David Eggers’ novel The Circle began so well, embraced so many interesting contemporary themes, plumbed important depths of digital-age psychology, doing all of this with a light touch and an intriguing point of view. And then he allowed the thing to slip away from him in the last thirty or forty pages. (Honestly, I can’t say how many pages it was as I read it on my Kindle.) I can’t say how disappointed I was as this marvelous piece of fiction sputtered to what for me was a quite unsatisfying end. Still, I have come neither to praise nor to bury Eggers but to comment upon him; thus, comment I will.
One of the aspects of the 20th century’s greatest dystopian novel, 1984, that I find a tad underdeveloped is the whole notion of how we came to exist in the world that Winston Smith inhabits. Orwell, for all his thoroughness in detailing what life in London was currently like under Big Brother, never explains how it reached that point. To his credit, Eggers paints a plausible trajectory that could have led to the hyper-controlled world Orwell presents. And the credit or blame for this world goes to the population as a whole. The promises made by the mega corporation in the novel–a corporation that seems to be part-Google, part-Apple, and both of them cubed–are simply too seductive to be ignored. When we think about the children, we don’t mind implanting chips within them to keep them out of the hands of predators. If we think about them a bit more, then we trade a measure of privacy for a measure of security. When we lament the corruption that seems the only common denominator in contemporary politics, it seems reasonable and just to demand that politicians and then their staffs and then private citizens open their every moment to potential public scrutiny. After all, we’re just thinking about the children. We’re thinking about the environment, and crime, and education, and a thousand other good things. When we think about transportation safety, we don’t object when government agents grope grandmothers at the airport–but actually that last bit wasn’t in the novel.
By viewing the story of the impending “closing of the circle,” the approaching absolute control of society by a single corporation with uncertain intentions and morality, through the eyes of a marginally capable but optimistic Mae Holland, Eggers plausibly explains how a vast swath of a populace can come to love Big Brother (or Big Circle) without ever having to visit Room 101. Mae, at first rather put off by some of the demands placed upon her as she begins work at the company, eventually embraces them, even though their utility is highly questionable. Where early on she resisted or simply couldn’t see the importance of opening up more and more of her private life to the company and the world, by Book II, she comes whole-heartedly to embrace Circle philosophy. It is Mae who suggests that Circle accounts be made mandatory for everyone–that requirement made in the name of purer democracy.
With that move, which does not take place within the time frame of the novel, the Circle will have effectively instituted the biblical “Mark of the Beast.” In Revelation 13:16-17 we read:
It also forced all people, great and small, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hands or on their foreheads, so that they could not buy or sell unless they had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of its name.
And for Mae and the vast majority of people for whom connectedness via the Circle and its various networked tools, that mark is taken willingly, even gratefully. After all, they were thinking about the children, the earth, the future.