Privacy Is Theft: An Orwellian Proposition That Outdoes Big Brother

03/12/2015 02:42 pm ET | Updated May 12, 2015

Laura Sarner's blog ("The Best Dystopian Novels Everyone Should Read" from last November) provided a comprehensive list of the popular, if depressing, genre. Richard Eggers' The Circle, published in 2013 belongs on that list. Page numbers refer to the Vintage Books paperback edition.

There are many ways to view a circle: one as a closed system. Once a cog is admitted to the circle, it is designed to remain in place and help sustain the whole. The new cog in Dave Eggers' novel, The Circle, is a young woman named Mae. The Circle is a giant Internet technology company which largely focuses on social media in ways that make current social media seem tame and quaint. Mae, through the help of an old college friend, Annie, now a high-profile member of The Circle, is given an entry-level position as a CE (customer experience) representative. Mae is awed at what seems like some vast progressive campus of free-flowing thought and innovation. It is less that and more of a disguised re-education camp. Employees may work eight-hour days (more of course is encouraged) but they belong to the company 24/7.

If this isn't apparent from the start, Mae, who scores well in her customer contact evaluations from the beginning, is soon contacted by her boss who tells her that The Circle "isn't what you might call a clock-in, clock-out company." (176-77) At that point, an interrogation ensues of manic proportions, a blend of Kafka and the Marx Brothers. Mae, if not physically present, must stay plugged into The Circle at all times. Before the advent of home computers and email, there was an old office saying: "Presence is productivity." Put another way, "just don't go home." At The Circle, you not only should not leave at 5 p.m. but check in at all hours with... everyone. Besides, The Circle can be your home. Free room and board on campus. Could life get better? So, Mae is chastised for having "No photos, no zings, no reviews, notices, bumps."

But since The Circle is an Internet technology and social media company, one could envision neural implants to get these zings and bumps while we sleep. Lo and behold, as I start to draft this review and as I get to page 239, it happens: "There was a rumor that Project 9 engineers had figured out a way to replace the random jumble of our nighttime dreaming with organized thinking and real-life problem-solving."

The Circle is a version of Orwell's 1984, except that on the surface it looks like Disneyland. Even the writing is light and breezy, like the spacious atriums at The Circle, deflecting the underlying cult mentality. This is a welcome addition to the canon of dystopian literature.

Mae looked at the time. It was six o'clock. She had plenty of hours to improve... so she embarked on a flurry of activity, sending four zings and 32 comments and 88 smiles. In an hour, her PartiRank rose to 7,288... She felt a profound sense of accomplishment and possibility that was accompanied, in short order, by a near-complete sense of exhaustion. (191-192)

PartiRank? This is a closed society with total interconnectedness suggesting the Star Trek Borg. Resistance in this cult really is futile.

At the end of Book I, it is clear we have entered the Orwellian landscape as Mae, having gone kayaking in secret and semi-illegally (an obviously subversive act) is placed on a virtual scaffold of humiliation for the benefit of Circle employees. Her biggest sin is secrecy, not sharing her experience with everyone. After a kind of forced confession, a screen behind her flashes:


At the beginning of Book II, Mae is now participating in the Circle's ultimate goal -- total transparency -- wearing a device that delivers all she sees and hears to... everyone. After all, "PRIVACY IS THEFT." One of The Circle's founders (overlords) named Stenton has brought back a number of unknown species of marine life from an expedition to the Mariana Trench. One happens to be a voracious, literally blind but translucent shark.

Along the way, in exchange for premiere health care for Mae's parents, they are obligated to have cameras placed in their home and respond to all manner of inquiries, comments, and "well-wishes" by a voyeuristic public that has abandoned any notion respect for privacy.

Late in the game, Mae receives a letter through snail mail (the only secure form of communication; this kind of mail delivery now occurs once a week) from an erstwhile boyfriend, Mercer. Mae's recent enlightened state regards him as some outdated troglodyte, but who actually maintains the voice of reason:

Did you ever think that our minds are delicately calibrated between the known and unknown? That our souls need the mysteries of night and the clarity of day. You people are creating an ever-present world of daylight, and I think it will burn us all alive. There will be no time to reflect, to sleep, to cool. (434)

Mercer decides he will completely sever ties with the ever-encroaching technology and go off the grid in some northern wilderness. As if to "save" Mercer from himself, The Circle, with Mae leading the charge, field-tests a new product called SoulSearch. SoulSearch can reveal the graphic and gory genealogy of anyone and locate anyone in a matter of minutes. Mercer becomes one of the test subjects and once he is discovered, he is pursued by people and drones for the sole purpose of demonstrating you can run but you can't hide anymore, besides "SECRETS ARE LIES." A high-speed chase ensues and Mercer drives his truck off a bridge into a riverbed hundreds of feet below. Although this may seem a little too predictable, it is really his only viable course of action if he is to maintain the purity of his values.

The essence of the company's message comes from a mysterious "Ty" (aka Kalden), one of the founders of The Circle's principles, realizing that his vision was perverted, that "completion" means everyone must be confined in the Circle.

Completion is the end -- we're closing the circle around everyone -- it's a totalitarian nightmare... everyone will be tracked, cradle to grave, with no possibility of escape. (486)

In the last pages, Mae listens, but succumbs to the lure of total transparency, that of the deep-sea shark that devours every living organism that comes near it with its transparent digestive system, quickly dispatching its waste, that "privacy is theft" and rats out the pleading Ty. There is no questioning, just total blind acceptance.

The thoughts of Mae's friend, Annie, remain hidden as the exhausted woman, learning of a past which should remain hidden, lies in a coma, her thoughts unrevealed. But The Circle will work on that. The ending is reminiscent of Winston Smith in 1984. But he resists for a while and then is discovered and tortured. Following his "rehabilitation," Orwell proclaims, "He loved Big Brother." In Eggers' novel his character Mae willingly embraces The Circle, and that outcome is perhaps even more depressing. The technology of social media is taken to absurd destructive lengths, reducing the essence of our humanity to the ash-like waste matter of the transparent shark that devours everything.

Finally, it calls to mind the musings of Hamlet who said all of Denmark [was] a prison. Shakespeare knew the many forms a prison could take, including those without cells and bars. But Hamlet also knew that he "could be bounded in a nutshell and be accounted a king of infinite space." Mae has made her place in that space.