THINK COMPLETION – COMPLETE THE CIRCLE – THE CIRCLE MUST BE WHOLE
There are many, many interpretations of what the end of days might actually be for humanity. These apocalyptic renderings range from euphoric (see This is the End) to the more generic religious warnings, (which, from what I understand, are supposed to also be rapturous, but generally fall to horrifying, macabre threats of doom), to the reality of our self-perpetuated stupidity hitting home (see Idiocracy), to scientific explanations to suit all kinds as well, (are you a Big Banger or do you prefer the Steady State sensibility?), to literary warnings along the lines of those portended by George Orwell and Aldous Huxley in their wildly divergent means to a seemingly similar end. Having read both 1984 and Brave New World multiple times as a student and a teacher, I always felt, as Neil Postman (see Stuart McMillen’s artistic rendering of his thesis below) seems to have concluded, that Huxley had a more accurate take on the detrimental human state, and that it was not oppression that would be our end, but unlimited everything…. Achieving one’s altered, yet higher state from a perpetual food-coma as it were. [Soma in a nutshell, eh? Actually, yeah.] And while there are important take-aways from both novels, as I have grown up into this 21st Century lifestyle, watching a world with the capacity to solve all of its problems choose not to, and watching an ever-increasing sense of connection lead to what really looks like isolation… both theses seemed somehow lacking. They were close, but not getting at exactly what I was seeing and feeling. Then I read Dave Eggers’ new novel, The Circle.
And now I think I know exactly what to be afraid of.
I should start by saying that I bought the book at my local brick and mortar bookshop, a three-block walk from my apartment (although I could have gone two more blocks to Eggers’ own 826 Valencia, but was also on the hunt for two other texts so Dog Eared Books made more sense); I think in context (and not, really) that this is important. Also, I should acknowledge that I had become interested in the novel not just as a general Eggers fan, but from a review that I did not really read that I think was in the SF Weekly. I am not sure, all I remember was seeing that Eggers’ new book was out and a young woman had reviewed it saying that A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius had brought her to San Francisco and she was moving on – literally leaving the area – with The Circle.
That was sort of all I needed to know, and truth be told, I hate reading book reviews before I read books because I fear my own weakness in allowing the reviews to inform my relationship with the text. So I don’t. And if you are the same way, all I can say is this is not really going to review The Circle. I don’t think.
The thing is, I also read AHWOSG at a very crucial time in my life. Simply put I was miserable, doing hard time in Northern Nevada as I like to say. I was far from anything that was nourishing to me in any way, literal or metaphoric, and I was dying a slow, suburban death. But I digress, and any of you who know me are already stupefyingly familiar with that chapter of my existence, I am sure. I had actually been given another Eggers novel, his first and probably my favorite, You Shall Know Our Velocity!, by one of the only people who might have had a small inkling of my state of being at the time, and had torn through it. It was, and still is, a very important book to me, and if you have not read it, you probably should, not because of me, but because of you. [That is about the extent of my book reviewing capabilities and why the New York Times is never going to call me up and tell me they must have me.]
Anyhow, I read ASWOHG after that, and although the friend who had gifted my with YSKOV! didn’t feel the same way about ASWOHG, at least about the second half of the novel, which I have heard many say reads like a different book – which is logical because after half a life, aren’t we all different? But whatever, I loved it.
And I promptly left Nevada. Well, it did take me six years, primarily spent in Asia, to get back to the Bay Area, but I like to think that the seed had been planted by AHWOSG, and so that one little excerpt from the review (was it in the Weekly?) that recalled the pull of a certain novel, and the push of another sent me right to that other.
I read the novel over the course of a long weekend. Primarily in my home, surrounded evidence of the onset of the exact same nature that Eggers sets up in the book. The Circle is a tech company with all the attractive bells and whistles everyone in my area is super familiar with: corporate campuses, tech busses whisking people to and fro with nary a stop at a local shop, amazing amenities and one must suppose wages as well, creating a new reverse migration pattern in our urban area. Although he never suggests it, let’s just say the Circle is a whole lot like Google.
The entire narrative arc of the story is an ass kicker because it was like the whole time I knew I shouldn’t covet the realities of these fictional techie wonder-kids, I did. And in spite of aggressive moral opposition to so much of what they were doing and how, I really understood why they might have. And the sublimely slippery slope from ingenue-innovator to world dominatrix-matrix made total sense… when you put it that way.
And that scared me more than any horror story I have read/watched/heard in a lifetime.
The lure of convenience diffused with endless distractions to quell any consideration that our desire for ease might be innate laziness hit very close to home. In his work, Brave New World Revisited, Huxley said, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” And Eggers has illustrated this beautifully, and tragically.
