The Circle

by Dave Eggers | Literature & Fiction |
ISBN: 0241970377 Global Overview for this book
Registered by erinacea of Friedrichshain, Berlin Germany on 2/5/2016
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Journal Entry 1 by erinacea from Friedrichshain, Berlin Germany on Friday, February 05, 2016
This book was a present of my mother's for my birthday 2 years ago. Though (I think) I started reading this book not too long after I got it, it took me a while to actually finish it. This is partly because the language is quite advanced and the book is a lot fatter than it pretends to be with an uncomfortably tiny font. Mostly, however, this is due to the subject matter which required me not only to take frequent breaks to mull things over but also prompted me to take lots and lots of notes. These became extremely helpful when I took a year-long hiatus, because when I finally decided to finish this book (as part of my current challenge to read/finish one book per week) they helped me to jump right back in where I'd stopped.

The plot:
In a world that's either the near future or an alternate universe, one company provides the tools to make your life ever more convenient: The Circle. The Circle advocates transparency for everyone, beginning with its billions of users who freely share their data in return for "smiles" and the convenience of not having to remember a dozen passwords. The story begins when Mae Holland lands a job at The Circle and follows her as she learns more and more about the company's many new inventions that promise (or threaten) to change the world.

I think it's best to split this review into two parts. I'll deal with the plot and characters in this post, and discuss the questions raised with respect to the technological progress in another.

First and foremost, I don't consider this book particularly well-written. Eggers clearly has an agenda and it absolutely shows. I actually do think he raises some worthwhile points of criticism, but still... Except for a few key events towards the end, splitting the review into the framing plot on the one hand and the fundamental socio-technological criticism on the other proved downright easy, and that rather proves my point that these two strands are only superficially interwoven.

The characters

I'm not sure whether I'm supposed to like Mae Holland. I'm not even entirely sure whether I do like her or not. To be honest, she's a rather boring character, to the point that makes me wonder whether Eggers might have deliberately left her bland to make it easier to identify with her. If so, that failed spectacularly because for the well-educated young woman she's professed to be, Mae turns out to be infuriatingly dense. I'm not even talking about buying into the whole Circle ideology (which is the entire point of her character, after all), but she never appears to question her actions or thoughts at all.

I realize that not everyone spends as much time thinking about everything they're doing and even thinking, trying to find out why they're acting and feeling and, indeed, thinking the way they do, as I do, but there were a few key moments where I expected Mae (who's otherwise portrayed as somewhat insecure and trying to act "the right way") to be able to connect the dots between two similar events happening in a comparatively short frame of time, but she never even acknowledges any similarities. I can think of a few examples where someone walks right over Mae in making certain decisions, which results in her being understandably upset. And then she turns around and does the exact same thing (or something close enough) to someone else and never appears to even realize the hypocrisy in her actions. (No one ever points it out to her, either.)

Making mistakes and hypocritical actions are entirely human, so I would have been satisfied if she'd simply noticed the contradiction and tried to explain it away or find herself understanding the other person's viewpoint (possibly even the person who treated her badly in the first place) or anything like that, but it never happens. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I feel like she suffers from some kind of story-induced amnesia that causes her to forget any event as soon as the current plot point is resolved. I largely suspect that this happens for plot reasons (which doesn't endear me to this particular character trait) because to have Mae doubt herself or the ideology would have slowed down the story. The unfortunate side effect is that Mae doesn't come across as a human being but as some kind of advanced AI capable of expressing emotions (including guilt and empathy) only when it's convenient to the plot.

Mercer could have been an interesting alternative character, but I found myself not liking him. He raises some very important points (to which I absolutely agree) but maybe that's exactly the problem: he only exists to play devil's advocate to Mae's blind idealism. He doesn't feel like a person either, but merely another robot with opposing goals.

All other characters (most of whom are mere one-mention background filler, anyway) remain similarly bland, though I warmed up to her friend Annie over the course of the story. I really didn't get Mae's attraction to either Francis or Kalden, both of whom I found creepy and unlikable.

