In our technological age, issues of personal privacy are paramount. The Google scandal this week, involving the firing of an engineer who questioned the corporate orthodoxy on diversity initiatives, raises very pertinent questions about the political motives and corporate culture of powerful tech companies that know almost everything about us. Further, what does it mean to preserve privacy, when everyone posts pretty much everything about their lives on various social media platforms? When it’s very much possible that both governments and private corporations are watching us in ways that we may not even consider? The question of privacy is at the heart of Dave Eggers’ novel The Circle.
A recent film was made on the basis of this novel, starring Emma Watson and Tom Hanks. I haven’t seen it, and from what I’ve heard, Hollywood has worked its anti-magic on the source material, turning what is essentially a novel of ideas into a third-rate thriller. Eggers’ novel follows the main character, Mae, as she gets a job with a mega-corporation known as, yes, The Circle. It resembles a synthesis of Apple, Google, and Facebook, on steroids. Mae thinks she’s is utopia, and she gradually gets socialized into the powerful culture of the company, which includes the requirement of intensive social media engagement and participation in the corporate community.
Over time, it becomes clear that the Circle has a powerful philosophy behind it, that the company’s objective is to capture the entire world with this philosophy. Among other things, the company affirms that “privacy is theft.” The idea is that all human experience belongs to all human beings, which implies that privacy entails the individual stealing his own experiences from the species commons. At a key point in the novel, Mae goes fully “transparent,” which means that she agrees to broadcast every moment of her life through a live camera is kept hanging around her neck. This concept sweeps the novel’s world, as there are increasing demands for all politicians to go “transparent,” on the grounds that if they are not transparent, they must be hiding something.
The reader gets the strong feeling that The Circle is a religious cult, with Mae becoming increasingly indoctrinated as the novel proceeds. She becomes a monster. Her parents stop talking to her; her best friend goes catatonic; and Mae herself becomes guilty of something close to murder (even as she is oblivious to this point), as she drives her old boyfriend over the edge of madness. Yet she believes these are all small prices to pay, in the service of The Circle’s glorious mission.
This Isn’t Really About the Government
By the end of the novel, affairs are at a point where The Circle’s virtual account (called TruYou) is about to become mandatory for citizenship. Even so, the novel is not really a cautionary tale about the government. When the government does engage in surveillance against us, we tend to perceive this on a spectrum between unacceptable overreach and necessary evil. There are few people who would sing the praises of governmental surveillance as a positive virtue in and of itself.
Not so with the surveillance of The Circle. This is a matter of people affirmatively believing that the achievement of total transparency—and its converse, the obliteration of personal privacy—are moral imperatives. Moreover, The Circle, as a private corporation, has a level of logistical competence and empirical capability that the government is almost by definition incapable of possessing. The point here is that people want The Circle to achieve total transparency and surveillance, because they believe that this will produce a utopia in which all people will be safe and moral perfection will finally be achieved. This belief in moral perfection achievable through political means puts these people in the novel squarely in line with modern real-world progressivism.
In this context, it is worth quoting Neil Postman’s famous comparison of the dystopian visions of Orwell and Huxley:
Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared that the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. . . . Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.
The dystopia of Eggers’ The Circle has a distinctly Huxleyan cast. It is not about people not having information, but rather about people demanding information as a fundamental right, any concept of personal privacy be damned. It is about people who invite oppression upon themselves, out of the demented belief that this oppression is really salvation.
An Orwellian cadence is also present, however, in two ways. First, there is the basic perversion of language (“privacy is theft”), albeit one that is self-imposed as opposed to pressed by some dictator. Second, the people who want to opt out of this system, such as Mae’s old boyfriend Mercer, have no means of doing so: The Circle has the power to pursue anyone to the ends of the earth, demand that he stop being “anti-social” and sacrifice his privacy at the altar of utopia. This is done out of what these brainwashed people think of as kindness. They think they are “helping” the poor fools who refuse to get with their program.
Sometimes, 2 Plus 2 Equals 5
One of the main themes of Eggers’ novel is the quest to measure and quantify all aspects of human experience. This is based on the premise that ultimate knowledge will bring ultimate perfection. The unspoken philosophical assumption here, however, would be that human beings are nothing but robots, and that life is a mathematical affair, consisting of little more than a series of protocols that are amenable to numerical investigation. This leads one heroic character within the novel to finally declare: “The ceaseless pursuit of data to quantify the value of any endeavor is catastrophic to true understanding.” This is an antithesis to the ethos that animates The Circle.
The phrase “2 + 2 = 5” is known from a climactic scene in Orwell’s 1984. It is a testament to the way that power can twist and corrupt reality, violate the most basic truths and re-define them in power’s own terms. But there is another, older source of 2 + 2 = 5: this can be found in the novella Notes From Underground, by Fyodor Dostoevsky. In one scene of the book, the Underground Man rages against mathematics, in the name of the living human soul. The gist of his argument is: Why can’t 2 + 2 = 5, if that’s what your soul wants? What concern does your living soul have for the abstract rules of mathematics?
This is a revolt of the pleasure principle against the reality principle. It is also a revolt of the immeasurable human soul against the dictates of quantitative reason. Whereas Orwell uses 2 + 2 = 5 to represent absolute tyranny, Dostoevsky uses it to refer to absolute liberty. This kind of thinking culminates in the paradox of faith, which enables believers to overcome the law of non-contradiction and believe that a single living man was also the Lord of Heaven, at one and the same time. 2 plus 2 can sometimes equal 5; the heart has its own prerogatives. This is the worst nightmare of totalitarian ambitions like the one found in Eggers’ novel.
The Sanctity of Privacy
Transparency can admittedly be understood as a virtue. Søren Kierkegaard, for example, has discussed the moral opaqueness that characterizes the adolescent temperament: lost in the imagination, cut off from other people, intoxicated with a sense of one’s own unique specialness. Becoming mature does imply growing transparent in this sense. But this is a transparency that is mediated by answering for oneself before the Lord, which also results in moral honesty before one’s fellow men and women. It is a subjective movement of the soul, which has nothing to do with the incontinence of sharing every objective thing with every random person, out of the anxiety of just wanting to be seen.
The soul is like a flower that only grows in the dark. Mercer puts it very well within Eggers’ novel: “Did you ever think that perhaps our minds are perhaps delicately calibrated between the known and the unknown? That our souls need the mysteries of night and the clarity of day? You people are creating a world of ever-present daylight, and I think it will burn us all alive.” The abolition of privacy does not create what these people, with such naivety, thought of as truth. It only results in a universal superficiality and the abolition of soul; it only results in the impossibility of truth.
Mae liked to go kayaking by herself, and keep the experience private. This was a beautiful thing about her; it was a time for her to connect with her soul. But she stopped doing this, as she bought more and more into The Circle’s cult of transparency; she stopped doing this, as she gradually turned into a monster. We should all keep this in mind, as we about doing what we love, in the midst of a world saturated with corporate imperatives, social media, and other demands for us to abdicate our lives and our selves.