Book Review: The Circle

 

“The Circle” by Dave EggersThere have been a number of novels, many in recent years, which explore the possibility of human society being taken over by intelligent machines. Some depict the struggle between humans and machines, others envision a dystopian future in which the machines have triumphed, and a few explore the possibility that machines might create a “new operating system” for humanity which works better than the dysfunctional social and political systems extant today. This novel goes off in a different direction: What might happen, without artificial intelligence, but in an era of exponentially growing computer power and data storage capacity, if an industry leading company with tendrils extending into every aspect of personal interaction and commerce worldwide, decided, with all the best intentions, “What the heck? Let’s be evil!”

Mae Holland had done everything society had told her to do. One of only twelve of the 81 graduates of her central California high school to go on to college, she’d been accepted by a prestigious college and graduated with a degree in psychology and massive student loans she had no prospect of paying off. She’d ended up moving back in with her parents and taking a menial cubicle job at the local utility company, working for a creepy boss. In frustration and desperation, Mae reaches out to her former college roommate, Annie, who has risen to an exalted position at the hottest technology company on the globe: The Circle. The Circle had started by creating the Unified Operating System, which combined all aspects of users’ interactions — social media, mail, payments, user names — into a unique and verified identity called TruYou. (Wonder where they got that idea?)

Before long, anonymity on the Internet was a thing of the past as merchants and others recognised the value of knowing their customers and of information collected across their activity on all sites. The Circle and its associated businesses supplanted existing sites such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter, and with the tight integration provided by TruYou, created new kinds of interconnection and interaction not possible when information was Balkanised among separate sites. With the end of anonymity, spam and fraudulent schemes evaporated, and with all posters personally accountable, discussions became civil and trolls slunk back under the bridge.

With an effective monopoly on electronic communication and commercial transactions — if everybody uses TruYou to pay, what option does a merchant have but to accept it and pay The Circle’s fees? — The Circle was assured a large, recurring, and growing revenue stream. With the established businesses generating so much cash, The Circle invested heavily in research and development of new technologies: everything from sustainable housing, access to DNA databases, crime prevention, to space applications.

Mae’s initial job was far more mundane. In Customer Experience, she was more or less working in a call centre, except her communications with customers were over The Circle’s message services. The work was nothing like that at the utility company, however. Her work was monitored in real time, with a satisfaction score computed from follow-ups surveys by clients. To advance, a score near 100 was required, and Mae had to follow-up any scores less than that to satisfy the customer and obtain a perfect score. On a second screen, internal “zing” messages informed her of activity on the campus, and she was expected to respond and contribute.

As she advances within the organisation, Mae begins to comprehend the scope of The Circle’s ambitions. One of the founders unveils a plan to make always-on cameras and microphones available at very low cost, which people can install around the world. All the feeds will be accessible in real time and archived forever. A new slogan is unveiled: “All that happens must be known.

At a party, Mae meets a mysterious character, Kalden, who appears to have access to parts of The Circle’s campus unknown to her associates and yet doesn’t show up in the company’s exhaustive employee social networks. Her encounters and interactions with him become increasingly mysterious.

Mae moves up, and is chosen to participate to a greater extent in the social networks, and to rate products and ideas. All of this activity contributes to her participation rank, computed and displayed in real time. She swallows a sensor which will track her health and vital signs in real time, display them on a wrist bracelet, and upload them for analysis and early warning diagnosis.

Eventually, she volunteers to “go transparent:” That is, to wear a body camera and microphone every waking moment, and act as a window into The Circle for the general public. The company had pushed transparency for politicians, and now was ready to deploy it much more widely.

  • Secrets Are Lies
  • Sharing Is Caring
  • Privacy Is Theft

To Mae’s family and few remaining friends outside The Circle, this all seems increasingly bizarre: as if the fastest growing and most prestigious high technology company in the world has become a kind of grotesque cult which consumes the lives of its followers and aspires to become universal. Mae loves her sense of being connected, the interaction with a worldwide public, and thinks it is just wonderful. The Circle internally tests and begins to roll out a system of direct participatory democracy to replace existing political institutions. Mae is there to report it. A plan to put an end to most crime is unveiled: Mae is there.

The Circle is closing. Mae is contacted by her mysterious acquaintance, and presented with a moral dilemma: She has become a central actor on the stage of a world which is on the verge of changing, forever.

This is a superbly written story which I found both realistic and chilling. You don’t need artificial intelligence or malevolent machines to create an eternal totalitarian nightmare. All it takes a few years’ growth and wider deployment of technologies which exist today, combined with good intentions, boundless ambition, and fuzzy thinking. And the latter three commodities are abundant among today’s technology powerhouses.

Lest you think the technologies which underlie this novel are fantasy or far in the future, they were discussed in detail in David Brin’s 1999 The Transparent Society and my 1994 “Unicard” and 2003 “The Digital Imprimatur.” All that has changed is that the massive computing, communication, and data storage infrastructure envisioned in those works now exists or will within a few years.

What should you fear most? Probably the millennials who will read this and think, “Wow! This will be great.”

Democracy is mandatory here!