The ending

The final reveal had me really confused. Actually, it's what finally caused my suspense of disbelief to snap. Spoiler! Highlight to make visible When and why did Ty start masquerading as Kalden? That happened long before Mae laid the foundations for Demoxie. Was he disillusioned before then, and if so, what was he trying to accomplish? Did he approach Mae on purpose, or was it sheer coincidence that of all people, it was his lover who became the Circle's "poster girl"?

Also, he clearly had access to the ground-level technology that made the Circle run, so couldn't he have used that to sow the seeds of doubts rather than rely entirely on Mae? Especially after it became clear she was drifting away from him? And with all fairness, how could he expect her to believe his every word and do a 180° turn after he spent months lying to her? His entire defense was trying to claim he hadn't! By that time, she was publicly advocating transparency and truthfulness, so he should have known she would mistrust him. He tried to explain his change of heart about the Circle, but he never made any attempt to explain his actions towards her or how he felt about her (if it was anything more than lust and a convenient pawn for his agenda). As a result, Mae's decision didn't surprise me in the least. (I would have liked to know what had happened to Annie, though.)

The ending hints at a future where even thoughts are no longer private, but by that point Eggers has pushed his luck too far and I no longer care.


One other thing: Eggers is not doing himself any favours with the reference to Egypt's Tahrir rebellion. I get what he was going for but all it achieves is to make the book seem dated one mere year later. When is this book supposed to play anyhow? In the near future I guess, which makes the reference appear even more out of place. The other references to historical events further into the past seem fine, but from Bailey's comments and the audience's reaction I got the impression that the revolt was supposed to have taken place only recently, which doesn't fit with the technological progress otherwise depicted in the book.

Journal Entry 2 by erinacea at Friedrichshain, Berlin Germany on Wednesday, February 10, 2016
Disclaimers: I don't have and never had a Facebook account. Never missed it, either. I once registered on... - was it SchülerVZ? - shortly before it went out of fashion for the sole purpose of being reachable for old classmates (so much for that idea), but never did anything with it. However, I do have a Gmail address (among others) and see absolutely no reason to switch. I work in the computer games industry and spent a couple of years working on online projects together with people I never met. I strongly prefer paying in cash, though I do research and buy e.g. train tickets online because it's significantly more convenient. I've always hankered for a blog and/or Twitter account because I love the idea, but feel like I don't have anything worthwhile to say I'd feel comfortable sharing with everyone, so I never set up anything. I don't own a smartphone. I'm strongly in favour of data preservation (both of security cams and communication meta data) for a couple of months if it can help in police investigations. I refuse to hand out my personal data if it's not absolutely necessary. (And no, getting to save money or a chance of winning something does not provide adequate incentive.)
Overall, I'm happy the Internet exists and I love email. (Did I mention I hate telephones?) I neither fear nor expect anything great from robots and AI. I follow the development of self-driving cars with curiosity but I'm sorta relieved that the Google glasses appear to have dropped off the face of the earth again.

The Circle is clearly modeled after globally successful internet companies like Google and Facebook. In fact, it seems like an amalgam of both, combining the social network aspect of Facebook (that Google tried, and failed, to emulate) with Google's gazillions of side projects and reputation of being a "great place to work", possibly with a dash of Apple's fanatically devoted fanbase mixed in. I also read somewhere that the Circle's three founders are a reference to a trio of real-world men who founded one of the above companies, though I forgot which one.

Other than with the framing plot (see above), I feel that Eggers did his homework with the many gadgets the Circle uses to increase its influence. I greatly appreciate that he took the time to extol the virtues of each and everyone of them (playing devil's advocate to his own thesis) rather than damn the internet as a whole. A lot of the offered tools are tempting and that's what makes for such an interesting (and dangerous) dilemma.

At the same time, it's chilling to see millions of users follow the call of the piper without ever wondering why the Circle would do all that and what it's got to gain from its apparent benevolence. Is it realistic? I don't know. On the one hand, I've got a higher opinion of my fellow human beings than Eggers appears to have. On the other hand, whenever Facebook yet again changes its use conditions to gain access to more data, there's always a huge outcry in the media, but I've yet to see the big exodus. Interestingly, the question of revenue is never raised in the entire book, so I can only assume that like Facebook and co. they make money by selling advertising space, possibly under the guise of other circler's friendly recommendations.

