Dystopian novel satirizes mega-Google companies and the modern techie ethos. One member of the EE Times Borg … er … community … gives his take.
The Circle, a satirical, dystopian novel published in 2013 by San Francisco-based writer Dave Eggers, is about a large, very powerful technology company that combines aspects of Google, Facebook, and Twitter. This company, called The Circle, is where everyone wants to work. The salary and benefits are awesome and it's thought of as “cool.” Be careful what you wish for.
The book is centered on Mae, a 24-year old college grad with a psychology degree and an unsatisfying job. Mae suddenly gets a chance to work at The Circle thanks to a college roommate who is now an important player at The Circle.
The Circle has a lot of technology -- some of it interesting -- but it's really all about Mae, and how she embraces the technology and The Circle's campus, which you're discouraged from ever leaving. The Circle prides itself in its slogans: "Community first" and "Humans work here." It quickly becomes clear that individual humanity is considered selfishness and stealing from the community. The Circle hires the smartest, most inventive people it can find and then makes sure they don't ever engage in unorthodox thinking.
In this, The Circle is very similar to the Village in the 1967-1968 TV series The Prisoner, especially the episode "A Change of Mind." In that episode, Number 6 (Patrick McGoohan) is in danger of being declared "unmutual," which will cause him to be shunned and scorned by the Village. His crime? Running by himself in the woods instead of using the community gym. (What's the matter? Don't you like us? Are you too good for us?) Mae's crime? Kayaking by herself in the Bay instead of joining any number of Circle kayaking groups. Mae didn't even post pictures and send zings (like tweets, I guess) so that others could share her experiences. "Sharing is caring," after all.
Another similar community is the Vortex from the movie Zardoz (1974). The residents of the Vortex are immortal: If killed, they are quickly regenerated with memories intact. The ruling class is made up of the Eternals, who have telepathic powers and can read each other's memories. According to director John Boorman, "When people know everything about each other and have access to each other's minds and memories, they require very rigid and strict rules of behavior in order to survive with each other." (DVD director's commentary, 22:40.)
The lack of privacy at The Circle, including audio cameras everywhere to record all Circler behavior forever, is a pretty good approximation to this. Thought itself isn't tapped -- yet.
Of course, people aren't perfect, and they occasionally violate the rules. In Zardoz, a cynical Eternal named Friend (John Alderton) describes what happens next:
Ah, but we discuss it endlessly -- every little sin and misdemeanor raked over and over.
Then the Eternals vote on a suitable punishment. This is pretty much what happens at The Circle, except there's no voting. Your bosses determine your fate. "Community first" only applies to trivial matters.
A screen for all reasons
The Circle's technology, while impressive, is not far from what we have now -- in other words, it is possible. Much of it is quite scary, because of its anti-individual, anti-privacy uses. Among the first bits of technology you see are Mae's new tablet and phone. The tablet is a brand-new model, not released to the public yet, which is "four times as fast as its predecessor,” and "the weight of a paper plate.”
When Mae first starts at the company, an IT tech proudly transfers all the data from Mae's current phone and laptop into her new laptop, new phone, and The Circle's Cloud in a matter of minutes. At this point, all of Mae's data is public. Not wanting to share your personal information is unmutual. "Sharing is caring," remember?
I may be mistaken, but after all that trouble I think that's the last you see of Mae's tablet. She uses the phone a lot, but for serious work she uses a real screen, or screens.
Mae starts out working in the customer experience department, what used to be called customer service. Customer experience is a nightmare of activity and distraction. Initially it's like Charlie Chaplin's assembly line in Modern Times (1936) or I Love Lucy’s candy factory episode (1952). But then add in the distractions. Mae has a main screen for serving customers -- sorry, I mean providing customer experience. But then there's a second screen which is a feed from her bosses. This is kind of like the company president asking for "more speed" in Modern Times, but in Mae's case she's trying to perfect customer experience by asking each customer to fill out a quick survey so The Circle can constantly measure employee performance. If you get less than 100%, you're expected to follow up with the customer to find out what you could be doing better.
I don't know about you, but I hate those kinds of customer service surveys, because an honest reply could hurt somebody's feelings, but a dishonestly favorable reply would give the impression that everything is fine. IMO the best way to measure things like that is to hire fake customers and spot-check. Nobody has time to rate every single transaction, as The Circle wants its employees to do.
Back to the screens. After a few days Mae gets a visit from the odious Gina from CircleSocial, who informs Mae that she's not doing enough social networking within The Circle, people are getting the impression that she doesn't like them, and that she's a “non-participant,” The Circle's word for unmutual. So Gina installs a third screen, which continuously scrolls announcements and messages from other Circlers. Mae now has to do her main work on screen one, be alert for messages from bosses on screen two, and keep an eye on screen three, responding to messages with smiles, frowns, and zings so people don't think she's unmutual.
Every now and then Mae gets another screen. After a week of customer experience, Mae is a seasoned employee and starts to help CE new hires with problems they can't handle, which come in over the fourth screen. A fifth screen shows up so Mae can help The Circle by answering survey questions about shopping habits -- as if Mae has any time to shop nowadays. By the time the book ends, Mae is up to nine screens, but the author has given up trying to find uses for them. I imagine they're like the main control room in Men in Black (1997), with its array of large screens to keep track of disguised aliens.
Really, hasn't The Circle heard of a single screen with multiple windows? Maybe the author has a friend with many screens and is making fun of him with a private joke.
Next Page: Self-driving cars, CEO worship, dramatic demos