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The Circle Is a Crude Warning

Time has been kind to ‘The Circle.’ Dave Eggers’s 2013 technophobic potboiler has grown less absurd with age.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

When Dave Eggers released The Circle in 2013, Wired dismissed the novel as "what the internet looks like if you don’t understand it." Eggers admitted that he’d done no research into Silicon Valley while writing it, reinforcing the impression that he had listened to frightful stories about the internet but had rarely used it.

I was working as a freelance technology writer when The Circle came out, and rolled my eyes at the technophobic potboiler as tripe too hysterical to be scary. Eggers imagines a Silicon Valley in which cartoonishly evil executives concoct plans to control people by using technology to establish a tyrannical monopoly, rather than a Silicon Valley in which hubristic C-suiters bumble into crises. When I read the novel in 2013, I thought it was a fundamentally incorrect diagnosis of Silicon Valley’s problems, one that lacked nuance and, worse, misunderstood what it should skewer.

Reading it now, the novel remains frequently unconvincing at portraying human beings instead of archetypes. (Its lone Luddite is a fat, lonely artisan who hand-crafts chandeliers made from foraged antlers; the pliable female protagonist has a terrible case of I Am Charlotte Simmons–itis, where her gullibility is matched only by her horniness; the sharkish CEO literally owns a shark.) The book twists into a dime-store thriller, with murders, plans of world domination, and improbable sexual couplings. But dismissing its diagnosis was shortsighted. As a book about livestreaming and Silicon Valley, The Circle transcends its genre trappings, and it has only grown more interesting as it has aged. On the day of the release of its film adaption, the timing for a cautionary tale about livestreaming could not be more appropriate. It tells a story about how corporate surveillance can be marketed as a tool of convenience and even empowerment.

Its protagonist, 24-year-old Mae, gets hired by The Circle, a company that resembles a hybrid of Facebook and Google, with a bit of Twitter thrown in. She zips through its ranks after she agrees to broadcast her life to the world using The Circle’s livestreaming technology. This is called "transparency." Mae erases any distinction between who she is while broadcasting and who she is as a person, turning her life into a performance. Mae is an aspirational avatar and a persuasive salesperson, pushing The Circle’s small, wearable cameras, as well as the see-through lifestyle it insists upon as a moral imperative. She is egged on by her bosses, whose motives are not so much ulterior as they are flamboyantly totalitarian; while their scheme is not fully unveiled until the climax, hints of sinister intent are laid on thick throughout the novel. (The high-key villainy of The Circle’s founders looks relatively less ludicrous now, thanks to the actions of actual tech executives.)

1984 parallels are drawn through the company’s slogans. Instead of "War is peace" we get "Privacy is theft." It wants to control the world, but instead of seizing power, the company acquires it by selling the abrogation of private self as a lifestyle. In this way, as a blunt-force parable about how Silicon Valley primes people to become complicit in their own loss of privacy and choice, The Circle was prescient.

By the time Eggers released The Circle, several easy-to-use livestreaming apps were available for download, and livestreaming had existed for decades as a concept. "Lifecasting" started with Steve Mann, who began continually streaming his life via a rudimentary wearable camera and computer in the 1990s. Jennifer Ringley’s JenniCam became an early sensation, running from 1998 to 2003, and Justin Kan’s Justin.tv achieved the same level of micro-fame several years later. But it was only after the publication of The Circle that livestreaming took off as a mainstream phenomena, made available to everyday users via services like Facebook Live, Twitter’s Periscope, and Google’s YouTube Live, as well as the gaming platform Twitch and teen hubs YouNow and Live.ly.

In addition to jump-starting livestreamed life, Steve Mann also coined the term "sousveillance," or watching from below. Sousveillance is often an inverse of organized surveillance, where regular people are equipped to monitor the world around them and the power structures determining it. The Circle imagines surveillance cleverly sold as sousveillance toys. In doing so, it maps a dystopian possibility that looks increasingly more plausible by the day.