My entire notebook (as mentioned above, I rigorously took notes while reading) is full of comments like "this already seems really shady", "the whole thing seems fishy", "the downsides seem so obvious!", "That's creepy!", "Now this is just ridiculous!", "Is there no privacy at all?", "Why is everyone cheering?", "This is completely bonkers.", "Are you serious?!", "This is awful.", "This section is making me feel extremely uncomfortable.", "Even questioning this kind of social "progress" already seems like a crime.", "How can she still not see that this is troubling?", "They're all acting like having all data available forever is a pure, wonderful thing. But to me it sounds horrifying!", "Is she brainwashed or what?!"

Below I'll list a couple of the Circle's outstanding inventions/tools and jot down my thoughts on each of them. Depending on the amount of detail involved these could be considered more or less spoilery. As always, I'll colour particularly important plot points white, but if you want to avoid being spoiled about the book's technological criticism, you might want to consider stopping reading now. Otherwise, proceed with caution.

TruYou

TruYou was the first stepping stone of the Circle. Users register with their true (verified) identity and can use this single account for all their online transactions. The account is tied to their banking and credit card information and is the admission ticket to the Circle if you want to use any of its ubiquitous tools. The way Annie tells it, once TruYou was introduced, it took about a year for the company to take over and "revolutionize the internet".

At this point, I was only 20 pages into the book and already creeped out by the concept. After all, I have several email addresses to keep my different online personas distinct, and every time I see Google's motto "One account for all of Google", I feel nauseous. I can see the benefits of having one overarching account/password (though I personally wouldn't use them), but having it tied to your real identity is a recipe for disaster. Among other things, it would mean that no matter what happens, you can never reinvent yourself and start over. It's not like everyone who does that is a criminal either. All it takes is some youthful abandon the user later would like to (have everyone) forget.

SeeChange (All That Happens Must Be Known)

Can having thousands of undetectable cameras everywhere seem like a good idea? Apparently, it can. Bailey is extremely charismatic and does a brilliant job of listing the benefits, so I can absolutely see why everyone cheers during the presentation. However, to tell the truth, a lot of these benefits amount to simple convenience and/or curiosity. I'm sure there are less intrusive ways to check on the state of the weather at your favourite beach. Considering Bailey's first example, the first objection that comes to mind is that he (or anyone) could easily use these cameras to spy on sun-bathing young women or watch couples having sex in the dunes.

Would crime rates drop with cameras placed everywhere? Probably. I'm just not at all convinced it would be worth the severe breach of privacy, especially considering the images could be seen by everyone. It makes a huge difference whether only a couple of bored security guards are watching high-profile places and the videos get deleted at some point in the not too distant future, or whether anyone could be watching at any time and the data presumably gets uploaded in the cloud, never ever to be deleted at all.

In the real world, there's an ongoing trend to use surveillance pre-emptively, be it in the form as dashboard cams to use as evidence in case of an accident, or by equipping law enforcement with body cams to reduce the amount of violence committed both by and against police officers. I'm not happy with the development but I can see its uses. There's still a large gap between potentially being filmed in highly restricted circumstances and having to expect to be watched all the time.

ChildTrack (later called TruYouth)

Is it just me being cynical or could a determined pedophile chop off a child's wrist to get rid of the tracker? Another question that never is raised: Who gets access to the data? The parents or guardians? The school? The police? The government?

Even under the best-case scenario if the entire thing is a complete success and children are safe as they've never been before, what happens when they reach adulthood? I suspect it would be more convenient for everyone involved to just leave the tracker implanted. Even if they were offered the choice, most people would probably balk at the idea of surgery "just" to remove a chip, especially considering it's literally been a part of them since they were born, so they'd be accustomed to their every movement being tracked.