I live with someone who would be described by most as a luddite. He has no internet footprint. And I mean none. He finally got email after we started dating, but I couldn’t tell you the last time he used it, I bet it is more than a year. And this leads to some obvious differences of opinions between us. He does not understand the attraction of posting photos of us, or the cats, or random other stuff, on the internet for strangers to see. But, I tell him, it is for my friends to see. Then why not just send them the photos directly he asks. I have no answer. And why do we need to check in and tell people what we are doing he asks. What is the point? I search for an answer that is not about showing off or somehow seeming self-important, and I am at a loss for words. I say, Oh man, you have to see this… and pull out some device, he says, Why? He sees reports of ‘cyber-bullying’ and says, seriously? Just. Walk. Away. And even though I tell him that the bullying goes further than that, he says, how? It is some person, you may not even know, saying stupid untrue shit. How. Can. That. Matter. I tell him I have been being harassed by an internet troll who is interested in defaming me for reasons I cannot know and is accusing me of running some weird web accounts about him, and his answer is, do you know this person? I say only peripherally. He says, why is he doing it? I say I have no idea, because I made it clear I think he sucks? And he says, Is he a little man? And I have to laugh. [Yes.] I’d love for them to meet.
The benefits of so many amazing things seem to have gone a little haywire, it is true. Where my family might have sat around and discussed, or argued, about some fact, some trivial detail… we now go straight to the device… often not even taking the time to type, we just ask Siri to look it up for us because… we can. I am not saying this is bad, and I have always loved knowing things, and knowing them first… but it is different.
And then I think about all the other stuff I am exposed to via my voluntary participation in “the circle”… targeted advertisements, junk mail, spam, people I may know, or my most detested: “Others like you”. [As if… Or… ] The knowledge that Facebook owns everything I ever put on their site, that Twitter archives every 140-character Tweet I ever completed, that Amazon is considered the beacon of commercial greatness because it “knows me” is oppressive in its weight if you stop to consider it, which is why I reckon so few do.
If it is not scary it should be by now. And, as with The Circle, there seems to be no opting out. I never signed up for Google plus, but there it is, with photos. I never wanted anything to do with Linked In, but there it is, on the daily, pestering me. I never asked Amazon to suggest books to me or Facebook to tell me who my friends should be, or who’s information I should see based on my level of interaction with a given person. I certainly have no interest in being valued by the number of Twitter followers I have, or retweets I get, or blog views that come my way. This is not even looking at me as less than the sum of my parts, it is letting someone else pick the parts.
-I understand you weren’t very happy about being the subject of Gus’s LuvLuv demonstration.
-It just caught me by suprise. He hadn’t told me about it beforehand.
-Is that all?
-Well, it presented a distorted impression of me.
-Was the information he presented incorrect? There were factual mistakes?
-Well, it wasn’t that. It was just… piecemeal. And maybe that made it seem incorrect. It was taking a few slivers of me and presenting that as the whole me –
-It seemed incomplete.
-Mae, I am very glad you put it that way. As you know, the Circle is itself trying to become complete…
And so we spend so much time trying to make ourselves seem complete – virtually – that we become less so in reality (not to mention the freedom to edit in the virtual world). The idea that something is not real, or valid, unless people – other people and strangers – know about it, is new and weird and suddenly real. And then, in our redoubled efforts to seem real, and important, and somehow significant as if our existence was not enough, we offer up all this information about ourselves… and then something like Facebook realizes that it is not a social tool, but the world’s largest collection of marketing data.
In our search for significance, we become simple, replicated data. That seems ironic.
I was constantly reminded by The Circle’s unspoken quid pro quo, of the oft recalled line (most recently revisited personally in FDR’s Four Freedoms Speech) that those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety. Further, Eggers pays homage, or so it seems, to Orwell through the myriad plaques that appear throughout the Circle: PRIVACY IS THEFT. SECRETS ARE LIES. SHARING IS CARING. And, as in Orwell’s work, you can actually trace the logic behind the sentiments, the end result seems far afield from the purported intent.
There is so much to think about here, in terms of what matters to us as humans, or how we can save ourselves from ourselves, and this book gives us a lot to think about to those ends. [A question I will ask my students as we begin our unit on criminal justice is whether or not crime would be eliminated if the world was completely viewable, completely transparent.] But these thoughts are hard to focus on with the constant traffic of the Google busses outside, and the lure of Instagram notifications, Tweets, or what’s new on Facebook, not to mention I must finish this blog as soon as possible for… for WHO?
I know that things are changing – but it is hard to say how exactly. The graffiti from my street (above) certainly suggests a new attitude, but it is limited and reactionary. If history bears out, those with the money and the power will dictate the nature of the change, at least until things get… well, I am not sure how it has to get actually. The tragic heroes in Eggers book offer hope, but if you know how it goes for a tragic hero, you know how goes that hope. And while it may be true that one person’s utopia is another’s dystopia, I just have to think it is more complicated than that.
Listen, twenty years ago, it wasn’t so cool to have a calculator watch, right? And spending all day inside playing with your calculator watch sent a clear message that you weren’t doing s well socially. And judgements like ‘like’ and ‘dislike’ and ‘smiles’ and ‘frowns’ were limited to junior high. Someone would write a note and it would say, ‘Do you like unicorns and stickers?’ and you’d say, ‘Yeah, I like unicorns and stickers! Smile!’ That kind of thing. But now it’s not just junior high kids who do it, it’s everyone, and it seems to me sometimes I’ve entered some inverted zone, some mirror world where the dorkiest shit in the world is completely dominant. The world has dorkified itself.
Mercer, much like the luddite of my dreams, saw the obsession with hyper-connectivity as a ridiculous distraction, with little real benefit. Getting out of the Circle seems like an admirable goal. I guess you will have to read the book to see if you agree.
Or save yourself the time and just go on line and see how many ‘likes’ the book has.