The Circle

How a sci-fi dystopian vision can improve the future

By Steve Outing

Futurists deal with scenarios. With a single future for any industry or important issue impossible to predict accurately, the best way to forecast what is years or decades ahead is by working with multiple (plausible) scenarios, and going from there — say, to developing solutions to societal problems that accompany respective scenarios (of climate change, the surveillance state, etc.).

Sci-fi authors also deal in scenarios of the future, but, unless a novel is really unconventional, readers get to immerse themselves in just one scenario of the future as created by the writer.

So it is with Dave Eggers’ The Circle (Random House, October 2013), a readable and entertaining look at a scenario of our future that few of us would wish for.

First, let me say that I didn’t think this was a great book, but it’s very good; I recommend it. Despite some flaws, I felt compelled to keep reading till the end. I think that in part, for me at least, Eggers’ future of an all-powerful Internet company that is just as creepy as the NSA (if not more so) is close enough to what we have today that it is a plausible real future — and thus alarming.

Google + Facebook + cult

Briefly, here’s the plot. The heroine of Eggers’ story is twenty-something Mae Holland, who gets hired for a coveted job at the most powerful Internet company on the planet, The Circle, thanks in large part to a college friend who has become a key Circle executive. As a result of her connections, and her willingness to work hard and buy into the corporate culture, no matter what, Mae quickly rises to a very visible position in the company.

The Circle, it seemed to me, is a mashup of Google and Facebook at some point in the not-too-distant future. Eggers has said that it’s not modeled on those companies (I don’t believe him!), but that rather The Circle has acquired many big Internet players or driven them to irrelevancy and has become the dominant Internet company, without any serious competition.

For the sake of simplicity, let’s presume that The Circle is Google and Facebook combined plus a bunch of tech acquisitions, with a new name, a decade from now. The company is run from a sprawling Silicon Valley campus, and its thousands of employees have all the perks they could want in order to be motivated to work long hours, and even not to wish to leave the campus much to visit the outside world. (There are luxurious dorms for anyone working late who doesn’t want to drive home at the end of the day.)

There are other employee benefits that go beyond what you’ll find today at companies like Google and Apple: not just free gourmet meals and snacks, but frequent events and concerts on the campus, sports teams and activity clubs, in-house child and medical care, and health coverage for employees’ extended families, etc. As a place to work, The Circle is utopian.

About that dark side

Of course, it’s not utopia; it’s more like the headquarters of a corporate cult, where charismatic and mysterious leaders use high salaries and wonderful benefits to make sure that every employee stays devoted to The Circle’s ambitious philosophy of making the world better by promoting complete transparency. (Is that so far-fetched? Wikileaks promotes transparency and wants to do away with government and corporate secrets.)

The Circle has gotten so dominant because it provides everything that a modern citizen could want in terms of digital services. It pulls together everything from a user’s life — e-mail, phone messages, social-media activity, physical location tracking of where a person is and has been, what restaurants and food he/she likes, interests, friend networks, personal calendar, purchases, and aspires to manage medical and voting records — and provides one simple, overall, you-don’t-need-anything-but-us personal-assistant service, which runs in the cloud and can be used anywhere, from any device. (This is merely an exaggeration of where Google seems to be heading in real life.)

Fitting with its philosophy that transparency is entirely a positive thing, The Circle has developed tiny wireless video cameras that can be placed anywhere, often without anyone knowing, and whatever any of thousands and eventually millions of cameras are seeing can be viewed online by anyone, across the globe. (Want to experience sunrise at the Grand Canyon this morning? Just tap into the tiny cameras worn by many of the tourists there right now. … What’s it look like in the middle of the protest that just blew up into violence minutes ago in Damascus? Tap into the live citizen cameras on the scene.)

The Circle’s founders believe that such total transparency will put an end to crime and other unseemly human behavior. After all, why would anyone take the risk of snatching a wallet or purse if the targeted victim is recording everything that they experience? The Circle’s executives have even convinced lots of politicians to wear the cameras all the time to be 100% transparent about their lives, other than for bathroom breaks.

As a means to imploring the public to buy into and participate in such personal transparency, employees of The Circle are required to be role models. Posting “zings,” clicking “likes,” responding to others’ social-media posts, joining online communities, and so on is required at a very high output for an employee who hopes to advance. (It’s all measured, and employees compete to be the most “social” and transparent.) Our heroine, Mae, even gets recruited — and assents — to sharing her entire life with the world by wearing a wireless camera, becoming an always-on company PR ambassador (a.k.a., propagandist), and a worldwide celebrity as a side effect.