YouthRank

The idea of YouthRank makes me want to hurl. The tool's inventors rave about how tracking every child's educational data (every score, every test, every single day of their school life) would ease parents' minds about their children's future. Frankly, I don't see that at all. Even if the kid in question is some kind of genius I feel that getting a daily update of his or her rank compared to all other children in the state, country and/or world would increase the worry about his or her standing. Every less-than-perfect test result, every moment of inattention, every little bump on the way to understanding a concept would result in an immediate drop in the ranking. Backed by the numbers, parents everywhere would pressure their kids to work harder, spend more time studying, go to more prestigious schools.
While this would probably lead to a general increase of the educational standard world-wide, kids would have to pay the price of being herded from training to special lessons to doing extra projects and consequently missing out on their childhood. If data from way back in kindergarten becomes as important as their college degree, there's no point in their life where kids have the time to just be kids and play. There's no time for experimentation. Having to change schools or courses because the chosen branch of lessons doesn't work out becomes even more costly. Any hobby that doesn't improve the kid's ranking is questionable, and ambitious parents will want to plan out their kid's progress from day 1.

It's even worse for all the average kids, the slow learners and the children with learning disabilities. Having to compete with the 30 or so students in a class is stressful enough, but having to watch your rank dwindle in numbers a young child cannot even comprehend could easily make them give up once they realize they'll never be able to catch up. I'm afraid this would leave all those kids stranded whose parents lack the time and/or money to give them all the educational support they'd need to keep up or who simply decide that children should be able to spend their time playing, and with all that data forever they'll have a much harder time finding a well-paying job later on.

At the same time I can't help thinking that this view is much too bleak. Even today parents are fighting every bad mark their "special snowflake" might have collected. Teachers have to be very careful how they comment on their students' work because anything other than praise would be too discouraging. Some competitions try to shelter participating kids from having to be the "loser", so everyone is declared a winner in some category or other. There are complicated scoring systems to take affirmative action and enroll minority representatives in prestigious schooling programs. Wherever institutions (schools, hospitals, restaurants) are supposed to be ranked for the benefit of society, there's strong opposition until the numbers end up either being hidden away or so washed out as to have become meaningless. This development is clearly at odds with the idea of ranking every kid in cold, hard numbers against everyone else. I can't really see parents cheering for something that in the long run endangers their children's chances of getting a good job.

Absolute Transparency (Secrets are Lies. Sharing is Caring. Privacy is Theft.)

This concept is mainly an extension of SeeChange as discussed above, and a core theme of the entire book. It starts out with web cams being placed to overlook work stations and sporting grounds, to which Mae reacts by being more self-conscious about the way she dresses and the hundreds minor habits everyone has such as slouching, occasionally scratching yourself or staring into space.
At some point, people start going "fully transparent", which is to say wearing a camera on a necklace 24/7 (with some exceptions for bathroom visits and night time). The first important person to make this decision is a Congresswoman whom this helps to greatly improve her public approval. Her goal is to prove her integrity to her voters and to abolish corruption within the political circles. This is an admirable step and while I feel deeply uncomfortable with the idea of her filming her every action throughout the day, I agree that if there were lots of exceptions, it would be easy to circumvent the observation and strike nefarious deals on the side. As long as it's her decision and she's aware of the downsides (such as people refusing to talk to her about confidential matters), more power to her.

However, once a few politicians have set an example, it only takes a bewildering short amount of time for the whole thing to sort of snowball into setting a new standard of political transparency. Is this a good thing? I'm not so sure. Lobbyism and backroom decisions can undermine the political process, but does the answer have to be this radical? Even ignoring the impact on private individuals in contact with the camera-wearer (more on that in a moment), there are some topics (such as matters of security) where discussions have to take place behind closed doors.
In Germany, there are certain kinds of moral decisions where members of parliament are expressly allowed to deviate from the party discipline and vote according to their own decision. This kind of difficult decision requires an open debate for everyone to become aware of all the advantages and disadvantages, and I feel that this exchange of opinions is just not possible if every participant is being watched at all times, knowing they could be judged for anything they say or fail to say. In more practical terms, we've seen an attempt at a political party going transparent with the "Pirates" and their culture of "open debate" ended up scaring off a lot more of their voters than attracting new ones.