Special thanks to Ricochet member Seawriter, who reviewed this book on the Member Feed on January 10th, 2016.

Eggers, Dave. The Circle. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013. ISBN 978-0-345-80729-8.

There are 20 comments.

  1. Judge Mental Member

    It probably makes me a crank, but this is a big part of why I pay for almost everything in cash, and don’t use store cards unless they give me one without me giving up my personal data. Utilities, taxes and a few other things are the only time I don’t use cash.

    • #1
    • May 15, 2016, at 9:30 AM PDT
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  2. Aaron Miller Member

    Interesting, thanks.

    Do you think companies like Google will soon develop psychological profiles based on a user’s web activity and apply that to their advertising algorithms?

    As it is now, it’s clear that their program can’t yet distinguish between something a user searches for in pleasure and something one searches for in study. For example, I might search for subjects related to “green energy” for statistics on how harmful and inefficient they are, but the algorithm only sees that I am “interested” in green energy and so pitches me an ad for Democrats’ green programs.

    • #2
    • May 15, 2016, at 10:00 AM PDT
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  3. I Shot The Serif Member
    • #3
    • May 15, 2016, at 11:03 AM PDT
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  4. John Walker Contributor
    John Walker Post author

    Aaron Miller: Do you think companies like Google will soon develop psychological profiles based on a user’s web activity and apply that to their advertising algorithms?

    I suspect they’re already doing it, but they just haven’t gotten very good at it so far. There may be several reasons for this; here are two.

    • They might not have sufficiently complete information. By default, Google Chrome sends your browsing history to headquarters (they claim you can turn this off, but it’s on by default), but other browsers don’t send this information to Google (they may send it to their own vendors). Google does wrap links in search results with URLs that let them see which one users click, but if you click a link from one site to another, they won’t see it unless the the browser rats you out or the destination site uses something like Google Analytics, which will capture the user arriving at the site.
    • It may not be financially advantageous to them to do so. Google’s revenue model is largely based upon advertising. Better targeting results based upon inference of customer behaviour would make ads more effective, but it isn’t clear advertisers would pay sufficiently more to compensate for the revenue loss from selling them fewer presentations.
    • #4
    • May 15, 2016, at 11:07 AM PDT
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  5. Susan in Seattle Member

    Last summer, a friend of mine from Germany gave me this book. I got about a quarter of the way into it when it started to creep me out so I didn’t finish it. Maybe I should give it another try.

    • #5
    • May 15, 2016, at 11:14 AM PDT
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  6. Judge Mental Member

    John Walker: They might not have sufficiently complete information. By default, the Google Chrome sends your browsing history to headquarters (they claim you can turn this off, but it’s on by default), but other browsers don’t send this information to Google (they may send it to their own vendors). Google does wrap links in search results with URLs that let them see which one users click, but if you click a link from one site to another, they won’t see it unless the the browser rats you out or the destination site uses something like Google Analytics, which will capture the user arriving at the site.

    It’s the idea of cross referencing that against other publicly available information, like voter registrations, or proprietary information like credit histories and purchases, that feeds my paranoia. I’ve done enough data mining to realize what I could do with access to all the various database info for a given individual. As more companies store and share this type of data, it gets scary. It’s more than a psychological profile, it’s all of the habits of your life.

    • #6
    • May 15, 2016, at 11:22 AM PDT
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  7. John Walker Contributor
    John Walker Post author

    Judge Mental: I’ve done enough data mining to realize what I could do with access to all the various database info for a given individual. As more companies store and share this type of data, it gets scary. It’s more than a psychological profile, it’s all of the habits of your life.

    Without getting too close to spoiler territory, politicians who threaten The Circle’s agenda have a curious way of having their dirty laundry leak out. Funny how that happens….

    In an age when people talk about how many points social media bias can tilt an election, this is not science fiction, which is why I didn’t tag this book review with that term.

    • #7
    • May 15, 2016, at 5:01 PM PDT
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  8. Seawriter Member

    One fascinating aspect I found to the book was Mae’s perception of her jobs. She viewed the job at the utility company as worthless and dead end. Yet in that job she was actually doing important stuff – maintaining the company’s computers. Plus the company was providing something vitally needed. As those of us who live in hurricane country know living without electricity is hard. Electricity may not be a necessity like oxygen to breath or water to drink, but it comes pretty close.

    On the other hand, the “cool” job she starts with in User Experience at the Circle is truly meaningless. She answers questions from a menu (no thinking required) and the main challenge is begging clients to raise their ratings. (Which really raises the flag as to how meaningful the ratings are.) Yet she is convinced this monkey-motion job is the cat’s meow.

    Her later jobs are really just as non-productive. None of it requires her degree, and most could be done by a bright sixth grader. And she fails to recognizes any of this.

    Seawriter

    • #8
    • May 15, 2016, at 5:15 PM PDT
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  9. RushBabe49 Thatcher

    Just more good reasons to stay off Facebook and Twitter. And I make a point of never clicking on an ad that appears on a web site I am visiting.

