The Slippery Slope to a Totalitarian Singularity: A Review of Dave Eggers’ “The Circle”

The CircleThe Circle by Dave Eggers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The notion of a singularity, as popularized by Ray Kurzweil, refers to an accelerating process of technologies building upon one another until we reach a point where we cannot humanly understand or control the outcome. This usually refers to an “explosion” of intelligence, facilitated by computers, that greatly surpasses what humans possess.

Dave Eggers’ novel The Circle depicts a world, uncomfortably similar to our own, which rapidly, and with good intentions, is headed toward a singularity of knowledge that precludes, and even outlaws, privacy. This is a world where the tools for gathering and manipulating information become increasingly powerful, causing an “explosion” of control that threatens to eradicate the concept of the “individual.”

The main character in this story, a young woman named Mae, is a new employee of a Silicon Valley company known as the Circle. The Circle is a company with a global reach whose pioneering vision is to improve society through the gleaning and analysis of information so everyone can make better decisions on anything from a personal level to an international level. Anyone who has visited some of the large companies in Silicon Valley will easily recognize in the Circle the excitement and energy that flows through a campus of idealistic young people working on the edge of technology in a lucrative industry, where the barriers between personal and professional life blur and disappear as all sorts of perks help feed the employees the emotional energy they need to pour into their work.

Mae had hardly begun her first day at work in the Circle when I realized where her future was headed. Employee indoctrination in the Circle mirrors that of a cult. Like any cult, you enter the cult by being sponsored. You are presented with grand visions of the future, rewarded for working to bring about that future, and threatened with ostracism or excommunication for failing to adhere to and promote the purpose of the cult. You are shepherded into the cult, gain recognition within the cult, and come to adopt the cult’s values as your own. In the Circle, the personal need for privacy becomes subsumed by the greater good of sharing. “Sharing is Caring” and “Privacy is Theft” are recurring mantras.

Mae’s weakness — the tragic flaw of many who wind up in cults — is a need for validation. Eggers suggests that the need for validation is the weakness of many who worship the consumption of information and social media. In the end we face the danger — symbolized in The Circle by a shark — of being consumed by both the information and social media we thought to consume. The Circle comes as a fable, a warning that the power that comes with tools for gleaning and analyzing information on a massive scale puts us on a slippery slope which — if we’re not careful — could carry us, even with all the right motives, into a totalitarian future where an individual’s needs are deemed insignificant compared to the needs of society.

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Posted November 3, 2014 by markelacy in book review

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