Freedom is slavery, privacy is theft

BOOKS ISSUE: 'The Circle' projects Bay Area technology culture into a dystopian near-future

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When a tech company gets too big: Dave Eggers' The Circle

LIT Reading a book is a simple, solitary pleasure. As I sat with the thick, hardback edition of The Circle by Dave Eggers in recent weeks, I could feel its weight on my lap and watch my bookmark slowly proceed through its pages. It was a precious, visceral experience to read it, something I savored like a juicy secret.

Those sensations and my desire to keep them to myself for awhile are anathema to the hyper-connected, technology-obsessed world that Eggers creates in this dystopian novel — a world that is far closer to the one we live in and are building right here in the Bay Area than many techophiles would like to admit.

In fact, I deliberately waited until just after I finished reading The Circle (Knopf/McSweeney's, 504 pp., $27.95) to read any of its reviews, and one of the first ones to come up on my Google search was a scathing critique in Wired magazine headlined "What the Internet Looks Like if You Don't Understand It."

Without a sense of irony, the review parrots the perspective of the book's protagonist — 24-year-old Mae Holland, who gets a coveted job at The Circle, a near-future Silicon Valley company that's an amalgam of Google, Facebook, Twitter, and your bank — who dismisses concerns about privacy, corporate power, and the reductive, data-driven trivialization of culture by saying that critics just don't understand the Internet.

You see, The Circle — like many of today's real life tech companies and a large portion of the shiny, happy true believers who work at them — is saving the world from all the messiness and ignorance that preceded its rise. And if you don't get that, or you don't accept trading your personal information for the collective good, then you're just crazy and resistant to the inevitable march of progress.

"Who but a fringe character would try to impede the unimpeachable improvement of the world?" Mae asks herself when The Circle's biggest critics mysteriously turn out to have incriminating information on their computers.

Later, Mae and The Circle's "Wise Men," who prod her progression toward becoming the fresh young face of the company, reduce that faith in the digital collective to the Orwellian slogan: "Secrets are lies. Sharing is caring. Privacy is theft."

And in the end, the naif-turned-guileless-villain could only see the goodness and virtue of living "in a world where everyone could know each other truly and wholly, without secrets, without shame and without the need for permission to see or to know, without the selfish hoarding of life — any corner of it, any moment of it. All of that would be, so soon, replaced by a new and glorious openness, a world of perpetual light."

 

POWER OF FICTION

I understand how some critics can fault Eggers for being a little over-the-top in presenting The Circle's technologies and ambitions, or with its characters being sometimes two dimensional messengers of the author's takeaways, or with plot points that seem a little implausible (for example, it's hard to imagine most politicians "going transparency" and wearing live cameras around the necks all day, every day).

But that's really part of the fun with this book, and those supposed flaws actually prove to be skillful devices that develop the novel into an allegory of modern times in much the same way that George Orwell did in 1984, a comparison that Eggers was clearly aiming for.

Instead of the grim, top-down, thought-policing security state conjured up by Orwell as he observed the rise of totalitarianism in Europe, the dystopian world that Eggers creates is a cheerful if vapid, bottom-up, all-knowing security apparatus that supplants government itself.

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