    • #9
    • May 15, 2016, at 5:23 PM PDT
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  10. John Walker Contributor
    John Walker Post author

    Seawriter:On the other hand, the “cool” job she starts with in User Experience at the Circle is truly meaningless. She answers questions from a menu (no thinking required) and the main challenge is begging clients to raise their ratings. (Which really raises the flag as to how meaningful the ratings are.) Yet she is convinced this monkey-motion job is the cat’s meow.

    Her later jobs are really just as non-productive. None of it requires her degree, and most could be done by a bright sixth grader. And she fails to recognize any of this.

    And yet, I can see how many millennials would view this as an ideal job: gaining points in the real world just as they do in video games, but points which can be exchanged for real stuff. (Watch your student loan balance decline as you convert customer contacts into sales!) Note how closely The Circle resembles a college campus without the ticking clock of student loans: everything is provided, and all that is required is total buy-in and all of your effort. How many people would consider this a utopia? Hey, look at the gym—the climbing wall—the food court!

    Another exploration of the seductiveness of a New Operating System for humanity is Daniel Suarez’s Daemon and Freedom™, both highly recommended.

    • #10
    • May 15, 2016, at 5:37 PM PDT
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  11. Maureen Rice Thatcher

    I read this about a year ago, wanting to put it down a lot of the time. It still makes me uneasy. Was it a best- seller?

    • #11
    • May 15, 2016, at 5:41 PM PDT
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  12. John Walker Contributor
    John Walker Post author

    Maureen Rice:I read this about a year ago, wanting to put it down a lot of the time. It still makes me uneasy. Was it a best- seller?

    It reached number 7 on the New York Times best-seller list of 2013-10-27. It remained on the list for four weeks.

    • #12
    • May 15, 2016, at 5:55 PM PDT
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  13. Seawriter Member

    John Walker: And yet, I can see how many millennials would view this as an ideal job: gaining points in the real world just as they do in video games, but points which can be exchanged for real stuff. (Watch your student loan balance decline as you convert customer contacts into sales!) Note how closely The Circle resembles a college campus without the ticking clock of student loans: everything is provided, and all that is required is total buy-in and all of your effort. How many people would consider this a utopia? Hey, look at the gym—the climbing wall—the food court!

    Yup. Shows how detached from reality people who embrace this lifestyle are. And you can be detached from reality for a lo-o-ong time before reality decides to come for a visit.

    Seawriter

    • #13
    • May 15, 2016, at 6:23 PM PDT
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  14. Joseph Eagar Member

    This is why I don’t have a smart house, or a smart car. Do you have any idea how many cameras go into top-of-the-line smart cars, to say nothing of smart houses?

    At my last job they had me attend a few meetings on this stuff. It’s really creepy (and a little paternalistic). But some people love it anyway.

    • #14
    • May 16, 2016, at 4:00 AM PDT
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  15. Tuck Inactive

    John Walker: In an age when people talk about how many points social media bias can tilt an election, this is not science fiction, which is why I didn’t tag this book review with that term.

    I’ve found your reviews to be excellent guides. However this one sounds just too depressing to read. I think I’ll skip it.

    • #15
    • May 16, 2016, at 4:43 AM PDT
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  16. John Walker Contributor
    John Walker Post author

    Joseph Eagar: This is why I don’t have a smart house, or a smart car. Do you have any idea how many cameras go into top-of-the-line smart cars, to say nothing of smart houses?

    Then there’s that creepy Amazon Echo, which is always listening. And people pay US$ 180 to buy one.

    • #16
    • May 16, 2016, at 5:20 AM PDT
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  17. Matt Upton Coolidge

    But wait, does The Circle know when I’m out of Fruit Loops and automatically reorders for me? I will definitely give 100% customer satisfaction for that feature. You’re all being paranoid about the company that knows when I’m out of breakfast cereal.

    Kidding aside, if it’s in the vein of Daemon and Freedom I’ll definitely read The Circle.

    • #17
    • May 16, 2016, at 8:08 AM PDT
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  18. Hank Rhody-Badenphipps Esq Contributor

    Much like Judge Mental, I’m paranoid enough that I try to pay in cash and never use loyalty cards.

    Much like Tuck, this book seems too depressing, I doubt I’m going to read it.

    In other news, I’ve finally acquired a copy of The Hacker and the Ants. Now if only I could find the time to read all the other books that I’m also waiting to get to…

    • #18
    • May 16, 2016, at 4:38 PM PDT
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  19. John Walker Contributor
    John Walker Post author

    Hank Rhody: In other news, I’ve finally acquired a copy of The Hacker and the Ants.

    When you get to it, and finish it, check out my Epilogue. (Note, the Epilogue contains major spoilers, so don’t read it first.) The Epilogue was written for the first edition of the novel. Rudy incorporated some of it into the second edition, but I think it still works reasonably well with the updated story.

    • #19
    • May 16, 2016, at 4:51 PM PDT
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  20. Tuck Inactive

    John Walker: Then there’s that creepy Amazon Echo, which is always listening. And people pay US$ 180 to buy one.

    Apparently a lot of people felt that way, as they introduced a new one, the Tap, which you have to tap to get it to listen to you.

    • #20
    • May 18, 2016, at 4:32 AM PDT
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