Another side effect of going clear is that any person you encounter also gets screen time for the entire duration they spend with you - whether they want to or not. This holds double for close personal relations like family and friends. If they'd prefer not to be filmed but still want to spend time with you, they face a dilemma that seems impossible to resolve: They could restrict their time spent with you or they could bite the bullet and agree to having every interaction broadcast. In the most likely course of action, they'd compromise and reduce the shared time somewhat (but not completely) and also reduce the intensity of contact. By the latter I mean fewer and/or less intimate physical interactions but also a general avoidance of personal topics. As a consequence, I feel, a couple might find themselves arguing less (because being witnessed fighting would be embarassing and reflect badly upon them) but secretly grow apart, especially if contentious topics never get broached to avoid fights or for fear of appearing petty on tv.
Of course, if both parties are in agreement on the topic of transparency, it could actually strengthen the relationship because cheating would no longer be possible without the other one finding out and they'd be able to share everything, so the couple could have "special moments" that actually only one of them was there to witness in person.

Once Mae is roped into wearing such a camera, she starts attracting more and more viewers. Due to her exposed role in the Circle and the public's understandable curiosity about the famed company and its employees, I feel this is pretty realistic. When her relationship to her parents, Annie and Kalden becomes strained as a result, she's upset but ends up blaming them for being "unreasonable" and "paranoid".

The book outlines a few examples of possible negative side effects, most of which Mae tries to ignore or circumvent during her bathroom breaks, which is the only time the microphone is turned off. Minor spoiler, highlight to make visible Whenever she wishes to have a real conversation with Annie, she needs to retreat to the bathroom first so they cannot be overheard. Confidential girl talk is otherwise no longer possible. A more direct effect is that as soon as she starts wearing the camera, Kalden avoids her completely. Mae misses their clandestine meetings but doesn't appear to realize that even if she were to meet up with him, impromptu bathroom sex would either no longer happen or be extremely public. During her medical check-ups, thousands of watchers get to listen to every word as Mae freaks out over a worrisome diagnosis. And the worst example of all, at one point Mae accidentally comes across her parents in an intimate moment, which prior to going "transparent" would have merely been awkward for the three of them. Now, since the Circle doesn't hold with deleting any data once collected, the entire internet is free to witness the event.

Now that I think of it, I wonder whether minors are forbidden to watch these live feeds, seeing how they might come across all sorts of activities that are otherwise strictly forbidden in prudish America. Alternatively, a fully transparent society could end up imposing a strict code on its members, demanding everyone to follow a "modest" dress code as well as certain rules of behaviour. I could also imagine that while most crime would virtually disappear, conversely other crimes would become socially acceptable, in particular to keep other citizens in line with the agreed rules. I wonder if we'd gone transparent 50 years ago, would today's society be more tolerant with respect to e.g. homosexuality because so many people would have been outed against their will that it could not longer be hidden as a margin phenomenon, or on the contrary, would the total transparency have prevented the formation of any underground scene and/or any dedicated political movement so that gay teenagers would have felt even more compelled to hide their true feelings? Obviously, the same question applies to any kind of non-mainstream aspect or opinion that's not immediately apparent by looking at a person.
I'd actually love to read a dystopian book focusing on the consequences of full audiovisual transparency.

Demoxie

The question of how to achieve true direct democracy is ancient. Direct participation was always restricted to a very limited number of voters. With the rise of the internet, it's now become possible to get immediate input even from voters in remote regions. Demoxie is supposed to fill this gap. Though the technology is never explained, data transfer via the Circle's tools appear to be immensely secure, so outside manipulation can probably be excluded here. However, the voting process as introduced by Demoxie breaks another important rule.

The way I learned it in school, voting should be free, everyone's vote is counted equally, and votes must happen anonymously. As far as I can tell, users don't have to pay to get access to the software. (They may have to buy some kind of gadget to make full use of it, but I believe this is not the case for Demoxie, which works on any kind of device.) Only Circle members can use the tools, so non-users would be excluded entirely from being able to participate in the democratic process. However, since there are plans to make Circle membership mandatory, that at least would no longer be an issue, but of course introduces much larger problems I'd better discuss in a separate section.

