This is the first Dave Eggers book I have read. I know, I know, he’s a voice of a generation, right? Since he’s 44, he’s a Gen X-er like me, and it is the folks our age who straddled that time period between analog and digital. We got our first PC in my house when I was 16 and I remember having to learn how to use a mouse. I remember TV when there were just four channels. I played Dungeons and Dragons on our Intellevision.
The generation that followed me hardly remembers when computers weren’t ubiquitous. The protagonist of this novel is Mae Holland, a twenty-something that snags a job at the Circle, a technology company that is sort of a combination of Google and Apple. Set in a fictional Northern California near San Francisco, Mae starts her job in Customer Experience and is bowled over by the beautiful campus, the amenities if offers, and the creative, humanitarian vibe. Employees are so enamored of their workspace that they often spend just as much time playing there through Circle sponsored concerts, sports, parties, and the like. Mae finds the technology impressive, the swag irresistible, and the community all-inclusive.
All-inclusive. Think about those words for a moment. Mostly, one conjures resorts or cruises where all your food, your entertainment and tips are included in the price of your stay. The Circle is certainly like that with a message of goodwill attached to it; they seek the most creative and philanthropic minds who can combine this technology with ways to make our world safer, cleaner, healthier and happier.
I believe Marx and Engels had the same idea when they hammered out (ooh, pun intended!) the tenets of Communism. Works great on paper, but that is assuming everyone is like-minded and striving towards common goals. However, it does not leave room for human nature: character flaws, differences of opinion, or selfishness.
The Circle takes it a step further. They want everyone to have the happiest, healthiest life possible. They are looking for ways to cut back on crime, keep kids safe, keep people fed. We all want that right? How far would you go to see that dream realized? Eamon Bailey, the most humanitarian-minded of the triumvirate that makes up the leadership of the Circle, thinks he has the answer. He introduces SeeChange at a press conference very much like the one Apple had today. SeeChange is simply a camera, the size of a lollipop, that is wireless, digital, and can be put pretty much anywhere. He shows how effective it can be to set a few up at the beach to get an accurate surf report. He shows how easy it would be to set up multiple cameras in such places as Tahrir Square in Cairo, or anyplace with political upheaval. It would make the world accountable. Transparent. Instant access to events as they happen, unedited, could be ours.
This is just one of the ways the Circle strives to get its finger in every pie. In the spirit of goodwill and benevolence it allows every person in the US to combine their social media accounts with all government services. Isn’t that swell? Of course, you are now required to have a Circle account. But think of how easy it will be to access your health information, your social security, all your records are kept safe by one private company that seduces the public with their brighter, shinier, faster technology.
It is seductive, and very few are immune to the powers of convenience. I know I love my iPhone, it’s really handy, it’s fun, and it’s so very pretty. This new Apple Watch is almost exactly like a health monitoring device that Mae wears in the novel. It tracks your heart rate, how much you sleep, how many steps you take, etc. Her bracelet also counts her calories and all of it gets reported back to her doctor. She says herself it makes her mindful of the food choices she makes–she doesn’t want to get a lecture at her next checkup because she had that brownie instead of an apple, does she?
Of course, this is a cautionary tale about the dangers of allowing ourselves to become too dependent on our technology. But it’s more than that. Eggers really shows us that all the newest, coolest technology is a trade. You want to have cameras everywhere? You had better do nothing dishonest ever again! This includes running a red light, grabbing a grape off the bunch in the produce section, or taking your waitress’ pen. Are you ready for that?
Are you ready to have your child microchipped? This would have a tracking device so your little one could never be kidnapped. It is embedded in the ankle bone and can give you an instant report on his or her whereabouts. Of course, it will also come in handy later when they are teenagers and you want to know where they’re going with their friends. It might be difficult to remove, but hey, that’s the price of eliminating kidnappings, right?
The Circle doesn’t want you to know that it’s on track to completely dominate the world, at least not until it’s too late. You won’t have a speck of privacy anymore, but you’ll be safe, fed, and able to see what anyone is doing, anywhere. But it probably won’t be very interesting, because when the camera is on, people tend to behave themselves.
I like technology, but I wonder how much the Millennials and generations beyond have ever really considered these trade offs, and what they might cost. I am always reminding myself that just because I can have the latest toy doesn’t necessarily mean I should. There is still something to be said about watching a sunset, reading a book with actual pages, or getting all sweaty from playing tennis, or going for a bike ride. And then there is the little matter of privacy. I don’t want a series of webcams that can track me from the minute I leave my house to the minute I return. I heard that it was possible now, we have the technology to record every second of a person’s life from birth to death. It could all be on permanent record.
And I think of junior high and shudder at the thought.
Well done, Dave Eggers. This is the 1984 of my generation. The scary part is that this book was published just under a year ago, and so many of these things have come to pass. It’s a slippery slope, and I hope people are paying attention. Plato was talking about moderation almost 2500 years ago, and we would be wise to remember that.