfect. And that’s what we want to be: perfect.” A man with Bailey’s Catholic background should know that he’s verging on heresy, since perfection belongs to God alone. He ought to know also that circles can be demonic: Dante’s Inferno has nine circles. Maybe he does know those things, but has discounted them.

Margaret Atwood concludes her review of the novel with the following paragraph:

Publication on social media is in part a performance, as is everything “social” that human beings do; but what happens when that brightly lit arena expands so much that there is no green room in which the mascara can be removed, no cluttered, imperfect back stage where we can be ‘“ourselves”? What happens to us if we must be “on” all the time? Then we’re in the twenty-four-hour glare of the supervised prison. To live entirely in public is a form of solitary confinement.

What is the point of this in your opinion?

Do you think that one day our privacy might be entirely compromised and we might end up pawns of an omniscient machine?

Wesley Merritt

Now read some parts taken from an interview to Dave Eggers and see whether is answers can help you hone your response to the novel.

Dave Eggers explains how technology and privacy inspired The Circle, his new novel

Tell us about the technology known as SeeChange – can cameras replace consciences?

After the Boston Marathon bombings, the city’s surveillance cameras made it possible to identify the suspects a few days later. That was astounding, and public-opinion surveys indicated that most people would far prefer to have ubiquitous cameras – knowing they would be watchable any time they were in public – if it ensured some increased degree of safety or, in the case of the Boston bombings, accountability. Those poll numbers surprised a lot of privacy experts. And of course London is saturated with cameras too. In cities with ubiquitous camera coverage, there’s a hope, I think, that if you know you’re being watched, criminal behaviour will be deterred. SeeChange takes it further. Can we all become more moral beings if we think anyone – not just authorities, but anyone at all – is watching at any time? The Circle says and hopes that through self-monitoring, SeeChange can help perfect the human race.

Wesley Merritt

Can tracking save lives, or is it likely to destroy them?

It’s capable of both.

When do humans become not-human?

There are some devices out there or on the way that make the user look very cyborg-like, and people are clamouring for them. Over the last 20 years, it’s been interesting to see how little resistance there is to the merging of our organic selves and the devices that we attach to ourselves to enhance our capabilities.

Do you think we’re “at the dawn of a Second Enlightenment”, as your character Eamon Bailey suggests in the book?

That’s the point of view of Eamon Bailey and those who run the Circle – and maybe more than a few purveyors of current and near-future technology: that anything that can be known should be known; that the only obstacle to perfection is incomplete data.

What is the greatest threat to our freedom today?

Our feeling that we’re entitled to know anything we want about anyone we want.

In the Padlet below I am posting some questions I would like to reflect upon before we start analysing the novel more into depth.

Creato con Padlet

We will be watching some key passages in the film adaptation of the novel.  Before we do that, look at the image that will appear everywhere in the film.  Is there a link/similarity with the image on the cover of the book?


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