Dave Eggers, author of A Hologram for the King and A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, is releasing his newest novel on Tuesday. A tale of a dystopia cloaked in the guise of Silicon Valley, The Circle tells the story of Mae Holland, a young professional who goes to work for a company reminiscent of Google that's called The Circle. The company functions as a kind of surveillance state for the book's world. The Circle wants everyone's online activity to be chronicled and shared. One of their mottoes is, "ALL THAT HAPPENS MUST BE KNOWN." It's a scary anticipation of social media's future — a glimpse of what may yet come if we aren't vigilant.
In her climb up the corporate ladder of The Circle, Holland creates the very Orwellian slogan, "SECRETS ARE LIES / SHARING IS CARING / PRIVACY IS THEFT" for one of the company's programs. At one point, Holland's supervisors make her feel guilty for not posting online about her father's health scare. It's terrifying to think that you are pressured to share things you consider private because others feel you owe them the information. The contemporary parallel isn't as drastic, but there is an implicit expectation that anything important in one's life should be shared online. When something new happens if your life, how long does it take your Facebook friends to demand pictures?
In the real world, people work hard to keep the personal and professional areas of their lives separate from one another. In the world of The Circle, there is no such thing as a work-life balance — not because employees' jobs take all the time away from their social lives, but because the jobs demand that employees merge their work and social lives. In the book, not attending work functions is grounds for meetings with human resources. Failing to disclose your hobbies is suspicious. Holland's absence at "totally optional" social events leads her coworkers to call her an enigma. They actually get her to apologize for not sharing photos of a solo kayaking trip. That kind of job-focused life eats away at a single person like Holland, but such an overbearing workplace would be even more difficult for someone with a family. Not sharing your pastimes or about your child's ballgame shouldn't be grounds for reprimand. Though there's no clear analog here, the ongoing discussion of whether or not to become Facebook friends with people in your office evokes similar concerns.
Part of Holland's duties at The Circle is answering customer questions. The customer instantly rates Holland's answer on a scale from one to 100, and she can then ask the customer how her answer could have been better, in order to see if she can improve her score. Eggers told the New York Times that, "That kind of immediate gratification, hundreds of times a day, becomes the norm for her, and becomes addictive." For some people, this isn't just a prediction of how we will become dependent on online interactions in the future. It's happening now. A quick Google search will give you hundreds of ways to increase the number of likes your content gets on Facebook.
If the future goes the way of The Circle, trees will be safer because paper will be a thing of the past. The Circle teaches Holland that it's selfish to use paper instead of the internet. "My problem with paper is that all communication dies with it. It holds no possibility of continuity. You look at your paper guide, and that’s where it ends. It ends with you. Like you’re the only one who matters," explains one of her bosses. Paper is often an afterthought in the age of smartphones and tablets, but omitting paper completely would be omitting a large part of our history and culture. No more family Bibles filled with stories. No more love letters on pretty stationary. No more identifiable handwriting. No more PolicyMic print edition. Wait a minute...
In a different excerpt from The Circle published by the U.K. Telegraph, Holland has to apologize to a superior for not going to a brunch for Portugal enthusiasts, which she hadn't realized she had been invited to. Despite never declaring an interest in the European country, she was singled out because of vacation photos located solely on her computer's hard drive. A coworker tells her, "If they were on your laptop, now they’re in the cloud, and the cloud gets scanned for information like that. You don’t have to run around signing up for Portugal interest clubs or anything." As of April of this year, more than half of all U.S. businesses were already using cloud systems. Personal use of cloud technology is on the rise. Trolling through non-shared vacation photos for information on interests is scary enough, but given the sensitive personal and financial information many people keep in their cloud storage under the assumption that it is secure, The Circle paints a terrifying future for privacy.