The main problem is that in strict accordance with the Circle rules voting is very much not anonymous. Not only can everyone watch SeeChange participants make their vote, but at least in the company wide example demonstration, the entire voting data was publicly available. Positively seen, this does ensure that the company and/or government cannot directly manipulate the data as a) anyone could add up the votes to check, and b) check whether their own vote was registered correctly. (Of course, they could forge the data and have everyone see a faked list with only their own vote being guaranteed correct, but even then people could compare their lists to check for this eventuality. My point is that in this regard, the results are actually much more reliable than in anonymous democratic systems.)

I acctually feel it would be desirable to live in a society where everyone could freely talk about their politic choices, but I don't think humans could ever work like that. We are too much of a social animal to be able to completely disregard our fellow humans' opinion.
First, knowing how others have voted (especially influential people or close friends) is bound to influence people's decisions much stronger than merely seeing the filtered poll statistics. This would not have any effect on those who already have formed a firm opinion, but the majority of voters might find their decisions swaying to follow (or oppose) the trend.
Second, knowing that everyone else will also be able to view your votes not only forces you to think long and hard about your choices (which is in itself not a bad thing) but also places you under a lot of social pressure not to oppose the mainstream. Since no one can be sure what anyone actually thinks but everyone can see what everyone else proclaims publicly, this is highly likely to result in a pre-emptive adjustment to what everyone thinks the majority wants.
Here's where the Circle comes into play again: seeing how the company not only knows everything about you but also provides the main tools for your social interaction, it would be downright easy to select the information you receive in such a way as to guide your opinion into the desired direction.

Abstention from the voting process could offer a way out of this dilemma but the company has decided that not only should voting itself be mandatory but a neutral option must not be offered. As presented in the official demonstration it would be easy for a single person to hold up the entire process (the evaluation takes place after the last person has voted), though there might be a time limit. However, doing so would probably come with huge social stigma. I can absolutely see the company outing any stragglers to the entire network and (if voting is sufficiently integrated into government bureaucracy) it could result in a hefty fine.

The book even includes a few examples of what happens to people who won't succumb to peer pressure and social shaming: Spoilers! Somehow or other they always turn out to be involved in some kind of heinous scandal that of course is uncovered thanks to the Circle and its tools. Mae puts this down to "karma" while Kalden has a more mundane explanation.

Mandatory membership

Mae suggests to improve the democratic process by having participation be mandatory. I already feel uncomfortable with the implications. (Voting was mandatory in the GDR and I've heard some stories of people being visited by ministry officials visiting people to ask what illness might have prevented them from doing their civic duty.) On the other hand, if voting is sufficiently rare (not all the local, regional and global issues as imagined by the Circle) it could be okay.
However, she also suggests to bring this about by making having a TruYou account as mandatory as having a passport and social security number. Even so, if this were a normal online account, people could set up a new profile and be done with it. But TruYou is ineradicably connected to your true identity. Even if you were to use it for nothing else, your entire voting history would still be publicly available for anyone interested. Also, once set up and mandatory, there would be many other applications that require the use of the account, such a filing the annual tax reports or claiming social benefits, all of which would be collected in the cloud and connected to your true name and address.
This is what Kalden later refers to as "closing the circle".

SeeYou

On the surface, this sounds promising. Anyone ever convicted of a crime somehow is tracked and this information is displayed to police officers by way of some kind of retinal interface and convenient color coding. According to SeeYou's inventor, this is supposed to get rid of racial profiling and replace it with profiling based on actual past crimes. As with ChildTrack, my main objection stems from the fact that these trackers would have to be implanted and that (as Bailey openly admits) the information would never be repealed. Now of course this only affects criminals and due to the color coding, officers could easily distinguish between crimes worth following up on and minor offences, so my rejection of the idea comes down to a gut feeling, backed by moral arguments.

