Instagram. Snapchat. Facebook. Twitter. Ello. MySpace. Text messaging. Google. Skype. Social networking has become a daily part of life. It’s an easy way to keep in touch. A fun way to present oneself to the world. A marketing opportunity. But as social networks become more and more integrated into society, mankind finds itself standing on the edge of a cliff; what happens if and when social networking is transformed from a fun, leisurely hobby into a stressful requirement?
In 1984, George Orwell presented a world wherein starved, languishing human beings were battered down and forced to surrender their right to privacy, under the threat of a heavy boot. Humans became like cattle, constantly under the surveillance of a looming telescreen and the threat of corrective torture.
Dave Eggers’ The Circle, released in 2103, presents an equally terrifying idea: that humans won’t be forced to surrender their right to privacy, but will instead do it willingly, and with open arms.
The Circle is the story of Mae, the new employee of the Circle, the biggest technological corporation in the world. The Circle, in this science fiction timeline, replaced Facebook, Twitter and other social networks by consolidation and transparency; it combined all of the users internet accounts into one, requiring verification of that users identity by the use of his or her real name, social security number and other personal information. When Mae first begins work at the Circle, the glorious campus she works at is blissfully utopian, and while it never becomes any less utopian, the reader slowly discovers the dark side of paradise. This isn’t a dark, dirty dystopia, where society is downtrodden and poor; the society of the Circle is everything it sets out to be, fully capable of solving every problem that society has ever faced, with only one major cost:
Because when privacy is taken away, no crimes will be committed. Without privacy, people won’t drink too much, won’t pick up bad habits, won’t do anything that they wouldn’t want everyone else in the world to see them do.
That’s the most horrifying aspect of Eggers’ novel, when it comes down to it. Not just how relevant it is—and it is very relevant, in this new digital age—but that it truly, gutturally shows the deepest flaw in the utopian dream. Eggers isn’t content to simply find cracks in the idea of a utopia. Instead, he shows how the entire concept is inherently destructive to everything it means to be a human being.
The Circle depicts a world wherein people voluntarily put all of their personal information out there, publicly, while managing an increasingly enormous array of social networking connections—and as a result, these same people become increasingly paranoid, uber-sensitive and emotionally vacuous. What makes The Circle so terrifying is how realistic it feels, how easy it is to imagine an entire civilization surrendering itself to a technological monopoly.
The Circle is the sort of novel so disturbing that it makes it hard to sleep at night. Eggers cuts right to the heart of contemporary society, removes it from our collective chest—bloody, wet and throbbing—and forces us to look inward again, to find the true, private identity inside ourselves, instead of constantly stabbing outward for fake, shallow forms of happiness.