Lessons learned

The story is predictable, in that The Circle’s “complete transparency” solution to the world’s woes runs into problems and destroys a few lives because, of course, it’s a privacy super-nightmare. But it’s not seen that way by the company’s employees, whose cult-like devotion causes them to cheer even as company executives unveil new products that might even make the director of the NSA squirm.

I won’t spoil the plot for those of you yet to read The Circle, but I’ve shared enough for you to grasp Eggers’ dystopian future where a rich, giant Internet company has consolidated power, can do as it wishes without much oversight, and can influence politicians to steer governance to its philosophy of “making the world a better place” by promoting and using The Circle’s Orwellian “transparency” technology.

Eggers presents privacy advocates as a minority overpowered not just by The Circle’s ubiquitous technology and influence into government, but by a societal shift where giving up privacy in order to benefit from the wonders that the technology offers is the majority point of view.

So, is this completely implausible? Think about it:

  • The richest companies in today’s world are urging all of us to share as much of our lives as possible. Younger people, in general, are more comfortable with sharing personal details of their lives digitally than the older generation. I don’t think that this trend will turn into Eggers’ dystopia; his novel takes transparency beyond what society is likely to accept. … Then again, it’s not really that far from today’s reality.
  • Ubiquitous live-feed cameras as portrayed in the book aren’t that far removed from today’s reality. With so many people carrying a mobile phone capable of shooting video, and many able to stream it live to the web or social-media sites, tiny and inexpensive wireless cameras that citizens can place anywhere are just another technological leap ahead. … In Russia today, many drivers have dashboard video cameras, always on, in order to help them avoid corrupt police and other personal threats; we saw societal benefit from that when a huge meteor crashed to earth and was recorded by many Russian drivers. A next step could be that those dashboard video cams live stream and anyone can look in, if the driver has opted to share publicly.
  • Wearable technology has become the next big tech trend. Today’s dorky-looking Google Glass smartglasses will evolve and we’ll have a choice of smartglasses that can shoot (and stream) video yet look like normal eyeglasses. Tiny cameras can be worn today, connected to your smartphone via Bluetooth; those will get smaller still, and likely incorporated into some wearable clothing or jewelry. Again, The Circle’s fictional cameras are just another technology leap away.

Ultimately, I don’t think that the future of The Circle will come to pass. Even those of us who believe that transparency is, overall, a great thing that we’d like to see more of from governments and businesses, don’t want to see transparency run amok and privacy disappear.

Many of us already are upset and freaked out by the surveillance state that exists in the U.S. because of the secretly growing digital super spy powers of the NSA. That commercial information technology companies are doing something different but not so different, in the name of making life better and easier for consumers/citizens, concerns lots of folks as well today. Should commercial Internet companies amp up a private surveillance society, in the name of good and transparency, it’s a strong bet that society will rise against it.

(Then, of course, there are antitrust laws which, we hope, would prevent a company like The Circle from acquiring power that makes it possible for it to largely eliminate personal privacy.)

And sure, it’s a nice thought to have all the world’s information — including about every individual — at our fingertips. But few of us would argue that there should be no secrets, at the institutional or personal levels, as The Circle’s fictional founders believe.

But … The Circle does offer us warning:

  • Not to let corporate superpowers like Google get too big and too powerful.
  • To understand the value of a digital sharing society, but also the risks if it’s taken too far.
  • That corporate leaders with grand visions, good intentions, and the money to pull them off may not fully grasp the future impacts of their increasingly powerful technologies, and should have government and public oversight.
  • That we continue to lose our individual privacy — some from government snooping run amok (NSA, et al), some from our own preference for sharing details of our lives with the rest of the world via social-media and other digital interaction — and perhaps we should think more about our personal digital sharing, and if it’s really all for the good.

As a sci-fi aficionado, I didn’t find The Circle to be my favorite book. But it does serve a powerful purpose: to warn of a future scenario that we appear to be heading toward, so that our society can steer the bus to a more positive future and avoid an Internet/social-media dystopia.

I hope more people read the book. It’s got all the marks of a future movie thriller, too, so Eggers’ warnings surely will reach a mass audience.

Author: Steve Outing Steve Outing is a Boulder, Colorado-based media futurist, digital-news innovator, consultant, journalist, and educator. ... Need assistance with media-company future strategy? Get in touch with Steve!