First, I feel that not all offenses should be punishable by having to wear what's essentially a kind of electronic shackles. I also doubt that it would get rid of unfair persecution. All it means is that law enforcement has to pick different reasons for harassing a person they don't like, for example a documented DUI conviction, no matter how much time has passed. While this might end up abolishing true racial profiling, it could easily be replaced by social profiling based on the targets' background and childhood environment and any resulting misdemeanour. I'm also worried that the technology is unlikely to remain limited to the police, so down the line I could easily see potential employers/renters using this as a cheap way to check up on any applicant. While that would be completely in their right and sensible even, as a society that would mean that criminals would get no second chances, no way to get rehabilitated. If it came to that, people would probably nod and explain that this was merely what they deserved for their transgressions, but I fear that in a lot of cases, this kind of punishment would far exceed the actual crime committed.

NeighborWatch

I disliked this pitch from the start. I absolutely see the potential benefits of a smart home keeping track of its inhabitants, knowing who's home and who's on their way back. (Though I'm wary of how the "tracking" would take place. Anything that can be stolen is insecure and a liability, and an implanted tracker is much too invasive. A retina scan and/or voice detection could work.) Having it raise an alarm when an unregistered person enters the premises sounds like a logical and useful extension. Yet somehow NeighborWatch's inventor felt the need to extend the tracking to the entire neighborhood. I could see the aforementioned alarm not just alerting the respective house owners but also their immediate neighbours (as well as the police), but I see absolutely no need to keep track of the exact position of each inhabitant and to display it on a screen for anyone to see.

PastPerfect

I didn't pay this any heed when the idea was first suggested. The idea for PastPerfect is to scour all available databases to help the user with their genealogical research (something that would appeal to many Americans with their roots in many countries). Seems innocuous enough, right? Yet somehow when Spoiler, highlight to make visible Annie volunteers as the first trial candidate, the tool unearths ugly truths about her ancestors she'd rather not have known. In that respect, this plot point mainly serves as a reminder that the "right not to know" exists for a reason.

SoulSearch

The first presentation was really intriguing. Using the global community to help track down elusive criminals is an immensely powerful tool. Even so, I feel like I have at least two reasons to be worried. One, the community is not infallible. They might "track down" the wrong guy (as happened when Reddit tried their hand at sleuthing that one time, I think it was for one of the Boston bombers) and when they find them, right or wrong, they might decide to take justice into their own hands and end up killing the person rather than send them to prison (as was the original intent). And two, especially for the more dangerous criminals there's a very real chance that a wanna-be detective could get themselves or an innocent bystander killed or severely injured. There's a reason top criminals are usually hunted by extremely well-equipped specialists.

The second presentation, of course, was an absolute disaster. Major spoiler, highlight to make visible! As soon as Mae decided on Mercer on her second target, I knew there was a high chance of someone being hurt. Once tracked down, Mercer would flee and when cornered either attack his persecutors or attempt to commit suicide. Possibly both. Mae knew he didn't want to be found. She even knew that he was fleeing from this kind of technology, in particular. For the sake of continuing the argument, let's say he was a bit paranoid (though he certainly had reason to be), possibly to the point of mental instability. That only means that Mae's actions were even more incautious. She didn't approach him as a friend (which might have been awkward and emotionally painful, but not fatal) or even send a psychologist to talk to him. No, she decided it would be more fun to have been hounded by a dozen drones...

Eggers' use of the time skip at this point feels like a real cop-out. Mae's immediate reaction is denial, which is perfectly understandable, yet one mere week later, her guilt and grief feel filtered down. We get to hear how her circle of worshippers has rallied around her, smothering her with well-wishes etc., and Bailey's pep talk before her next big presentation. What we don't get is a true insight into her mind: Does she wish she hadn't picked Mercer? What part of his death does she attribute to herself? What happened when she met her (and his?) parents at his funeral?

Eggers also uses the time lapse to completely skip over Annie's breakdown, so we get no clear answer as to what caused her to fall into a coma or how Mae reacted to that. (I wonder whether the Wise Men might have engineered something. After all, Annie had clearly lost her faith in the technology, and it's certainly convenient that all three characters willing to confront Mae about her blind trust in the Circle are now out of the picture.)


There's more. These are just the ones that got my hackles raised in particular.