In the book, people use specialized orbs called SeeChange cameras as livestreaming devices, nestling them on their person and all over their property. They’re basically just flying, reliable versions of Nest cameras or Dropcam (which was acquired by Nest in 2014). The infrastructure he describes the corporation building already exists in the real world in a slightly altered form — just swap phones, security cameras, CCTV, and drones for the SeeChange cameras. In reality, it’s actually more elaborate, considering the popularity of home-assistant devices like Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home, which constantly listens to speech in their default modes. In this way, The Circle anticipated the increasingly granular and elaborate monitoring infrastructure built by consumer products. While the SeeChange cameras seemed improbably invasive in 2013, examining them against Amazon’s upcoming artificial intelligence camera meant to be installed in the bedroom to take full-body photographs based on voice recognition and then offer style advice and Facebook’s recently released portable 360-degree camera hardware, Eggers’s imagined gadgets appear less wildly dystopian than plainly quaint.

Toward the end of The Circle, Mae organizes other people with SeeChange cameras to help her locate her ex-boyfriend, who hates technology. He is so agonized by being chased by surveillance cameras that he drives his car off a cliff. It’s a violent, melodramatic ending, but his death by suicide on a livestream looks less outlandish when one considers the disturbingly frequent news stories about people choosing to die by suicide on livestream. The Circle presented livestreamed violence as a dystopian vision, but it is becoming increasingly more common.

The Circle seemed shallow in 2013 — and it still is, mostly. But despite its schlocky plot, it’s harder to deny as an unsettling genre piece now as the conditions of reality have moved closer to Eggers’s zany vision. The film version, which is out Friday, was not widely screened for critics beforehand, a frequent sign of studio skittishness about quality — but the book is a reminder that technology accelerates us toward the future, often not in the exact direction we expected.

The novel’s eponymous company is over-the-top evil, a social network turned into a totalitarian monopoly intent on becoming the infrastructure, policymaker, judge, jury, and warden of society. It’s a breathless vision, one that attributes a level of bald malice and Machiavellian competence that does not exist in Silicon Valley. In 2013, I thought it conflated the megalomania of technology executives with the idea that they were omnipotent and malefic. Rereading the novel in 2017, as the movie is coming out, however, the hammy bad guy CEO feels less like a corny reach and more like a dramatic extrapolation of an attitude that already exists, a curdled caricature of Travis Kalanick’s management of Uber, where employees built systems to sabotage regulators and spy on customers and didn’t stop using them until they got caught.

Another one of The Circle’s founders, Eamon Bailey, explains the company’s mission to obliterate private life to Mae in explicitly moral terms. He chides her for not recording herself kayaking, citing his son, who had been born with cerebral palsy, who watched videos to experience the world and connect with others. "Why shouldn’t everyone have equal access to the sights of the world? The knowledge of the world? All the experiences available in this world?"

In 2013, Bailey’s speechifying attempt to make a company product seem like the font of all knowledge and a moral certitude seemed grandiose. In 2017, however, it seems less like a broad satire and more like an echo. "Connectivity will give everyone — not just a third of people in the wealthiest countries — access to all of the opportunities of the internet, including resources for education, health, and jobs," Mark Zuckerberg insisted in 2016, at an F8 keynote speech devoted to how Facebook’s onboarding product for less connected companies was actually a tool for eliminating poverty. Not quite "all the experiences available in this world," but Eggers captured the moral certitude it takes to insist that a company’s products have a moral weight.

Facebook and other livestreaming services bray about their ability to help people communicate, to give people a voice, just as The Circle’s employees valorize its decision to bug the world. It’s worth noting that, just like The Circle, Facebook has made no indication that it will stop offering its expansive, instantaneous broadcasting services just because it has been used to broadcast violence. The proliferation of violent imagery is portrayed as an unfortunate side effect, but it is ancillary, collateral damage that the company is prepared to absorb.

Facebook and Google like to market themselves as forces of good, but they exist to maximize profit for shareholders and their most valuable assets are the data provided by users. Livestreaming provides a torrent of data about users. They will not cease pursuing livestreaming until it stops adding value, barring a change in regulations or a backlash severe enough to provoke action from their boards. These companies are acclimating people to the idea that livestreaming is a form of communication which everyone deserves to be able to access. The question of how to regulate and monitor communications platforms is a complex one; Facebook Live has the capacity to function as an important tool of citizen journalism and documentation, yet it can also be hijacked to amplify horrific violence. Facebook has proceeded to make it available as though there is no quandary.

I anticipated living in a world where Dave Eggers’s unresearched and deliberately fantastical tech prognostications became more ludicrous with time. Instead, here we are. Completely unfettered broadcasting power is considered a right, a pillar of free speech, instead of a privately held conduit that deserves considered moderation.