Company expectations & ratings

Another thing I'd like to mention (because it ties in so neatly with the Circle's products) are the ridiculous demands the company places on their employees. Mae is expected to participate in the company's many "optional" events. This is in part to be expected (like showing up at the company's Christmas party) but she actually gets in trouble for not replying to a random coworker's party invitation and later, even more jarring, for daring to spend her weekend off-campus during a family emergency. She also gets scolded for not talking about her hobbies online or posting photos of her kayak tours and most of all for neglecting her "participation rank". The latter tracks how socially active a circler is within the network. It's entirely understandable that they'd want their employees to make use of their own tools (both for internal feedback and to boost the general activity, which in turn entices other users to also spend more time using these tools), but this seems to go well beyond that. Somehow, her coworkers' disappointed reaction makes the whole thing seem much more like some kind of sect than a professional setting. To make up for her "transgression" (I was actually amazed that she felt guilty, I would have been sulking), Mae spends the next couple of days and nights (her free time!) to improve her rank.

I understand how watching these numbers rise is a great motivator, but it's also extremely easy to get addicted to the thrill of popularity. Not being a Facebook member, I never cared about their "likes", but I've used (and am still using) other sites where upvotes under various names are the desirable currency, and they always provoke the same reaction: a burst of endorphine whenever the reactions are positive, disappointment if no one reacts to the post at all or, and unreasonable frustration if I return to the site to find my numbers have dropped. It's only natural to cater a comment (virtual or not) to the audience, but this becomes much more pronounced once numbers get involved. Users are rewarded for posting funny pictures, witty comments and, in general, frequent activity, and are strongly incentivized not to rock the boat too much.

Speaking of numbers, Mae and her colleagues also get rated according to customer satisfaction, which already sounds like a nightmare to an introverted person like me, but somehow only 95% and above are actually considered "good enough", which means having an intricate scale from 1-100 seem kind of pointless. Worse, they're encouraged to pester customers to increase any rating below 100, which makes the whole thing seem even more dubious because it'll either result in the customer getting annoyed or, conversely, feeling pressured to give a perfect score no matter what to not let the other person down.
Much later, when Mae receives a 97% approval rating from her coworkers, she gets bizarrely upset about the 3% "frowns" and works herself into a frenzy during which she believes these couple hundred voters must be out to get her. (This becomes even more irrational when you consider that a third option was not available and participants were not allowed to abstain, so might as well have chosen the frown to protest against either of these restrictions.) Clearly, anything less than perfect is unacceptable, so when her boyfriend asks her to rate his sexual prowess, she gives him a score of 100% even though in reality she feels frustrated and disappointed, simply so as to not hurt his feelings. She doesn't appear to realize that this kind of binary approach to rate anything renders the whole scale meaningless.

Later, Mae gets roped into participating in some kind of semi-optional survey that intrudes into every free moment during work and pesters her with questions about all her habits and preferences (for some reason, this doesn't seem to bother her), collecting even more data about her than what she already divulged in her postings. Another benefit (from the company's perspective) is that this leaves the employees hardly any time to rest their mind and think for themselves. Can't have your employees doubt the sense of progress, can you?

Gods, I can't believe I spent over 10 hours (and 4 days) writing this review. I've got still more comments, which I might or might not add in a third post...

Journal Entry 3 by erinacea at Mitte, Berlin Germany on Saturday, December 14, 2019

Released 1 yr ago (12/9/2019 UTC) at Mitte, Berlin Germany

CONTROLLED RELEASE NOTES:

Left on a table at my office as a free give away and presumably pocketed by one of my colleagues. Enjoy!

CONGRATULATIONS!

You've found a wandering book! Please leave a short (or not so short ;) ) journal entry, so I know that the book's well and safe in your hands. For example, you could write where you found it, how you like it, or what you are planning to do with it.

Thanks a lot!
erinacea

PS: While I enjoy writing these texts in English, there's no obligation for you to do the same. If you like, you could make an entry in German, or whatever your mothertongue may be.
(Einträge auf deutsch sind auch erlaubt. ;) )

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